Moments from the Bartitsu seminar at the recent Sherlocon 2017 Sherlock Holmes fandom event, which took place at the Nuovo Teatro Orione in Rome, Italy. Aimed at interested novices, the workshop included examples of Vigny walking stick fighting, self-defence with an overcoat and several canonical jiujitsu set-plays.
In response to the newest Sherlock adventure, The Six Thatchers, TV critic Ralph Jones wrote an opinion piece titled Sherlock is slowly and perversely morphing into Bond. This cannot stand. The elaborate fight scene between Sherlock Holmes and the assassin known only as Ayjay was cited as an example of Holmes’ undesirable transmogrification into an “action figure”.
Now Sherlock writer/actor/co-creator Mark Gatiss has followed in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s footsteps by replying to a critic in verse, playfully underlining the fact that the Sherlock Holmes canon includes numerous action scenes:
Here is a critic who says with low blow
Sherlock’s no brain-box but become double-O.
Says the Baker St. boy is no man of action –
whilst ignoring the stories that could have put him in traction.
The Solitary Cyclist sees boxing on show,
The Gloria Scott and The Sign of the Fo’
The Empty House too sees a mention, in time, of Mathews,
who knocked out poor Sherlock’s canine.
As for arts martial, there’s surely a clue
in the misspelled wrestle Doyle called baritsu.
In hurling Moriarty over the torrent
did Sherlock find violence strange and abhorrent?
In shooting down pygmies and Hounds from hell
Did Sherlock on Victorian niceties dwell?
When Gruner’s men got him was Holmes quite compliant
Or did he give good account for The Illustrious Client?
There’s no need to invoke in yarns that still thrill,
Her Majesty’s Secret Servant with licence to kill
From Rathbone through Brett to Cumberbatch dandy
With his fists Mr Holmes has always been handy.
The recent blockbuster successes of the Kingsman movie and of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows have firmly re-established umbrellas as the signature weapons of gentlemen-adventurers. This article pays tribute to the trope-setter, debonair superspy John Steed of The Avengers TV series (1961-9, 1976-7); read this article for more information on the use of weaponised umbrellas in real history.
Initially, Steed (Patrick Macnee) was featured as a mystery-man foil for Dr. David Keel, played by Ian Hendry. Macnee wanted to develop and distinguish the Steed character, so he began to add signature costume items and props from his own wardrobe, including a bowler hat and an umbrella, quickly transforming John Steed from a trenchcoat-wearing tough guy into a dapper, impeccably mannered superspy.
When a writer’s strike delayed production of The Avengers, Hendry left the series and Macnee was promoted to the starring role.
The idea of using his umbrella as a weapon seems to have been based initially on Patrick Macnee’s personal dislike of guns. Macnee felt that John Steed should outwit enemies whenever possible; however, he also insisted that the character’s suave exterior masked a steely ruthlessness when he was forced into combat. As Steed habitually carried his umbrella, and therefore almost always had it to hand during action scenes, it became his main weapon by default.
Macnee may have been inspired by Lt. Colonel William Ewart Fairbairn’s instructions for using umbrellas as improvised weapons, which were widely published during the Second World War:
Although John Steed’s tightly-furled brolly was shown to conceal a slim sword in the Avengers opening credits, the spy seldom made use of the blade, relying instead on the (presumably reinforced) umbrella itself as a weapon of both offence and defence. During The Avengers’ long run he was regularly shown using his umbrella as a rapier, a bayonet and a club; he also occasionally employed the hooked handle to trip or otherwise impede his enemies.
Once in a while, John Steed was even known to defend himself and KO his nefarious foes with his steel-reinforced bowler, a trick clearly inspired by the steel-rimmed hat wielded by the bodyguard/assassin Oddjob (Harold Sakata) in Goldfinger.
During the filming of The New Avengers sequel series, which was a mid-1970s British/French/Canadian co-production, Parisian savate master Roger Lafond put in an on-set appearance as a self-defence coach. The following video clip, from a 1993 episode of the French variety show Coucou c’est nous!, includes a rather awkward reunion between the elderly Lafond and Macnee, the latter – who clearly did not speak, nor understand much of the French language – seeming not to recognise Mr. Lafond. Still, the clip also features an ad-hoc demonstration of Lafond’s “Panache” style of umbrella self defence, gamely observed by the bemused Patrick Macnee:
Although co-stars had come and gone, Patrick Macnee as John Steed remained a constant presence throughout the massive and long-lived international success of The Avengers and then The New Avengers, establishing the pop-culture trope of the urbane, umbrella-wielding British secret agent. Steed remains a frequent point of reference when people first encounter E.W. Barton-Wright’s “gentlemanly art of self defence”, Bartitsu.
