You can bet your mortgage that somewhere in the world there is a film buff who can tell you how many actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen. That same impeccable source might well add how many more have played him on television and on stage.

But it’s not quantity that matters, it’s quality, and for me that means one man – Basil Rathbone.

Now before you all reach for pen-and-paper or keyboard to argue the case for your particular favourite Holmes, let me qualify the above statement. Peter Cushing was good, Benedict Cumberbatch also brings something to the role. Jeremy Brett was wonderful. But for me, it has to be Rathbone.

Brett, I think, was the truest to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, but Rathbone brought an elegance to the role that all the others lacked.

He was born in South Africa on 13 June 1892, where his father was a mining engineer. Throughout the decade, political tensions were boiling over as Boers, descended from Dutch settlers, tried to break South Africa’s links with Britain.

Both European groups believed that they had exclusive rights to exploit the indigenous people, and the level of distrust between the settlers became so intense that the Rathbones fled to England in 1898.

After attending private schools, Basil took a job with an insurance firm in Liverpool, mainly to please his father. To say that his heart wasn’t in it is an understatement.
His cousin Frank Benson, an actor with a travelling theatre company, had something more attractive to offer. Basil made his stage debut in The Taming of the Shrew at the age of eighteen. The following year, 1912, they toured America, performing several other Shakespearean plays.

On his return to London, he remained with the Benson company, making several appearances in some of London’s top theatres.

The First World War brought an abrupt end to his fledgling career. He was drafted first as a private, but his education – and no doubt his family background – saw him transferred to a cadetship from which he emerged as a lieutenant.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own (issue 5613)