Category Archives: Irregular Observations

An actor and a rare one

Stage whispers by Douglas WilmerIt is with a heavy heart that I turn to my keyboard to note the passing on 31 March of the actor who for many devotees of Sherlock Holmes, was Sherlock Holmes – Douglas Wilmer.

Wilmer portrayed Holmes on BBC television in 1964-65, with staunch support from Nigel Stock as Dr Watson.

While not so well known these days, Wilmer was a great character actor who featured in a number of very well-known films. Remember King Pelias in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts?  Or Moutamin in El Cid?  Or Khalifa Abdullah in Khartoum?  Or Major General Francis de Guingandin in Paton?  Or, back with Ray Harryhausen again, the Vizier in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad?

The Art of Ray Harryhausen Ray Harryhausen: an animated life

As the Police Commissioner in The Revenge of the Pink Panther he even had to deal with Insp. Clouseau and with Fu Manchu when he portrayed Nayland Smith in the “Fu Manchu” series of films.

He appeared in numerous televisions plays and series over the years, including The Avengers and The Saint. Despite having retired from acting many years ago, he most recently appeared in a notable cameo role in Sherlock – as the old gentleman in The Diogenes Club who is horrified that Watson dares to speak in the club!

Born in 1920, Wilmer was educated at King’s School Canterbury and at the alma mater of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stonyhurst.  He went on to study at RADA, interrupting this to serve in West Africa during the War. Wilmer wrote his autobiography a few years ago, giving some fascinating insights into his career, Stage Whispers.

Everyone has their own favourite television Sherlock Holmes – you can read up on most of them in the Sherlock Holmes Collection:

The Television Sherlock Holmes by Peter Haining The public life of Sherlock Holmes by Michael Pointer Sherlock by Valerie Estelle Canon

On a happier note, the Sherlock Holmes Collection was honoured in late May by a visit from the star of a current television Sherlock Holmes series.  No – not Benedict Cumberbatch – the puppet 15 year old schoolboy Holmes from the Japanese NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) series, which is sadly not yet commercially available in English. Written by Kōki Mitani, Holmes and Watson meet as boys at Beeton School, a school where James Moriarty is the deputy headmaster and Mrs Hudson is the housemother! Holmes was accompanied by Mr Bunta Inoue, the creator of the puppets, and his assistant and cameraman.  Holmes spent some time looking at treasures from the Collection and discussing our 1951 Festival of Britain website.

Japanese Sherlock puppet visits the Sherlock Holmes Collection, May 2016  Japanese Sherlock puppet visits the Sherlock Holmes 1951 website, May 2016


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.


“Life is infinitely stranger…” – Irregular Observations

Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”
That was what Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson in “A Case of Identity”.  The line between fact and fiction can become a little blurred at times, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “faction”. It can leave you wondering where one ends and the other starts.

A good example is the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, adapted for television with Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.  Basing his novel on the true story of George Edalji, which was indeed investigated by Conan Doyle, Barnes produced a readable and very approachable account of the shameful treatment of an innocent man by police who were either incompetent, prejudiced or frankly corrupt.

Outrage, by Roger OldfieldTurning fact into fiction, especially for television, usually entails adding some extra excitement and drama – sinister outlines of cloaked figures, a good chase or two, that sort of thing.  If you want to read an account less tinged with romanticism, as Holmes would have said, try Outrage: The Edalji five and the shadow of Sherlock Holmes by Roger Oldfield.

Then there are other elements to the drama that might pique your interest. What about Conan Doyle’s own Watson figure – Woodie?  His secretary was indeed Major Alfred Wood, whose handwriting is thought to appear at one point in the manuscript of The Dying Detective.  Interestingly, he is played by Charles Edwards, who himself played the young Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Richardson’s Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, dramatizations and novels by David Pirie.

Conan Doyle by Andrew LycettThen there is the interesting Miss Jean Leckie, who did indeed become his second wife. Conan Doyle’s sister was married to E W Hornung, creator of Raffles, and they did fall out over Miss Leckie.

You can read all about this in the Conan Doyle biographies – try those by Andrew Lycett or Georgina Doyle.

