First and foremost, consider Sherlock Holmes. The creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Holmes is the most filmed literary character in history, with over 250 portrayals onscreen. The most famous recent incarnation is the hit TV version Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Operation Mincemeat) and Stephen Moffat (Doctor Who) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, The Electric Life of Louis Wain) and Martin Freeman (The Office, Hot Fuzz). The pairing of star charisma and smart storytelling, combined with great guest appearances from the likes of Andrew Scott (All of Us Strangers) made it a sensation. But not far behind was the 2009 film and its sequel, starring Robert Downey Jr (Oppenheimer) and Jude Law (King Arthur: Legend of The Sword) and directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch). That injected a little action to proceedings, with a Holmes as fond of fisticuffs as deduction – but then that too is in the books.
Interestingly, the second most filmed character in screen history is Dracula, created by Irishman Bram Stoker, who was born a subject of the British Empire and was inspired by British locations like Whitby. Gatiss and Moffat also adapted that story in 2020 with mini-series Dracula, starring Dolly Wells (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Morfydd Clark (Saint Maud) and Claes Bang (The Outlaws).
But iconic status does not only relate to the number of adaptations: it’s about cultural impact too. For over 60 years, a certain super-spy has been a touchstone for generations. Ian Fleming’s James Bond has starred in over 25 films from Dr No to No Time to Die and become a worldwide icon. From the early days of Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever to Daniel Craig’s (Layer Cake) billion-dollar run in films including Casino Royale and Skyfall, Bond has stood for glamour, excitement and adventure, with his impeccable suits, impossible gadgets and drop-dead gorgeous women.
There’s been no drop-off in the world-conquering characters coming out of the UK more recently either. Harry Potter’s eight film run from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II broke box-office records and established the boy wizard as the totem of an entire generation. Following the Potter finale, producer David Heyman brought us Paddington and Paddington 2, instant classics that captured hearts everywhere while telling stories firmly rooted in a magical version of London, and then adapted one of author Roald Dahl’s classic books with last year’s Wonka. It’s too early to say if that will become quite as indelibly rooted in the popular imagination, but with Dahl’s track-record recently including Matilda the Musical and The BFG, the signs are good so far.
That’s not even to mention Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective created by Agatha Christie and currently embodied by Kenneth Branagh in films like A Haunting in Venice and Murder on the Orient Express. Nor Phileas Fogg, who was created around the same time as Holmes but who lives on in fresh adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days, like 2021’s TV version with David Tennant. Nor Bridget Jones, star of – unsurprisingly – Bridget Jones’ Diary and its sequels, a heroine whose chaotic attempts to better herself saw her embraced by a generation of British women as their figurehead.
But it’s not only film that has this effect. UK TV also has a wealth of great characters who have won fans around the globe. Just look at Doctor Who, the British sci-fi series that just celebrated its 60th birthday yet is still going from strength to strength. David Tennant (Good Omens, Broadchurch) just returned for a hugely successful three-episode run in the role, before handing over his sonic screwdriver to Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education), the newly minted 15th Doctor to play the time travelling, do-gooding alien (this is, after all, a character with two hearts).
Rather less effectual than the literally galactic-brained Doctor, but just as beloved, is Mr Bean, Rowan Atkinson’s (Johnny English, Love Actually) supremely dim-witted anti-hero. He got his start in perfectly constructed TV sketches before finding movie success as well, and his near-wordless adventures have travelled around the world before smarter characters could get their boots on. Perhaps that also explains the appeal of The Teletubbies, a similarly mute bunch. Or perhaps people simply enjoy imperfect heroes: look at the success of comedy icon Alan Partridge, who seems to embody every celebrity’s worst instincts courtesy of the keen-eyed satire of creator Steve Coogan (Greed, Philomena), or Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in The Office.
In animation, too, the UK has made lasting contributions. If you have any small children in your family or friend group you will be familiar with PJ Masks, Hey Duggee and of course Peppa Pig, who bestrides the infant imagination like a pink colossus, appearing on lunchboxes and onesies all over the world. Her older compatriots Thomas the Tank Engine and Postman Pat remain as charming as ever – though you have to wonder how Pat gets by, delivering just a couple of letters a day and getting into adventures with his pet cat. Then there are the classic characters from Aardman Animations, the Oscar-winning studio that gave us Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Chicken Run, to name but a few. Steeped in both film history and British comedy traditions, these characters have starred in short films, TV shows and hit movies, and charmed audiences for more than 30 years.
Gaming too has contributed some giant figures. Chief among those must be Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, who is not just a British aristocrat in the game but a creation of British games company Core Design. The intrepid archaeologist turns 30 this year (she still doesn’t look a day over 25) and a remastered series of her first three hit games is coming along to celebrate in February. She’s not the only iconic franchise to emerge from UK gaming – Grand Theft Auto, anyone? GoldenEye 007? – but few would argue her leading lady status. Other memorable breakouts include Lemmings and Worms, who may not be quite so statuesque but packed oodles of personality into their tiny bodies.
It's an impressive list by any standard, and one that’s only growing as time goes on. Will characters from upcoming films and TV shows soon join this line-up? It’s all possible – but they certainly have big shoes to fill.