With Guy Ritchie’s recent adaptions proving a box office success, we look at locations used in his movies and other portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective has caught the world’s imagination in print and on the big and small screens since he first appeared in 1887.
For a small fee, you can spend a few moments looking out of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ window’ at the recreated 221b Baker Street or retrace his steps around London.
Ignore the technology and commercialisation of the modern-day routine and imagine the world as the great fictional detective might have seen it. The pale, dusty afternoon enlivened by an occasional flash of colour, as a horse drawn cart rattled past or a well-dressed lady hurried on her way. The creeping anonymity of a gas-lit night.
One of the most prominent writers of late 19th-early 20th century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through the eyes of Holmes’ loyal companion Doctor Watson, paints a soothingly familiar portrait of a bygone age. With his sharp wit, famed deductive reasoning and obsessive love for his vocation, the world’s most famous consulting detective has become a household name throughout the world. But if nostalgic visualisation is not your thing and you really want to engage with the world in which Doyle lived and Holmes operated, sidestep the memorabilia and go straight for the adventures themselves.
The stories have been in print ever since A Study in Scarlet first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas annual in 1887. The last original, in which Holmes dealt with subterfuge in the world of horse racing at Shoscombe Old Place, appeared in its regular Strand Magazine slot in 1927. Reprints, biographies, pastiches and any number of dramatisations for television, stage and the big screen have since appeared all over the world.
Guy Ritchie is the latest director to have a go. Starring Robert Downey Jr as an all-action lead and Jude Law as a more assertive Doctor Watson, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes debuted in 2009 to international acclaim. Mark Strong’s villainous Lord Blackwood returned from the dead with a plot to bring down the British Empire and a more personable and dynamic, if equally cerebral, Sherlock Holmes, is the only man who can stop him.
Jeremy Brett’s vibrant but obsessive portrayal of Holmes on Granada TV won him many fans but some other dramatisations have been a bit of a let down. Neither the sullen Rupert Everett nor the wooden Richard Roxborough did the character justice and Christopher Lee in 1992’s Incident at Victoria Falls was more Neville Chamberlain than Sherlock Holmes.
Downey Jr’s quirky Bohemian depiction should be interesting and a sequel is already being planned, with Brad Pitt rumoured as Holmes’ arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. Ritchie has said he wanted to make his film more “authentic” to Doyle’s books, explaining, “There’s quite a lot of intense action sequences in the stories, [and] sometimes that hasn’t been reflected in the movies.”
To create the Holmesian world, in which sinister undercurrents lurked beneath London’s bustling amiability, Ritchie had to go beyond the capital. The back streets of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, with their cobbles and period architecture, were an ideal location and Manchester’s gothic Town Hall, built between 1868 and 1877, acts as a stand in for the Palace of Westminster, where filming is forbidden.
Between 1772 and 1794 as the Industrial Revolution, in particular the growth of the textile industry, gathered pace in Manchester, the area now known as the Northern Quarter – with its trendy bars and fashion designers – came into being. The first cotton mill was opened by Richard Arkwright in 1783 on Miller Street and by 1853 there were 108 mills in the city centre. Mid century the district contained extremes of wealth and poverty, the area around Withy Grove and Shudehill described by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, as insanitary and down at heel.
Throughout the Victorian era, political speeches and public debates were held at Stephenson Square and parts of Oldham Street. Street traders thrived and with much of the Victorian architecture intact or renovated, a place like Little Lever Street a narrow little side-road, which leads off from Stephenson Square, not far from the Manchester Police Museum, make authentic filming locations away from the 21st-century streets of London.
Most of the original adventures took place in London or the surrounding southern counties. Only a few times, most notably in the Adventure of the Priory School where a fretful Principal beseeches Holmes to investigate the disappearance of a young Duke in his care, and again when the worries of a Norfolk squire’s American wife about the sudden appearance of coded messages in the form of Dancing Men, took them to Norfolk – did Holmes venture northwards. Birmingham in The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk, Bedford in the Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Norfolk again in the Gloria Scott and a famous university town, maybe Cambridge, in the Adventure of the Three Students, were Holmes’ other forays out of southern England.
Much of the London about which Doyle wrote has survived subsequent years of social and economic change, redevelopment and even war. Landmarks like Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Scotland Yard provide a backdrop against which the original mysteries unfold, but Ritchie’s adaptation again differs – with St Paul’s cathedral and Freemasons’ Hall all prominent locations. Downey Jr’s Holmes springs into action in St Bartholomew-the-Great Church, to stop Blackwood sacrificing a young girl, and on the River Thames, echoing one of the most famous of all Doyle’s scenarios – the chase down of Jonathan Small and the Agra treasure in the 1890 novel The Sign of the Four.