George Edalji was not an isolated case.  The biographies will tell of other cases investigated by Conan Doyle, including that of another outsider falsely accused, this time of murder – Oscar Slater.  You can get a more detailed account of that from Oscar Slater: the great suspect by Peter Hunt or Thomas Toughill’s Oscar Slater. If true crime is your interest, Peter Costello’s The Real World of Sherlock Holmes gives an overview of many cases which interested Conan Doyle, including those of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen. Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his criminological friends by Stephen Wade discusses his involvement with The Crimes Club, a group of gentlemen who formed the club to share their interest in criminology.

Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club, by Stephen Wade  Oscar Wilde murder mysteries by Gyles Brandreth  Winter at Death's Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

So much for fact.  If you fancy something a little lighter, Sir Arthur appears as a character in a number of novels other than those of Pirie mentioned above. Gyles Brandreth makes Oscar Wilde his detective, with Conan Doyle appearing as a semi-Watson figure in his series of Victorian murder mysteries, while Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth M Cameron has his first wife Louisa as the detective. Finally, there are a number of novelizations of real crimes where Sherlock Holmes investigates – try Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper by Ellery Queen.


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Irregular Observations: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the outbreak of war

Conan Doyle in his local defence volunteersAs War was declared in 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was keen to play his part.  He volunteered for service, writing,

“Though I am 55 years old, I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances which is useful at drill.”

He felt that if he volunteered at his age, others would be encouraged to do so.
The Army turned him down.

Meanwhile, he realised that Sussex, where he lived, would be on the frontline in the event of an invasion.  Approached by a number of concerned locals, he called a meeting on 4 August to discuss setting up of a local defence force.  Before long, drawing on his experience in creating civilian rifle clubs after the Boer War, he was drilling volunteers and having them dig trenches on common outside the house.  He wrote to The Times on 6 August encouraging the setting up of similar local forces.  The letter was published on 8 August:

8 August 1914
Our Latent Forces

SIR, – The future is dark and we do not know that we will not need our last ounce of strength before we are through. We can afford to neglect nothing.

Will you allow me to point out how a reserve force can be formed which will be numerically large and which if it does nothing else can relieve more mobile and trained troops for the fighting line? In a word, the suggestion is to form civilian companies of the National Reserve. There are tens and hundreds of thousands of men in this country from 35 to 55 who are often harder and fitter than their juniors, but for whom no place is found in our scheme of defence. Many of them are good shots, they are longing to help in any possible way, and they would fall into line instantly if they could only see how to do it. They would speedily become capable of guarding railways or buildings, helping to garrison fortresses or performing many other military duties.

If I may quote the example of this little town, we held our first meeting to discuss this on Tuesday, by Wednesday night we had enrolled 120 men, and to-day we start drill and practice at the butts. Many of the men are fine shots and all are exceedingly anxious to be serviceable. It is not possible for them to take on long engagements or to live out in permanent camps, but they could do much useful work and in case of a raid they would do anything.  They would form our “Landsturm.” But at present there is no organisation into which such men can be fitted. Local effort would rapidly form the various companies, but some method of common action has to be devised.

The obvious danger of such organisation is lest it should divert men from the Territorials or any other more useful branch of the Service. But to recognise the danger is to avoid it. The Reserve company would not go the length of refusing to enlist young men who cannot or will not become Territorials, but it has the constant end before it of encouraging them to go further and preparing them so that if they do join the more active Services they are already partly instructed. I am convinced that if they are properly run these civilian National Reserve companies would be not only of value in themselves but would be a stepping-stone for the younger men to take them into the fighting line.

The official organisations have so much upon them for the moment that the work can only be done by independent local effort.  But when the men are there, as in the case of the existing National Reserve, they will command attention and find some means of arming themselves. We have our own record of organisation, and I should be happy to send copies of our method to anyone who may desire to form other centres.

Yours faithfully,

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex, Aug. 6

He heard from some 1,200 towns and villages keen to follow his lead.  The War Office did not want a lot of locally run groups like this and stopped further development a couple of weeks later.  Not to be put off, Conan Doyle worked with a committee chaired by Lord Desborough and by the end of 1914 a new government-sanctioned volunteer force had been set up.  The Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps, with its head offices at Judges’ Quadrangle, Royal Courts of Justice, was formed for directing and organizing the large number of Home Guard corps which had been springing up throughout the country.

