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A Highly Irregular Turn on Baker Street

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At first the idea seemed preposterous. Even sacrilegious. Sherlock Holmes, the master of deduction, turns out to be a drunken idiot, while the real brains belong to his companion, Dr. Watson!

American screenwriter Gary Murphy realized the truth four years ago while watching the classic Holmes adventure, “The Sign of Four.” When he saw Holmes humiliate Dr. Watson in front of Scotland Yard detectives, he said to himself, “What if we’ve been fooled all along and Dr. Watson is the real genius?”

So Murphy and Larry Strawther wrote the irreverent “Sherlock and Me,” starring Michael Caine as Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Watson. ITC Productions recently completed shooting it here: Orion Pictures will distribute in the States this fall.

The gimmick: Holmes is actually an out-of-work actor whom Watson hires to play a brilliant detective because the low-key doctor can’t get any respect from Scotland Yard.

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How are the English taking the news that their great hero is actually a dunce?

Jeremy Brett, who has become this decade’s premier Holmes through “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” series (running in this country via PBS), would not consider the possibility. But after hemming and hawing, he conceded, “I don’t think Holmes could exist without Watson.”

The chairman of Britain’s thousand-member Sherlock Holmes Society, founded in 1951, was cagey about the new “findings” on the legendary sleuth. Shouldn’t the society change its name? Why honor an impostor.

But Tony Howlett, a society founder, isn’t about to let 37 years of Holmes-boosting work go down the drain. He’s treating the news as a joke.

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“I’ve got no objection at all to gentle fun being poked at Sherlock Holmes, provided it’s done well,” he said.

During the filming of “Sherlock and Me,” Howlett observed the master detective Dr. Watson ordering about the loutish, drunken actor whom he’d hired to play Holmes. His grudging evaluation: “The plot is extremely ingenious.”

Other fans who have chafed at the limited number of original Holmes tales by Arthur Conan Doyle--only 56 short stories and four novels--welcomed news of the role reversal.

A Birmingham solicitor observed, “There’s no prima facie evidence to support the theory that Dr. Watson is the genius. However, I think using circumstantial evidence I could build up a strong enough case to convince a jury.”

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After all, the solicitor pointed out, Conan Doyle himself was a doctor, and he physically resembled Watson. Did the author cleverly slip himself in as the real hero?

Some Britishers worry about possible financial repercussions of all this. A London accountant pointed out that London Transport would have to redecorate Baker Street Tube Station, where the walls are tiled with silhouettes of Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker cap smoking a curved pipe. How expensive would it be to substitute a profile of Dr. Watson with his medical bag?

A travel agent wondered what would happen to the Sherlock Holmes Hotel. At the very least, she estimated, they would need new signs, uniforms and stationery.

It would be easy to rename the Sherlock Holmes Reference Collection, a Latin teacher noted, but he questioned whether anyone had started pulling together a collection of materials relating to Watson. The Sherlock Holmes Centa, a movie theater on Baker Street, recently went out of business, she pointed out. Perhaps there had been a leak about Holmes’ true insignificance.

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A bus conductor contemplated the fate of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’ band of youthful grubby assistants. If the well-tailored Dr. Watson were officially in charge, would he order the lads to wear immaculate school uniforms when carrying out assignments? Would he rename them the Baker Street Regulars?

Not all Londoners were perturbed by the discovery of Watson’s brilliance. A market vendor immediately saw the commercial possibilities. Up till now, he noted, there had never been much of a souvenir market for doctors’ bags.


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