If the name “Gemma Arrowsmith” had already been taken in actors’ Equity, I might have been called Gemma Adler or Gemma Brett. Those were the alternate names I gave on the form. I chose them because of Irene Adler, “The Woman” in the Sherlock Holmes stories and Jeremy Brett, one of the most marvellous Holmes actors of all time. That was how deep my Sherlock Holmes obsession ran. As it was, no-one else was called Gemma Arrowsmith and I kept my own name. But this story isn’t about my choice of acting name. It’s about how I came to love a series of stories about a Victorian consulting detective and how recently everyone else seems to have realised how great he is also. It starts half my lifetime ago, so here we go.
My mom is an avid reader. Her particular favourites are science fiction and crime novels so I was brought up in a house heaving with paperbacks. One school break- I think it was Easter and I think I was 15- I had nothing to read so I went into our front room where there were (and still are) two tall bookcases and for whatever reason I picked up a tattered copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. I took it into the living room, sat by the fire and opened the book on the first page of the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet. Over the next few weeks I read all the way through to the final story of the final collection The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. I carried the huge tome with me wherever I went on the off-chance I might be able to grab a few minutes and a few sentences in the great detective’s presence. I had always been a reader and I had read many books that I had enjoyed very much but all were eclipsed by the Sherlock Holmes stories. When I finished that final word and closed the cover I felt a sense of loss I had never experienced upon finishing a book before- and very rarely since. I will never read those stories for the first time ever again. That still stings. I genuinely missed Watson’s voice telling me about his friend’s adventures. I tried to read other things for the next month or so but all seemed a bit dull by comparison. It was the start of a major obsession.
I’ve always been obsessed by things. It started with comedy, an obsession that survives to this day, then it was The Marx Brothers, Gene Kelly films, Noel Coward, Star Trek… the list goes on but pretty much everything was swept from the table when I discovered Holmes. The collecting began in earnest. It wasn’t enough to have just read the stories, I now had to know everything there was to know on the subject so I bought books of Sherlockian scholarship, annotated copies of the stories, pastiches, DVDs of film and TV versions, posters of the original Sidney Paget drawings and even a beautiful deerstalker and calabash pipe. My collection was vast. It still is and resides in my old room at my parents’ house as I can’t bear to part with it despite the constraints of living in a small flat. Luckily my parents are understanding. It’s an odd obsession but I am someone who wore a Klingon jumper for most of my early teens so I gave up caring what people think of me a long time ago.
I few years later I went away to drama school and that’s when Sherlock became even more important. If you’ve ever been to drama school, or done any course with a large number of contact hours, you’ll know that it can force you to live in a bit of a bubble. You can forget there is an outside world, so consumed are you with this one enormous aspect of your life. That was certainly the case with me and many of my fellow students at the Guildford School of Acting. Our days in the second and third years were 9am-9pm with all your dissertation writing to be done in your spare time. I also taught at weekends to earn money so free time was scarce. However, I deemed it important to get away from everything every now and then. It wasn’t always possible to do this literally so it had to be done in the mind. I lose track of the number of evenings I completed my work for the night and then slipped away to spend a few hours at 221b Baker Street as the world’s first consulting detective wrestled with a three pipe problem.
My weekends ran like this: teach then catch a train into London before the bookshops closed; quickly pop around Murder One and Crime On Store -(two marvellous bookshops with extensive Sherlock Holmes sections- now sadly no more) and pick up any new pastiches or bits of scholarship then visit the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street or the Jeremy Brett exhibition over the road (also no longer there, sadly) for any little curios. Sunday morning would be spent in a cafe upstairs in a bookshop in Guildford reading my new books and looking through the Sunday papers feeling oh so Victorian before returning to my work Sunday afternoon. Those few hours each week kept me sane.
A short aside: while at drama school the flat I shared with my friend Pam was burgled. They got my computer and a minidisc player (remember those?). They left my vast Holmes collection untouched (fools! Some of those early editions and signed photos are worth a great deal but apparently modern criminals are not interested in literature.) Actually, that’s not entirely true. They took my calabash pipe. I don’t smoke and don’t intend to but even I couldn’t deny it was a beautiful looking thing so it had pride of place on my bookshelves. The police said it would probably be used to take drugs and was the item that, if discovered, would definitively link the perpetrators to the crime. I imagined the headline in the Surrey Advertiser: Holmes solves another case. Sadly it never came to pass but, man, wouldn’t that have been cool? I got the pipe replaced and anyway, it seemed fitting end for the original pipe as Holmes himself was no stranger to a seven per cent solution injected directly into the vein.
A couple of years ago something strange happened. Suddenly new Holmes adaptations sprung up all over the place and the world began to wake up to the stories once again. Both the new BBC and big screen versions are fantastic at bringing the great detective to life for a new generation. Oddly the BBC version feels far more faithful to the original canon than the Downey Jr vehicle despite being set in contemporary London. But I’m not a purist. I think there’s definitely room for a steampunk graphic novel influenced Sherlock Holmes. All it does is prove how exciting and enduring the character is. I am delighted that people are reading the stories and are finally seeing what I was going on about for all those years. I would be lying if I said I don’t experience a slight twinge when I hear people walk into a bookshop and ask for the “book of the TV series” but I guess that’s to be expected. It’s impossible not to feel a pang of dismay that now everyone is in on how fantastic the world’s first consulting detective is. I felt the same when Doctor Who was rebooted in 2005. “Where were all you guys in the ’90s, man? ‘Cos I was there. Keeping the Whovian flame alive.” But who hasn’t felt that at some point in their lives? That their secret passion has been stolen from them. Now there are message boards online discussing what the deal is between Holmes and Irene Adler. How did that happen? Anyhow, my slight twinge of regret is wiped out by how excited I am about the new adaptations. I love Holmes in all his different flavours but for a few years it felt like I had him all to myself. He was my secret and those years were awesome.
Nowadays the obsession might have mellowed but I still always wear a Sherlock pin on my lapel and I carry all the stories with me on my Kindle. How useful that would have been when I was reading them for the first time all those years ago. It was the first thing I downloaded. If you have a kindle or similar ereader, I would advise you to do the same. I believe the complete stories are 79p or you can download the first and arguably best set of short stories The Adventures for free. Seriously, what are you waiting for?
So if you have enjoyed Steve Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’ beautiful, intricate TV interpretation or Guy Ritchie’s huge mad romp, I would urge you to read the stories. I truly believe there is something for everyone in them. Rollicking adventures of life, love, money and death, a dashing aloof hero, strong independent female characters (ignore recent flim flam in the press) and the delicate humour of two very different people forced to share a flat- at first through lack of funds and eventually because of a deep friendship (the real heart of the stories). Read them. And feel my envy as you open the books for the first time. You have an amazing adventure ahead of you.