Sherlock Holmes OBE

In the 120 years since Holmes first appeared, in December 1987 in Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, the detective has been seen in books, on TV and in film. And most agree that the best screen characterisation has been by Russian actor Vasily Livanov.
When Livanov was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to Anglo-Russian relations last year the news of his honour was met with enthusiasm by both the British press and the Queen.

Meanwhile back in Russia, Holmes is a favourite literary character for children and adults alike, largely thanks to the reruns of a television series that has become a cherished Christmas tradition. Directed by Igor Maslennikov, the two main parts are played by Livanov and Vitaly Solomin as Dr Watson.

Livanov is an established star in Russia, with a host of film credits to his name. His roles have included Felix Dzerzhinsky, the chief of Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, and Emperor Nicholas I, and he often does voice-overs for cartoons.

But it is as Sherlock Holmes that he is best known.

When asked whether he's annoyed at just being recognised for one part, Livanov quotes a friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who replied to the writer's complaints: "Don't you put on airs. Holmes is your publicity."

The Holmes series was also the high point of another man's career - director Igor Maslennikov, though his films Winter Cherry, Yaroslavna Queen of France, The Queen of Spades and Russian Money are all classics of modern Russian cinema.

The casting for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson had an unexpected turn: "Conan Doyle made Holmes something of a cardboard figure - he is full of theories. So the author tried to breathe some life into him by associating him with the violin and cocaine, but in vain. We had to find a key to the part to make it work."

The missing ingredient was found by the screenwriters Yuly Dunsky and Valery Frid. Maslennikov remembers: "They came with the screenplay for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to the television studio. Notice the `Dr Watson' in the title. That was the solution we had been looking for. All the previous films focussed on Holmes. You see him on his own in the Baker Street museum in London, too. He always looks the same - the way Sidney Paget, the illustrator of the first publications in the Strand made him. Now, with Watson, artists have a free hand. Some make him fat, others lanky, some give him a head of curly hair, others a moustache. When he created the character, Conan Doyle never gave any indication of his appearance, as he was the stories' narrator.

"The screenwriters gave Dr Watson a winning personality. They concentrated on his friendship with Holmes and painted a larger than life figure who was best friend and companion to the detective. It was all new and interesting. This gave Vitaly Solomin's Watson the green light to express himself. Livanov looked the same in each episode, which is exactly what we wanted.

"Besides, the series was neither a drama nor a crime story but a sparkling comedy, my favourite genre. The screenplay was full of irony, for which Solomin has a natural talent. That left Livanov walking about the room, delivering his theories with that inimitable voice. So that was our key."

Maslennikov continues: "I had seen a different Livanov in his daily routine. His boyish cockiness sometimes gives way to the aristocratic behaviour. I often thought when I saw him - shave the man clean, make him tidy his hair, and he'll be a replica of Sherlock Holmes. It took me a long time to persuade the producers at the television company. They were dead against Livanov: `The man's one of the worst trouble-makers in Moscow,' they said. `But, think of the Sherlock Holmes he will make' I argued. And, in the end, I managed to convince them."

Despite Holmes's dry intellectual manner, he acquired great humanity in the series, a quality Maslennikov insisted on: "I am no great expert on detective stories, but there is something that has always attracted me to Holmes. He is no ordinary private detective who cracks sophisticated problems for money. He helps people in trouble."

A statue of Holmes and Watson looking exactly like Livanov and Solomin was recently unveiled near the British Embassy in Moscow. The series has a cult following in Russia and is well known in other countries. The Russian Holmes and Watson are a pirates' bonanza. What I know is that the series is famous as far away as the south Pacific, where four souvenir silver coins have been issued in the Cook Islands, representing Livanov and Solomin.

PS:

When my 11-year-old son was sitting spellbound in front of the television watching the Holmes movie, I thought the intricacies of Holmes's deductions would be too much for him to follow. I was wrong - he easily followed the great detective's logic. Moreover, his brain eagerly absorbed the 19th-century English routine. Cabs, pudding, constables and Victoria Station have interspersed his speech since then.

The boy next turned to reading The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, much to the detriment of his school homework. Then he buried himself in everything Sir Arthur had ever written. His mother and I became somewhat worried as he never tore his eyes away from the books, even in class.

The next stage was full-blown anglophilia, checked scarf and all. He addressed the other boys as "sir" and referred to himself as "esquire". I hope he didn't smoke the famous pipe. He didn't take up the violin, at any rate. The new hobby did wonders for his English. We were amazed at his top marks at school - he used to hate the language.

Now, at 12, he is quite fluent in English. This is what he wrote in a Christmas card to Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost):

"Dear Grandpa Frost!
"The Christmas gift I want more than anything else on earth is to visit Mr Holmes at 221B Baker Street."

Undoubtedly, the best works of literature and the cinema have a fantastic impact on our children.


British ambassador Anthony Brenton at the unveiling of the Holmes and Watson statue

"I am delighted to host this event. I read Sherlock Holmes when I was young, and never thought that one day I would be helping unveil a statue to him outside the British Embassy in Moscow.

"Sherlock Holmes is not just a great character, but he is also a bridge between Britain and Russia. Thanks to the work of Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin, he is a symbol of closer ties between our nations. Consider: Holmes is one of the most popular and successful detectives to appear on Russian TV - and he is British. Livanov is, in my view, one of the most talented and accurate actors in his depiction of the detective - and he is Russian...

"These heroes have become a synonym for Britain in the eyes of Russian people. And they encapsulate many qualities about Britain that we admire. Holmes was a true professional, devoted to the search for the truth.

He was rational, considered, and a true gentleman. Watson was loyal, devoted, and full of integrity. Between them they helped unpick the mysteries of `foggy London' of the 19th century. This pair will sit forever outside the British Embassy. Holmes and Watson will help remind passers-by that the British Embassy stands nearby, ready to welcome Russians with British hospitality."

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