Obituary: Douglas Wilmer, TV and film actor

Talented and varied actor had distinguished performances as Sherlock Holmes. Picture: PA
Talented and varied actor had distinguished performances as Sherlock Holmes. Picture: PA
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Born: 8 January 1920, in Brentford, Middlesex. Died: 31 March 2016, in Ipswich, Suffolk, aged 96.

Arthur Conan Doyle has been well served by television’s portrayals of his Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes, over the past half-century. Peter Cushing’s is often regarded as the most iconic on the BBC in the 1960s after playing him in the cinema while Jeremy Brett’s is seen as the most realistic in Granada’s immaculate productions beautifully recreating 19th-century Baker Street and Benedict Cumberbatch’s is credited with breathing new life into the enigmatic sleuth with a modern-day incarnation.

But the Sherlock Holmes Society of London ranks the definitive performance to be that of Douglas Wilmer in the first of the 1960s BBC series. Complete with the obligatory deerstalker and clay pipe, he brought a dark intensity to the role and put into the mix what he saw as an unpleasant side to Holmes’s character. “He was rather sardonic and arrogant, and he could be totally inconsiderate toward Watson,” Wilmer explained in a 2009 interview. “I tried to show both sides of his nature.”

The actor first teamed up with Nigel Stock, as Dr Watson, for The Speckled Band dramatisation in the 1964 Detective anthology series. The following year, they starred in the 12-episode Sherlock Holmes.

Although Wilmer was able to stamp his mark on the literary legend, even rewriting some of the scripts, he was unhappy with the production – particularly the lack of rehearsal time. When he refused to make a second series in 1968, Cushing took over his role.

However, Wilmer’s association with Conan Doyle’s consulting detective continued when he played him alongside Gene Wilder’s title character in the film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and he had a cameo as a cranky old man at Mycroft Holmes’s Diognes Club in a 2012 episode of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch.

In a slightly less direct way, he was attached to his most famous television role in starring as Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Van Dusen in two episodes of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973). He also read Conan Doyle stories for Penguin Audiobooks in the 1990s.

Douglas Norman Wilmer was born in Brentford, Middlesex, the son of Harry, an accountant, and his wife, Kate (née Tavener). He spent his early years in Shanghai, where his father worked, before returning to Britain at the age of 13 to be educated at King’s School, Canterbury.

However, his father had him marked down for a career as an architect and he began his working life articled to the City of London firm Seeley and Paget. When it closed down, Wilmer followed his true vocation and secured a scholarship to Rada. However, after a year, his training was cut short when he was called up for Second World War service with the Royal Artillery. He eventually became a troop commander in Nigeria and Gambia, although was invalided out of the Army on contracting tuberculosis, which rendered him unable to have children.

After a year of convalescence, Wilmer made his stage début with Rugby rep in 1945 as Robert Browning, the romantic lead, in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. A year later, he was in London at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, playing Shakespearean roles, including Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and he made his first West End stage appearance as both Ventidius and Euphronius, alongside Edith Evans, in Antony and Cleopatra (Piccadilly Theatre).

He then took the role of Lennox in Macbeth (Aldwych Theatre, 1947) and acted in seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon (1948) and the Old Vic Theatre, London (1950-2), where he played Charles VI in Henry V and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and worked with the great director Tyrone Guthrie.

Many television roles followed, including Cornelius van Baerle in The Black Tulip (1956), a BBC serialisation for children of the Alexandre Dumas novel, Sir Mulberry Hawk in Nicholas Nickleby (1957), Macbeth in a schools production (1958), King Charles II in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, the villain Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955), Obadiah Slope in Barchester Towers (1961) and Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment (1964).

Among Wilmer’s several dozen cinema parts were Dorset in Richard III (1955), alongside Laurence Olivier, Decimus in Cleopatra (1963), with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a country house’s head butler, Henri LaFarge, in the Pink Panther film A Shot in the Dark (1964), the police commissioner in the subsequent Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), Field Marshal Montgomery’s staff officer Major General Francis de Guingand in Patton (1970) and Secret Service art expert Jim Fanning in the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983).

Wilmer was regularly seen on screen until the late 1980s, when he retired to the home he had lived in for a decade in Woodbridge, Suffolk, where he also ran a wine bar called Sherlock’s for four years. He was made an honorary member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in 1991 and wrote an autobiography, Stage Whispers (2009).

The actor’s 1946 marriage to Elizabeth Melville, a fellow Rada student, was annulled after 25 years on the grounds of his “canonical impotence”. A 1973 marriage, to his second wife Barbara, ended in divorce. Wilmer is survived by his third wife, Anne (née Harding), whom he married in 1985.