MICHAEL S. COLLINS bids farewell to recently deceased English actor Douglas Wilmer, best known for playing the world’s most famous detective in the 1965 TV series, Sherlock Holmes…
Douglas Wilmer, who has died at the venerable age of 96 after a bout of pneumonia, was a familiar face to British cult fans. He appeared in Cromwell, The Golden Voyages of Sinbad and the Inspector Closeau film A Shot in the Dark, but it was as a famous detective he best became known. In 1964, the BBC, after a long time negotiating, won the rights from the Doyle estate to adapt five of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The Speckled Band was settled on as the pilot for such a series (as there was an option to extend the number of stories if the Doyle estate were happy with the end results) and character actor Douglas Wilmer was cast as the BBC’s first Sherlock Holmes.
Wilmer, who didn’t consider himself a fan of Doyle’s detective (though he was an admirer), felt that the big adaptations to date had tried to turn him into a stock hero type, when the actual character in Conan Doyle is capable of some right unpleasantness. Wilmer thought if you could try and get both sides of the character, his flaws and his greatness, across, then that would make for a far more enthralling TV drama than merely presenting him as the Victorian Superman with bumbling sidekick. (A rule of thumb for the writer is to judge a Holmes adaptation on how it treats its Watson – he’s not a bumbling sidekick, he’s a bloody Doctor. That a genuinely intelligent man is still stumped by the deduction genius required by Holmes is the whole point!)
“The scripts came in late and some of them I rejected and rewrote myself. They went straight into the waste paper basket; I simply refused them. The Red-Headed League had 14 characters that don’t exist in Doyle, and I said no way. This is not on. And they all sounded when I read the script – before throwing it into the waste paper basket – as if they’d been borrowed from Damon Runyan. One was called Harry the Horse!” – Douglas Wilmer, Movietone News interview, 10 May 2009
Unhappy with the lack of rehearsal time, Wilmer turned down the option to play Holmes in a second season, and the role fell to Peter Cushing. It wasn’t his final appearance alongside the detective, however. He appeared twice in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, of course, as Professor Van Dusen, but in 1975, he was Holmes once more, opposite Gene Wilder’s Sigerson Holmes, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother. And then, in 2012, he had a background role in the Steven Moffat Sherlock! Sometimes, you just can’t escape the detective.
There was far more to Douglas Wilmer than Sherlock Holmes though, as the character actor had a career of 60 years in film, TV and stage. Not bad for a man who postponed his RADA training to join up for World War Two, and then wound up out of the war after contracting TB on the African front! An early role which showed his immense promise was in It is Midnight, Doctor Schweitzer, in which he plays a missionary who helps Andre Morell’s German doctor on the brink of the First World War, trying to run a malaria hospital in a French colony. It’s all about good people trying to do their best, all the while events completely out of their control conspire to make them officially enemies of war, and Wilmer is fantastic in it, giving his Father Charles a quiet dignity.
He played Charles II in the 1958 adaptation of Samuel Pepys diaries, Decimus in Cleopatra and Nayland Smith in The Brides of Fu Manchu. He was The Baron in The Vampire Lovers, a film much loved by contributors to The Spooky Isles for one reason or another. UFO, The Avengers, The Protectors and countless other great British cult TV shows were enhanced by guest appearances by him, and he had a long run in TV adaptations of Shakespeare: as Agrippa in a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, as Julius Caesar himself, and as the Duke of Venice, to name but three. He made an appearance in the Bond franchise, as art expert Jim Fanning in Octopussy.
He was also the headmaster in the creepy, and underrated British horror film, Unman, Wittering and Zigo. David Hemmings young teacher Ebony arrives at a private school to replace a teacher who died. A terrible accident, everyone claims at first, but as acclaimed director John “Frenzy” MacKenzie manages to make the Cornish outdoors seem claustrophobic and wrong with his camera choices, there is the lingering doubt that there’s a cover up going on. Something about the kids, and what happened to the former teacher. And how Hemmings himself is now at risk. There is danger everywhere, and he should be able to confide in his own boss, the headmaster. And yet, anytime something happens, there’s the headmaster to point out he has no proof. Wilmer plays the role sublimely, with viewers never quite sure if the man is covering up crimes, if he genuinely sees nothing, or if he is on it himself. In a horror film which is all about human nature, with no monster suits in suit, it is an important bridge between the horror and the everyday, and Douglas Wilmer pulls it off with ease, much like he did with every other role.
One of the greats of his generation, Wilmer’s death is a sad loss for fans of British TV and film.


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