Invisibile Ink: No 117 - Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond
Sunday 01 April 2012
Considering the number of times film and television have revisited Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, it's surprising that this pair have vanished, despite all efforts to revive them.
Blake was a consulting detective who bears a resemblance to Holmes in illustrations. He was an enduring superstar of the early 20th century, a household name appearing in well over 4,000 stories from more than 200 different authors, from comic strips and silent films to books, radio, TV and plays. He had a sidekick called Tinker, and an enemy who turned out to be his brother. His magazine, The Sexton Blake Library, ran for over 50 years. Of his 50 TV shows, only part of one episode is still thought to exist. Latterly, Simon Raven and Michael Moorcock used the character. So what was his enduring appeal?
Blake was a cipher; a tall, middle-aged smoker with a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a pilot's licence. He was such a charming blank that authors used him in any plot they wished to create, and although we tend simply to consider him a pipe-clenching, square-jawed conservative fighting wily foreigners, many of his detection stories match Conan Doyle's in quality and style.
Bulldog Drummond, master of disguises, was the creation of HC McNeile, who wrote under the pen-name "Sapper". Drummond was just as popular as Blake, and shares roughly the same dates. At his peak in the 1920s, the bluff, relentlessly hearty ex-soldier McNeile became the highest paid short story writer in the world. Both creations provide the link between Holmes and Bond, as the Edwardian criminal investigator gives way to the modern action hero. Both are clean-living gentleman adventurers who are prepared to step outside the law when occasion demands, although Drummond is described as possessing "the cheerful type of ugliness which inspires immediate confidence". He was much copied and parodied (the best film example being Bulldog Jack). Even Ian Fleming admitted that Drummond had an influence on him, and certainly his villains reached for Spectre-style world domination.
Drummond had a bigger drawback than his counterpart, as his early stories were riddled with racism and anti-Semitism. At one point Drummond disguised himself as "a nasty-looking little Jew" and had trouble blacking up because "every nigger smells". It took Kim Newman to expose Drummond's more gruesome traits in his excellent parody story Pitbull Britain. New attempts are being made to revive Drummond as a modern adventurer, without his former offensive traits.
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