It is right and proper that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman be praised to the skies for their performances as Sherlock and John. Equally good, in my opinion, is Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade.
Graves plays the part as beleagured but intelligent. He might not be as clever as Sherlock, and he might be the victim of a barbed comment now and then, but he’s more than capable of holding his own against him. He’s also the first Lestrade I can think of who’s a bit, well, dishy.
This certainly wasn’t the case in Conan Doyle’s original stories. Lestrade is introduced to us as a “little sallow rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow”. His relationship with Holmes slowly moves from hostility to grudging respect, so that in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons he admits, “We’re not jealous of you down at Scotland Yard. No sir, we are proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.” In a rare display of emotion, Holmes is visibly moved.
Dennis Hoey was the first memorable screen Lestrade, in Universal’s film series with Basil Rathbone.
Hoey played the Inspector as a bungler, resentful of Holmes’ cleverness and frequently baffled by his deductions. He’s usually to be found standing over a body, scratching his head and exclaiming, “Eh?” The series developed a nice little rivalry between Watson and Lestrade, the one-upmanship between Hoey and Nigel Bruce becoming a regular feature in the films.
However, we’re often invited to feel fondness for Hoey’s Lestrade. In The Spider Woman (1944), Watson and Lestrade believe Holmes to have perished. Tentatively, Watson offers Lestrade a souvenir from the Baker Street rooms. Choking up, Lestrade takes one of the detective’s pipes. Of course then Holmes arrives and an embarrassed Lestrade tries to replace the pipe without anyone noticing. It’s a lovely sequence, funny but also very touching.
One of the closest interpretations to Conan Doyle’s original description was that of Frank Finlay, who played Lestrade in both Holmes vs. the Ripper movies: A Study in Terror (1965) and Murder by Decree (1979).
Finlay was a dogged little terrier, suspicious of Holmes but knowing the limits of his own intelligence. In both films, he does a great job of showing us how the horror of the Ripper crimes is beyond Lestrade’s comprehension. He gets many nice character moments in Murder by Decree, and I especially liked his amusement at the sight of James Mason’s Watson in a police cell.
More recently, Granada’s television series with Jeremy Brett had a wonderful Lestrade in Colin Jeavons.
Jeavons always reminds me of the description of Lestrade in The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery, “a lean, ferret-like man, furtive and sly-looking”. He was frequently irritated by the flamboyant Brett, and constantly trying to get one over on him. But there was great warmth in Jeavons’ portrayal too. His delivery of the aforementioned speech from The Six Napoleons is a highlight of that episode.
Rupert Graves’ Lestrade plays an important role in both Moffat’s The Pilot and A Study in Pink. While Lestrade deplores the detective’s sociopathic tendencies, his faith in his abilities legitimizes Sherlock in our eyes. As I have mentioned before, I think that giving Lestrade the final line in The Pilot was a nice touch, showing us that “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” were now a unit, and establishing Lestrade’s ancillary position. In A Study in Pink, the line was taken away from Graves and given to Gatiss’ Mycroft (and you can read about my objections to that decision here).
I felt his absence in The Blind Banker. And while I can see the logic of showing us other policemen, really I just want more Lestrade. Never mind Gregson, Hopkins and Jones. Give us more Graves.