Just as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett are two of the best remembered actors to play Sherlock Holmes; Nigel Bruce, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke are three of the best remembered actors to play Holme’s right hand man, Doctor John H. Watson.
Watson is a very important character because without him the audience doesn’t have anyone they can relate to. He’s the audience’s point of view. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually tried writing four stories that were not in the point of view of Watson (two third person and two first-person, all from Holmes’s point of view), but they didn’t really work. Holmes’ stories work best when you have Sherlock playing off Watson.
The trouble with the character is that he’s a bit of a problem when it comes to adapting him to the screen as he’s an observer a lot of the time. In the early Holmes films the screenwriters would often lessen his role or get rid of him altogether. This trend kept up until 1938 when Nigel Bruce was cast as Doctor Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles with Basil Rathbone. What Bruce brought to the role was a Watson that was very different from his literary roots and was more of a comic character than Doyle’s Watson. Doyle’s character could mess up and do stupid things but he was never as bumbling as Bruce’s Watson could be. His interpretation of the good doctor became so iconic and popular that it influenced actors playing Watson for years to come.
In 1984 an actor by the name of David Burke came into the part and revolutionized the part for the first time in decades. Playing alongside Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he portrayed a Watson that was much more in tune with the character that Doyle wrote. Sadly after the Adventures finished Burke had to leave the part because he had found a job in the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.
When the show came back in 1985 (now titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes) the part had been recast with Edward Hardwicke in the part. He too portrayed a very capable Watson who wasn’t such a blustering fool as Nigel Bruce’s.
It may look like I don’t like Bruce’s Watson but I find him incredibly lovable and great fun to watch. Also I feel I must defend the man some. Bruce was after all the actor in the part and not the writer. So he was simply doing the role as written. The writers, therefore, are just as responsible for the character as Bruce was. But Bruce’s Watson could still be a capable man and had his moments in the fourteen films he made with Rathbone.
Burke and Hardwicke are much harder to compare. Burke is more playful with Holmes than Hardwicke is and the latter gives off more of the vibe that he used to be a soldier.
Are either of the two better than Bruce or even each other? Well, that’s for the individual viewer to decide. All I know is that all three of them brought something unique and different to the screen (whether it be small or large) and I will always think of them as my favorite Watson ever put to film.