In the 1880s and 90s, the Thames, its dockyards and wharves were alive with activity. London was the centre of the world’s biggest Empire and there was no other way to import and export goods. Since then, redevelopment and the growth of the super tanker has seen the end of many of the inner London docks. Today, the main Thames ports are east of Greenwich and so once again Ritchie went out of London, to coastal docks in Liverpool and Chatham to get a realistic feel of the foggy river that slunk between the warehouses and back streets of Victorian London.
These backstreets were full of potential for criminal behaviour. “Always carry a firearm east of Aldgate,” Holmes told Watson in the strange Adventure of the Creeping Man, whereas in The Man with the Twisted Lip, the detective hides out in an Opium den set in a “vile alley lurking between the wharves”, searching for a disappeared businessman. Criminality was not confined to the lower echelons. Smith the poisoner, Milverton the blackmailer, Groener the Austrian murderer and of course Professor Moriarty – the Napoleon of Crime, who employed a vast army of thieves, heavies and assassins to maintain his control of the criminal underworld, were all from Holmes’ own social class, the gentry. Lord Blackwood, it seems, is in good company.
Most of Holmes’ adversaries were ordinary people gone bad. Men like Norwood builder Jonas Oldacre who faked his own death to avoid creditors; James Ryder, a footman turned opportunist thief of priceless Blue Carbuncle from the Countess of Morcar, and Dr Grimesby Roylott – who would kill his own step daughter rather than face financial ruin.
When during the Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, Holmes felt unable to leave the country as to do so would cause “unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes”, it was not just the slums of Rotherhithe and Whitechapel that his comment was directed.
To the untrained eye, the conservative tranquillity of country life hid more than it revealed. For Holmes, the countryside, with its scattered houses and isolated communities, was a place where crime could be committed with impunity. And it wasn’t just his famous battle with Jack Stapleton and the fearsome Hound of the Baskervilles that happened far from the foggy cobbled streets of the capital city. In Silver Blaze, the disappearance of a champion racehorse also takes Holmes to Dartmoor. The strangest adventure of all, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, sees a Cornish family wiped out by what appears at first to be dark magic.
Many Holmes adventures took place in Victorian country houses. A popular setting for fictional mystery after 1865, when the real life murder of a three-year-old Somerset boy by his sister, Constance Kent, had been sensationalised in the press; Doyle’s stories often echoed the tragic conflict of the Road House affair where family loyalty and the desire to avoid a scandal were often more important than truth and justice.
Of course, many of these manor houses predated Victorian times and still stand today. The Granada adaptation of The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual was filmed at Baddesley Clinton a 15th-century moated manor now owned by the National Trust. The same company’s dramatisation of The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place featuring a much younger Jude Law, who spends part of the programme dressed as a woman, was filmed at another Trust site Dunham Massey Hall, near Altrincham which dates back to 1616. Grade One-listed Adlington Hall in Cheshire, the diabolical Roylotts of Stoke Moran’s Granada residence, dates back to Saxon times.
Doyle’s tales challenged British society in his typically subtle, understated way. Cases of international espionage retold in The Adventure of the Second Stain, The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans showed how desperate audacious individuals could, exacerbate Imperial tensions between the great powers of Europe. Through the eyes of Holmes himself, whose fanatical devotion to his craft led him to dismiss the female half of the world’s population as too irrational and emotional, Doyle poked at the traditionalists who still believed women inferior, while at the same time promoting empathy and emotional intelligence as qualities for all to see.
Most of all, Sherlock Holmes challenged the hypocrisy of a prevalent social system that was already beginning to unravel by the turn of the century. Economic changes heralded the rise of the middle class, but even though people from all walks of life came into daily contact within the vast cities, the demand for social separation continued. In The Problem of Thor Bridge, to show staid English traditionalists that love and not social standing should be the basis of a happy relationship.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Doyle shows that breeding is no determinant of intellect. The ponderous King Wilhelm I would have married the sharp-witted adventuress Irene Adler years before their affair came to an end, had she been on the king’s social ‘level’. After Adler evades Holmes’ best efforts to retrieve a compromising photograph on behalf of the king, the detective remarks sarcastically, “from what I have seen of the lady, she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.
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