Bernard Davies – Obituary

When Stephen Fry spoke at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's annual dinner in 2005, almost the first statement he made was: " — to be in the same room as Bernard Davies is a remarkable honour."

I don't think that any of us who knew Bernard would dispute that. At that same dinner, to unanimous acclaim, he received the Tony Howlett Award in recognition of his decades of outstanding service — a particularly significant trophy to him as the late Tony Howlett was a close friend as well as founding father of the Society.

Born in Bath, the grandson of a Metropolitan Police Inspector stationed at Marylebone, Bernard Davies became an outstanding pupil at King Edward's School in Birmingham and then at Nottingham High School, but the outbreak of war interrupted the family's ambitions for a university scholarship. After leaving school in 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, but while he waited for his call-up papers he worked for several months with Tod Slaughter's company, playing the classic melodramas. Most of the war years were spent in India, and before long he became one of the band of professional actors and entertainers who made up Stars in Battledress.

Upon demob he returned to the theatre, to serve what his sister-in-law described as a relentless apprenticeship in weekly repertory. Unlike most British actors, though, Bernard could speak six languages, and for a while he was much in demand to play superior foreign types, usually Nazi officers, in war films.

Two events occurred in 1958 that were to change his life. He won £6,000 on the British version of Twenty One, and for several years, until the category was deleted, his name appeared annually in The Guinness Book of Records as winner of the largest cash prize ever on a British television quiz show. This was a time when one could buy a good house for £2,000.

Also that year, having long been a devotee of the great detective, he discovered the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and realised that he was not alone. Almost immediately he made his mark with his essays "Was Holmes a Londoner?" and "The Back Yards of Baker Street" — the latter establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the true location of 221B Baker Street. They were the first of thirty or so major papers on Holmes, Watson and their world, writings of exceptional quality, all but two written for The Sherlock Holmes Journal or for the Society's occasional handbooks.

Nearly fifty years later, Bernard wrote: "None of my first five efforts were really case studies, and only two of them could be considered topographical. However, three dealt intimately with parts of Victorian London, while a fourth took rail travel as its principal theme. In a way they foreshadowed paths I was to take in the future as location and identification gradually became my stock-in-trade."

He was not especially prolific. He would not publish an article until he was satisfied that it was as good as he could make it, and there was no collection of his Holmesian writings until 2008, when the Society published Holmes and Watson Country: Travels in Search of Solutions in two large volumes. Bernard's research was scrupulous, his results were marshalled with intelligence and discrimination, his presentation was clear and comprehensible, and the whole was marked by wit and an engaging enthusiasm.

Although he had not then attended the Baker Street Irregulars annual dinner, and had never contributed to The Baker Street Journal, in 1984 Dr Julian Wolff awarded him the Irregular Shilling and dubbed him "A Study in Scarlet". As Jon Lellenberg so felicitously said: "for Julian, no greater compliment was imaginable than to give him the investiture Vincent Starrett had held until his death in 1974 — the very first one conferred, in 1944, by Christopher Morley and Edgar W. Smith."

In 1973, Bernard and his fellow-actor Bruce Wightman founded the Dracula Society, partly as a way of ensuring that they could take groups to Romania to visit the locations associated with Count Dracula rather than being limited to the government-approved sites associated with Prince Vlad Dracula. At the time of his death, Bernard held the title of Founder-President of the Dracula Society, and, as with Sherlock Holmes, his knowledge of Bram Stoker's novel and of gothic literature and drama generally was respected internationally.

His extraordinary knowledge of the capital was recognised in 1986 when he was made a Freeman of the City of London. His lectures and guided tours were as impeccably prepared and presented as his essays, and no less appreciated. To quote Jon Lellenberg again: "To walk through London with Bernard was an education, to listen to him talk was charming and fascinating." And for London, you could substitute Whitby, Prague, Bistri?a or any of several other places.

From 1983 to 1985 he served as Chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, and in 1995 was made an honorary member, the Society's highest and rarest honour. It would be another thirteen years before his collected Holmesian writings were published between hard covers, but Holmes and Watson Country was worth waiting for, and deservedly won Bernard the first Tony & Freda Howlett Literary Award.

In his thirty years as a professional actor, Bernard took part in just one Sherlock Holmes production, when he was both Bert Stevens and Norlett in "Shoscombe Old Place", one of eight audio plays by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, released by the now-defunct company Discourses in 1970. Holmes and Watson were played by Robert Hardy and Nigel Stock. However, those who took part in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's expedition to Oxford in 1988 had a rare treat as Bernard produced and directed Pamela Bruxner's dramatisation of "The Three Students". As expected, he was outstanding in the rôle of Holmes, and he ensured that the rest of the cast, all amateurs, gave first-rate performances as well.

For more than two decades Bernard lived alone in his house in Norwood, a location deliberately chosen for its Holmesian significance. In later years, as his health declined, his friends became concerned for his safety, but he fiercely maintained his independence, despite a couple of bad falls and an increasing lack of mobility. On 24 August he fell in the street near his house, breaking his hip, and was taken to the nearby King's College Hospital. With the excellent treatment there, his recovery was steady, and he was looking forward to returning home, when on the morning of 21 September he suffered a sudden heart attack and died instantaneously.

We who enjoyed his friendship were privileged, perhaps more so than we realised. Truly there were giants in those days, and right now it seems as though Bernard Davies was the last of them.

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