Crowborough Volunteers

You can learn more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work during the First World War in the Sherlock Holmes Collection.

Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Irregular Observations: ‘Who’ is Sherlock Holmes?

All consuming fire, by Andrew LaneA few months ago we recalled that Peter Cushing had played both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. In honour of this month’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Irregular Observations takes a closer look at the many links and parallels between the two iconic series.

Cushing is rather the forgotten Doctor Who, being the one cinematic Doctor.  One other actor has played both roles – Tom Baker. The fourth Doctor (1974 to 1981), Baker played Sherlock Holmes in a BBC television adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1982, with Terence Rigby as Dr Watson. Sadly, it is not generally regarded as one of the better versions, though did have a splendid villain in Christopher Ravenscroft’s Stapleton.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang, by Robert HolmesBaker’s Doctor Who emulated Sherlock Holmes, however, in a much better regarded 1977 story entitled The Talons of Weng-Chiang, adapted as a novel by Robert Holmes in 1989. Encountering mysterious murders in Victorian London, Doctor Who adopts the classic deerstalker and cape (not garb actually very appropriate at the date for town wear) to investigate in a story which takes one of Dr Watson’s Untold Cases as its inspiration. To say more would give the game away, but other explanations for the particular Untold Case are available.

The Doctor uses Holmesian turns of speech, even to the point of saying to Professor Litefoot “…elementary my dear Litefoot” (Holmes in the original stories never actually said “Elementary, my dear Watson” of course). Litefoot’s housekeeper is called Mrs Hudson.

If we stay with novels for a moment, Andy Lane’s 1994 All Consuming Fire matches Dr. Who and Holmes, the cover showing Doctor Who number seven Sylvester McCoy (1987 to 1996) with Basil Rathbone’s Holmes.

A much later Doctor Who, number eleven, Matt Smith (2010 to 2013) also dressed up as Holmes in the 2012 Christmas special, “The Snowmen”.  Given that Doctor Who now comes from the same stable as Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch with Steven Moffat at the helm, this is perhaps less surprising than back in 1977.  Interestingly, the villain was played by Richard E Grant, who had played Stapleton in the 2002 BBC Hound of the Baskervilles, opposite Richard Roxburgh.

Docto Who number two provides our next link. Patrick Troughton (1966 to 1969) was one of our best character actors and, while he never played Sherlock Holmes, he did play the part of Mortimer Tregennis in the BBC 1965 version of “The Devil’s Foot”, starring Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson.

Even Doctor Whos numbers three and five give us small links. Jon Pertwee (1970 to 1974) has not played Sherlock Holmes, but his son Sean is Insp. Lestrade to Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes in Elementary. Peter Davison (1982 to 1984) again has not played Holmes – he was one of the great detectives of the Golden Age, Albert Campion – but he did, it seems, provide an uncredited voiceover for the Planetarium in “The Great Game”, a 2010 episode of Sherlock.

There is one actor who links Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft with Doctor Who. Mark Gatiss, who portrays a rather slim Mycroft in Sherlock has turned up, unsurprisingly, in Doctor Who. Most memorably he was Lazarus in “The Lazarus Experiment” in 2007 and was also Gantok in the 2011 episode “The Wedding of River Song”. He also provided the uncredited voice of Danny Boy in “Victory of the Daleks” (2010) and “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011).

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes - audiobooksEver-present through the life of The Doctor has been his arch-enemy – his Moriarty, if you like – The Master, in this particular context as portrayed by Sir Derek Jacobi (“Utopia” 2007).  In 2011 and 2012 Sir Derek recorded a number of the original stories for BBC audiobooks.

But we must look to the future as well as the past.  Doctor Who number twelve, Peter Capaldi, has already played Sherlock Homes. A small assay at the part, it must be conceded, but unquestionably Sherlock Holmes. We will leave you with this clip from The All New Alexei Sayle Show –  a look at the past of the future:


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Irregular Observations: The Case of the Leicester Square Furniture Van

The following handwritten paper recently came to light in the Sherlock Holmes Collection.  Some of the more obscure references can be tracked down by visiting the Collection, the address for which appears at the end of the paper.