Martin “Oz” Austwick of the English Martial Arts Academy offers an entertaining and educational analysis of the famous fisticuffs encounter between Sherlock Holmes and the ruffianly Mr. Woodley, from the 1980s Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett.
The final season of the popular dark fantasy/drama series Penny Dreadful introduced the character of Catriona Hartdegen, a historian, thanatologist and expert swordswoman played by actress Perdita Weeks.
As the series is set primarily in London during the 1890s, Hartdegen’s skill at a stylised form of double-weapon fencing is an interesting creative choice. In real history, that style had been long-obsolete by the end of the 19th century, its heyday having been during the Elizabethan period. It was, however, revived, starting in the 1880s, primarily through the efforts of fencing antiquarians Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton, both of whom were still very active in promoting “ancient swordplay” at the time Miss Hartdegen is shown to be practicing it.
Also during the 1880s, a Viennese fencing/performance troupe began touring throughout the United States and parts of Europe, with a show that included theatrical re-enactments of gladiatorial combats as well as a stylised double-weapon method:
Hutton and Castle, however, placed an unusual emphasis upon serious historical research and sought to revive these antique fencing methods as practical fighting arts. One of Hutton’s most famous exhibitions took place at the London Bath Club in March of 1899. The rapier and dagger style was demonstrated, along with the fencing of the sword and buckler, the two-handed sword and the rapier and cloak:
The next exhibition of the “ arme blanche” was a fight between Captain Hutton and Mr. W. H. Grenfell, both armed with rapiers and daggers, and a very pretty game they made of it. Thus doubly weaponed, the fencer’s game is very much the boxer’s. The slip, the pass, the feint, are all very similar. And we can sympathize still with old George Silver’s indignation at those new-fangled Italian masters who “fought as you sing prick-song, one, two, and the third in your bosom”, and used the point in manner far too deadly for these English, “who were strong, but had no cunning.”
The Bath Club exhibition also included a demonstration of Bartitsu by Edward Barton-Wright. Shortly thereafter, Hutton joined the teaching staff of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, instructing students in both historical and modern (circa 1900) forms of swordplay. He also learned from his fellow instructors, picking up some jiujitsu kata from Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani and enthusiastically practicing the unique, self-defence oriented cane fighting system of Pierre Vigny.
One of Hutton’s most skilled and prominent students was the actress and swordswoman Esme Beringer, who became an expert in the theatrical as well as martial forms of the art.
Esme Beringer had first taken up fencing as a girl, under the instruction of a Sergeant Elliot.
During the first decade of the 20th century, she participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and bouted during an “ancient swordplay” display for the Playgoer’s Club. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:
The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.
Esme Beringer went on to become an instructor with the Actresses’ Foil Club, which had originated as the “ladies’ branch” of the Actors’ Sword Club. While the Actor’s Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses’ Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.
Meanwhile, in France, a similarly stylised method of double-weapon fencing had been developed by the fencing masters Albert Lacaze and Georges Dubois. It’s interesting to compare the style displayed in this 1927 newsreel with that used in the Penny Dreadful fight choreography above:
See the book Ancient Swordplay: The Revival of Elizabethan Fencing in Victorian London for more information about Captain Hutton, Esme Beringer, Georges Dubois and the recreation of historical sword combat during the 1890s.
Early in this interview for Chicago’s WBEZ Nerdette podcast, actress and professional nerd Felicia Day namechecks Bartitsu in the context of a discussion on self-defence against llamas. Specifically, she’s referring to her training at Vancouver’s Academie Duello and the Bartitsu classes offered there by David McCormick.
The Bagri Foundation in London hosted this recent lecture by Dr. Emelyne Godfrey, author of Masculinity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature and its companion volume Femininity, Crime and Self Defence in Victorian Literature and Society.
The capacity audience enjoyed Dr. Godfrey’s presentation, which discussed English approaches to self defence during the “long 19th century”.
The lecture began with the mid-Victorian “garroting panics”, which appeared to portend the rise of Thugee-style street gangs in England and engendered the invention of new self-defence weapons such as the “belt buckle pistol”.
The later Victorian era saw the rise of organised gangs such as the Peaky Blinders of Birmingham and Manchester’s Scuttlers, who mostly fought among themselves but whose “outrages” sometimes impacted the concerned citizens of several major cities.
The topic then moved to E.W. Barton-Wright’s introduction of Japanese martial arts to England in 1898, and the subsequent rise and fall of his own eclectic art of Bartitsu, including its famous association with Sherlock Holmes.
The brief but significant Bartitsu craze paved the way for jiujitsu instructors such as Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi and then, during the Edwardian period, the foundation of the Suffrajitsu bodyguard team.