Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

Considered by many to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes, the late Douglas Wilmer was one of the great British character actors of the 1960s and 70s.

Sherlock Holmes (1964-65)

Douglas Wilmer, who died on 31 March 2016 at the age of 96, was a veteran of British film and television. Most famously, he was the face of Sherlock Holmes for the generation who watched the BBC’s 1960s serialisation of the Conan Doyle detective stories. Often considered the definitive Holmes, Wilmer later reprised the role in Gene Wilder’s spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975).

Douglas Wilmer

Born in Brentford, Middlesex in 1920, Wilmer followed training at RADA with military service during the Second World War. His first film appearance came as Sir Nigel Saltire in Val Guest’s Robin Hood adventure The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), which set the tone for a cinematic career defined by colourful excursions into the past.

He was the Marquess of Dorset in Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and worked with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the wartime drama The Battle of the River Plate (1956), before a succession of big-budget 1960s epics. Two of these were for director Anthony Mann, for whom he played the emir Al-Mu’tamin in El Cid (1961) and the Roman emperor Pescennius Niger in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). He was also among the huge cast of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton version of Cleopatra (1963), with further supporting roles in Khartoum (1966), Cromwell (1970) and Antony and Cleopatra (1972).

Among the most familiar character actors on screen in the 1960s and 70s, Wilmer also took roles in the Pink Panther films A Shot in the Dark (1964) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978); as Sir Denis Nayland Smith in two Fu Manchu pictures, The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967); and in the Ray Harryhausen fantasies Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). On the small screen, he also turned up in The Saint, The Avengers, UFO and Space: 1999.

Octopussy (1983)

He worked less frequently during the 1980s, though was memorably to be seen talking Fabergé eggs as an art expert in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy and as the Black Knight in the 1984 Arthurian fantasy Sword of the Valiant. His final appearance was in a cameo as a gentleman in the Diogenes Club in the Reichenbach Fall episode of the BBC’s modern Sherlock series – an affectionate nod to the role that helped carve Wilmer a place in the pantheon.

Sherlock: ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ (2012)

The 1965 Sherlock Holmes series was recently released by the BFI, a process which Wilmer took an active involvement in. “He was very generous with his time during our production of the Sherlock Holmes box set,” comments Sam Dunn, BFI head of DVD, “and genuinely excited at the prospect of the series finally getting its long-overdue UK DVD release. It was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him; we remember him with great fondness.”

In the booklet accompanying the discs, Jonathan McCafferty, former chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, wrote: 

“Time and again one turns to the Holmes stories to establish the good faith of Wilmer’s inspiration – and it’s all there; every nuanced detail can be justified directly from the printed page. The chemistry of Holmes and Watson sparkles anew in Douglas Wilmer’s work. A small scrap of dialogue – for instance, the words ‘and yet’ – delivers a thrill of mighty significance from the actor’s lips. Even in action scenes where there is no dialogue – for instance, searches of bedrooms in both ‘Devil’s Foot’ and ‘The Speckled Band’ – Douglas Wilmer provides an entirely convincing, unmistakable and authoritative Holmes. His actions and reactions clearly convey the story. Only the closest reading and understanding of Arthur Conan Doyle could provide such an unqualified triumph. Wilmer’s contribution is monumental: he inspired a generation and inspires us still, 50 years on.”

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