The Sherlock Holmes Collection arrives at Westminster Reference Library, July 2013It was in July ’13 that Sherlock Holmes and I left our old rooms near Baker Street for the last time. Impending redevelopment and building work would bring major improvements for habitués, but we had to move elsewhere. It was not without a tinge of sadness that I surveyed the 150 crates into which our books and artefacts were packed, relocked the 6 massive bookcases and checked the other furniture ready to be loaded on to the lorry. I was encouraged to see the coat of arms of a certain gracious lady adorning the door of that – a guarantee of quality.  How very different from the case of the Grosvenor Square Furniture Van that my friend had investigated some years before.

The Sherlock Holmes Collection settles in to Westminster Reference Library, July 2013The following day, a small army of very energetic young men brought everything into our new rooms on the third floor of Westminster Reference Library, just off the south side of Leicester Square. It was a blazing hot day. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight was painful to the eye. Not the most comfortable day for such work. We had measured carefully and everything fitted into its appointed space. The young men were back the next day and unpacked everything, putting it all neatly into place.

There would be distinct advantages to our new location. The library housed major collections of books on costume and theatre – useful for Holmes’ research for his disguises and he would enjoy keeping up with the careers of those who had impersonated him on stage and screen. He would also no doubt find their extensive runs of newspapers and periodicals fascinating – he would be able to check every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. There was also an extensive art collection, which together with the proximity to the National Gallery would satisfy that side of him that came from his grandmother, who was the sister of the French painter Vernet.

The hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan DoyleHolmes loved to lie in the very centre of London and here he would be surrounded by interesting locations. Charing Cross Station, from which we had departed on cases such as The Abbey Grange and where, despite his boxing prowess, Holmes lost his left canine tooth, was but a short step away across Trafalgar Square. As indeed were the luxury hotels of Northumberland Avenue, in one of which we had met Sir Henry Baskerville, newly arrived in England and facing a terrible family curse, and where my old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often stayed when in town.

Strand MagazineJust a little further away, east along the Strand, were the offices of George Newnes’ Strand Magazine in which I chronicled so many of Holmes’ cases. Also along there lay Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where Holmes and I often took something nutritious after a particularly taxing case. A short walk to the west lay Holmes’ brother Mycroft’s club, The Diogenes, and nearby the offices where he worked ostensibly as a Government clerk, but was himself from time to time the British Government.

Sherlock Holmes exhibition 1951Back to the south of Trafalgar Square (whose name always reminds me of Clark Russell’s fine sea stories), tucked off to one side of Northumberland Avenue, lay the Sherlock Holmes Public House, still home to many items and the splendid facsimile of our Baker Street sitting room from the great exhibition held in Holmes’ honour back in ’51.

Yes, we would settle in here very nicely. Now, must note the new address,

Sherlock Holmes Collection,
Third Floor,
Westminster Reference Library,
35, St. Martin’s Street,

[Watson / Catherine]

Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Irregular Observations: Boldly going where no Sherlock has gone before

Sherlock DVDWatching the BBC’s current Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, squaring up to Captain James T Kirk and company of the USS Starship Enterprise the other day got me thinking about the various connections between Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek, unlikely though that pairing may seem. Cumberbatch is not the first actor to both portray Sherlock Holmes and appear in Star Trek.

Mr Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, donned the deerstalker in 1976 in a revival of William Gillette’s stage play, Sherlock Holmes. Slightly less well known is the fact that he played Holmes just before that in a 15 minute educational film about planet Earth, ‘The Universe and I’. Here’s a small clip (though you do have to watch a few seconds of Roland Rat as Holmes at the beginning…).

It may not be too surprising that an actor known primarily as the logical, seemingly emotionless Vulcan was also cast as Holmes.  In A Scandal in Bohemia, Watson says of Holmes,

“It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen”.

Could not these words apply equally well to Mr. Spock?

While on the subject to the original series, while William Shatner never played Holmes, he did play the villain George (yes, George) Stapleton in a now fairly obscure 1972 US TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles opposite Stewart Granger as Holmes. Another pretty obscure link, obscure at least in the UK, is provided by another Canadian actor, Matt Frewer, who played Berlinghoff Rasmussen in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He played Holmes in a series of low-budget Canadian TV films and is probably better known as Max Headroom.

