The secret of the eternal appeal of Sherlock Holmes is elementary

TO JUDGE by the current explosion of Sherlockiana, London's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, is more popular and more pertinent now than when he made his first appearance, in Beeton's Christmas Annual, in 1887.

Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation is the focus of West End play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes – already seen by Scottish audiences – and of a series of major BBC films which "reboot" him as a contemporary investigator, in the shape of the charismatic, youthful Benedict Cumberbatch. The new Nintendo DS game Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House is riding high in the charts, as is the DVD of last year's Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes.

Clearly there's something about Sherlock – but what?

The answer, dear reader, is elementary (sorry). Sherlock's intellect and self-confidence, born of the Victorian zeal for discovery and enlightenment, are timeless qualities. As Guy Ritchie says: "I don't think there's a more admirable or inspiring quality in any individual than being inquisitive."

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And given how well Holmes's deductive processes accord with the tropes of contemporary online and video games, it's amazing he hasn't moved into the medium previously – that the video game is only just now afoot.

Holmes is a man of action as well as thought, and he can be pressed into service as the times require. He can handle Ritchie-style fisticuffs or – in the Basil Rathbone series of films of the 1940s – be redeployed as a fighter against the Nazis. He is remarkably adaptable to the social conventions of different eras, too. His use of cocaine, morphine and nicotine have faded in and out of focus, and his sexuality has oscillated.

He slots easily into the 21st century. In the BBC films, Martin Freeman's Watson is, like Conan Doyle's original, a former soldier returning from Afghanistan.

"The updating works really well," says Cumberbatch. "Holmes makes a deduction involving a watch in The Sign of Four, which is adapted brilliantly here for a mobile phone."

Steven Moffat, who co-wrote the films with Mark Gatiss, says he wanted to strip things back to basics. "Holmes and Watson have become so revered, so monolithic, so embedded in the national consciousness, that no one stops to ask if they're good any more," he says.

"We wanted to let everyone discover afresh characters who are brilliantly, thrillingly alive. Forget the fogs, the deerstalker, that damn pipe he never lights and imagine how Sherlock Holmes looked to a contemporary audience."

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Jeremy Paul's Peter Egan-starring stage play, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, concentrates on the friendship of Holmes and Watson when the detective is forced to analyse his own past and his relationship with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The key to the detective's appeal, Paul says, is that Holmes was totally liberated from the strictures of his time.

"Victorian society was hidebound, class-bound and hypocritical, but Conan Doyle created a character who took a big stride over that," he says.

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"You get the sense that Holmes's view of the world is universal and for ever. He is a chameleon – he uses disguise – and has views that are ahead of his time.

"Whereas characters such as Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey are absolutely rooted in their time, Holmes can go anywhere and be played in different eras by all these different actors. I see him as the world's first time-traveller."

• The Secret of Sherlock Holmes opens at the Duchess Theatre, London, tomorrow. For information, telephone: 0844 412 4659. Sherlock begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm.

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