With more Sherlock-mania on the way, Yorkshire’s own Holmes expert David Stuart Davies talks to Helen Leavey about the intriguing case of the world-famous detective.
There can’t be many people who know as much about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes as the Huddersfield writer, editor and playwright David Stuart Davies. Sherlock has been a part of his life ever since he read The Hound of the Baskervilles aged 11, his favourite Sherlock story, and discovered the films starring Basil Rathbone as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation.
Since then, David, an English literature graduate and former teacher, has written about many things but mostly about Holmes – novels, plays, stories and non-fiction. He has won awards and performed Sherlock sketches, including at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
He even met the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, when he watched part of the third BBC series being filmed as a guest of Mark Gatiss, the show’s co-creator.
But perhaps one of David’s best Sherlock claims to fame is that Gatiss – who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the series, is also a fan of his own work. David, who grew up in Huddersfield and still lives there, had his first book about Sherlock – Holmes of the Movies – published in the 1970s. When he first met Mark, the actor already had a treasured copy of it.
“I was doing a radio event in London, well before the BBC’s Sherlock,” he says. “Mark was there and asked me to sign his copy’; he said that as a child, aged about 10, his parents got him my book, which they knew he wanted, wrapped it up and put it under the tree.
“But he couldn’t wait and got up in the middle of the night – early Christmas Day – and tore off the wrapping to make sure it was the right one!”
The two men kept in touch – Mark has written forewords for some of David’s books. However, when Mark told David that his vision for a “modern” Sherlock had been picked up by the BBC he wasn’t immediately convinced. “I said, you can’t possibly, how can you do it?! Sherlock on Dartmoor, a big dog coming towards him, he gets his phone out and says, send some backup! Mark just told me to wait and see.”
The rest, as they say, is history, with the BBC’s Sherlock a huge hit in Britain and elsewhere. David is, of course, delighted Conan Doyle’s literary creation is still so popular.
“At university I wanted to write my dissertation on Conan Doyle, but was told he wasn’t important enough a writer. So I did a different dissertation and, to entertain myself, started writing about Sherlock films, leading to my first book.
“Recently I talked to a young lad and one of his GCSE texts was the Sherlock story The Sign of the Four. Such a change from when I was told Doyle wasn’t important enough. He had a fantastic way with words and scenes, ideal for children’s texts.”
David’s favourite Sherlocks are: “Basil Rathbone, my first Holmes, and Jeremy Brett, the most authentic. I can never choose.”
Martin Freeman is his favourite Watson. “Often Watson is played as an idiot but with Martin you feel he could really have been a soldier in Afghanistan, he could be a doctor, he could be a writer. And the bond with Holmes is effectively done.”
When he was invited onset and introduced to both Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch he says he was amazed to see so many fans trying to catch a glimpse of their TV heroes during filming.
“A building in London had been taken over for the night, filled with extras dressed as businessmen. There was a crowd, mainly girls, who had come to stand outside. I arrived at 7pm and left at 7am, apart from an hour for ‘lunch’, they were filming all the time. As I was leaving, Mark said they’d got about three minutes of footage. One scene Cumberbatch and Freeman had to do many times, but they did it with great aplomb.”
David is a member of the American society the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), which offers membership by invitation only to significant Sherlock contributors.
Named after the fictional street urchins created by Conan Doyle, the BSI began in the 1930s; US Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman were apparently members. David regularly attends an annual BSI dinner in New York and there are other BSI literary and educational events and activities around the US.
Back in the UK the Sherlock Holmes Society of London is open to all and has more than 1,000 members, some of them abroad, in Russia, South Korea, the US and Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Japan.
A Japanese Sherlock puppet show has even been performed for the society, as well as many other events and a twice-yearly journal.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, David and his wife Kathryn, who met at a Sherlock event in York, set up yet another Sherlock society and ran it for years. The Northern Musgraves had about 700 members worldwide and published journals.
“One meeting was at the Hardraw Force waterfall in the Dales,” he says. “We had Moriarty and Sherlock going over the falls, we acted it out and threw a dummy over. Lots of people who weren’t in the Musgraves were also watching, wondering what we were up to.”
Ask why Sherlock is so enduringly popular, David says the stories have the “ultimate detective hero at the centre and the romantic Victorian setting.
“Another attractive element is the friendship between Holmes and Watson; we know Holmes is supposed to be a cold and analytical man but when Watson is wounded, Holmes says, ‘For God’s sake Watson, say you’re not hurt’. Watson sees the great heart as well as the great brain. It’s a kind of ‘bromance’.”
Whatever the reasons for Holmes’ appeal, it is certainly clear he has new fans in many places, including India.
When David went to Delhi in 2015 for a literary festival, teenage schoolchildren surrounded him after the performance, all wanting to know more about Sherlock – not about Cumberbatch, but about Holmes.
Many foreign tourists to the UK already do a ‘Sherlock trail’, including London’s Baker Street. David’s own top Sherlock venues include Dartmoor in Devon because of its links to the Hound of the Baskervilles, Edinburgh because Doyle was born there and inspired by it, and Minstead in the New Forest where the author is buried.
David is clearly a walking, talking ‘Sherlock-pedia’ and has a seemingly endless supply of Sherlock facts at his fingertips.
“A lot of Doyle’s locations are based on his memories of Edinburgh rather than London –he was not that familiar with London. He wrote the first Sherlock stories when he was living in Portsmouth. He hadn’t lived in London at that point, although he’d visited.”
David will appear at York’s medieval Bedern Hall in January and at the Huddersfield Literary Festival in February.
His latest book, Sherlock Holmes and The Ripper Legacy, featuring Holmes, Watson and Jack the Ripper, is out now.
And, of course, Sherlock fans have the BBC programme to look forward to as well. The game is definitely afoot….