Data as Holmes action figure on EbayStar Trek: The Next Generation provided the next link to Holmes, when the character we can truly call “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine” took to playing Holmes on the Holodeck – Mr Data, played by Brent Spiner. Two episodes used this theme: Elementary, Dear Data and Ship in a Bottle.

A dressed 9” action figure of Data as Holmes was released in 1999, complete with violin, pipe and magnifying glass. It is now something of a collectible (see link to Ebay on right).

This has all been about actors portraying Sherlock Holmes. There is a deeper connection. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Mr Spock says, “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.”  Holmes says this sort of thing in slightly different words several times, for instance in The Sign of Four,

“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head.  “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?  We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney.  We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible.  When, then, did he come?”

“He came through the hole in the roof!” I cried.

“Of course he did.  He must have done so.”

Spock is only half Vulcan, on his father’s side, so his descent from Holmes must be on his mother’s side.

The Canary Trainer by Nicholas MeyerSuch a connection is not so surprising when you consider who co-wrote and directed Star Trek VI – Nicholas Meyer. This film was his third involvement with the Star Trek films, but he was already well known in Sherlockian circles for two best-selling novels featuring Holmes, The Seven-per-cent Solution published in 1974, for the film of which he later wrote the screenplay, and The West End Horror published in 1976.  It is the first of these two which is generally credited with having kick-started the whole fashion for writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, or “pastiches”.  He published a third in 1993, The Canary Trainer.

Time for a break – Tea, Earl Grey, hot…..


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

Irregular Observations: an elementary centenary

Irregular Observations
– musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection.

This is the first in an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world.  If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

The hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan DoyleSunday 26 May 2013 is the centenary of the birth of one of Britain’s best-loved actors and one who ranks high in the lists of those who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes, Peter Cushing.

Cushing first donned the deerstalker for the 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles – the first Holmes film to be made in colour. Portraying Sir Henry Baskerville was his usual Hammer co-star Christopher Lee (who would himself go on to play both Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft Holmes, though closer to the former than the latter in physical appearance).

An actor and a rare one: Peter Cushing as sherlock Holmes, by Tony EarnshawIn 1968 Cushing took up the deerstalker again for the 16 episodes of the BBC’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, some of which have survived. The series included The Hound of the Baskervilles in two parts, the first version of the novel to be filmed in part on location on Dartmoor and one which is still regarded as one of the most successful adaptations. Cushing made suggestions and insisted on removing lines or details that he felt were not in keeping with the original stories. He asked that all his costumes be based on original drawings published with the stories in The Strand Magazine.

His final leading role was again as an elderly Sherlock Holmes, in the 1984 television film The Masks of Death.  A sequel, The Abbot’s Cry, was planned for 1986, but was never made due to his failing health.

Houdini and Conan Doyle, by Christopher SandfordPeter Cushing shared a rare distinction with Peter O’Toole – both played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Sherlock Holmes. Cushing portrayed the writer in the 1976 film The Great Houdini. Conan Doyle knew Houdini and the two men were close friends before a disagreement about Spiritualism. You can read more about their friendship in biographies of Conan Doyle and books which focus on the two men. Oh, and Peter O’Toole also played Conan Doyle in Fairytale: A True Story and provided the voice for Holmes in an Australian animated television series.

The actor married Helen Beck on 10 April 1943 at Kensington Registry Office. He was awarded an OBE in 1989 and died on 11 August 1994. Cushing wrote two volumes of autobiography, An Autobiography in 1986 and Past Forgetting: memoirs of the Hammer Years in 1988.

We should also note, in view of the 50th anniversary celebrations due later this year, that Cushing is one of two actors to have portrayed both Sherlock Holmes and Docto Who. In 1965 he stepped into the Tardis in the film Dr Who and the Daleks and the following year in Daleks’ Invasion Earth.  The other is… Who?  (No – we don’t count Matt Smith’s Doctor dressing up as Holmes in The Snowmen).

Starring sherlock Holmes, by David Stuart Davies     Sherlock Holmes on screen

Come into the Sherlock Holmes Collection at Marylebone Library to find out, look at some of the scripts from that other Doctor Who’s Sherlock Holmes production and read the reviews.