“It is quite a three pipe problem,” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson in The Red-Headed League, “and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”
While that short story was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1891, the detective’s penchant for a smoke is still alive – though not necessarily well – in today’s most popular iteration of the character, BBC’s Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Take this exchange from series one’s “A Study in Pink”:
Dr. Watson: What are you doing?
Sherlock Holmes: Nicotine patch. Helps me think. Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days. Bad news for brain work.
Watson: It’s good news for breathing.
Holmes: Ah, breathing. Breathing’s boring.
Watson: Is that three patches?
Holmes: It’s a three-patch problem.
As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle indeed originated Holmes’ smoking habit. But it appears he isn’t entirely to blame – at least not for the shape of Sherlock’s pipe. For that, we have actor William Gillette to thank.
An eager Gillette convinced Conan Doyle to let him adapt Sherlock Holmes for the stage, drawing on existing short stories for inspiration. The resulting play established Gillette as the world’s foremost interpreter of Holmes on stage. By the time he starred in the silent film version, Sherlock Holmes (1916), Gillette had played the character over 1,300 times.
Heralded as the archetype for all future Sherlocks, Gillette’s stylistic choices left an indelible impression on the way we envision the detective today. One such choice was the use of a curved pipe. When the Sherlock Holmes short stories were originally published, illustrator Sidney Paget drew Holmes with a straight pipe, which is described in the stories as “thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.” In contrast, Gillette chose a pipe with a curved shaft, reportedly to make it easier to deliver his lines around the pipe without blocking his mouth with his hand. Of course, a nicotine patch like the one sported by BBC’s Sherlock would completely eliminate this problem of obstructed speech. But Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage in 1899, at the end of the Victorian era and long before nicotine patches were invented.
The upcoming 90-minute BBC special The Abominable Bride takes Sherlock back to the Victorian era of Doyle and Gillette. Newly-released stills reveal that Benedict Cumberbatch will use the same style curved pipe that William Gillette pioneered all those years ago. Perhaps the actor should thank William Gillette for the added ease in saying his lines!
Considered lost for nearly 100 years, William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes (1916) has been found and brilliantly restored for Blu-ray/DVD. Check out the trailer below for a glimpse at the original Sherlock Holmes as envisioned by Arthur Conan Doyle and brought to life by William Gillette.
William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes premieres on Blu-ray/DVD November 3, 2015. Order yours today for 25% OFF M.S.R.P.
Think you can sport the curved pipe better than Gillette or Cumberbatch? Enter the #FlickerOfSherlock Fan Photo Contest for a chance to win Sherlock Holmes (1916) on Blu-ray/DVD.
For exclusive essays, film preservation news, and special discounts, sign up for the Flicker Alley Newsletter.