Looking Back At SHERLOCK HOLMES (Jeremy Brett series, 1984-94) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At SHERLOCK HOLMES (Jeremy Brett series, 1984-94)

There can be only one, says Tony.
There is, among crime genre fans, a question that’s regularly raised. Like “Who’s your Doctor?” among Doctor Who fans, the question of “Who’s the best Sherlock Holmes?” is asked, not really so much out of interest in different views, but as a personality algorithm – who you think of as the best Sherlock Holmes is used to determine whether or not you’re “sound” in your appreciation of what makes the great detective great.

There is of course only one correct answer to the question. The best Sherlock Holmes is Jeremy Brett in the run of ITV adaptations that ran from 1984-1994.

Sorry, but that’s the right answer.

That of course doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to like other versions of Holmes – many of them have a great deal of merit, from Basil Rathbone to Tom Baker to Benedict Cumberbatch (in probably the bravest adaptations to date). But if you’re looking for the definitive Holmes – it has to be Brett.

Why Brett?

Lots of reasons, really. Sheer focused commitment to the character, on the one hand, rather than to the cliché of the character. Brett’s Holmes wears the deerstalker only when it’s appropriate to do so, out on the moors. In town, he dresses appropriately (not to say impeccably) according to the company he keeps. When in disguise, he’s almost unrecognisable. When dissipated, there’s a drawn quality to his performance that makes you fret for him.
Brett – freed to some extent as he was by getting to inhabit the character for longer than most in an ongoing run of the stories, gave us Sherlock Holmes in all his moods. Mercurial, bored, depressed, sharp, the man of action and the man of observation. He was Sherlock Holmes for longer and for a more continuous run than most other actors, and so, rather than simply, for instance, putting on the pipe and the hat for occasional movies, he got to personify the man in greater detail and with more precision that any other actor.

There was also, and he was candid about this, something of a connection between Brett’s personality and that of Sherlock Holmes. Brett suffered with bipolar disorder, swinging from extreme elation to depression, in a kind of clinical mirroring of Holmes’ two main modes, when the game was afoot and when he was robbed of such hyper-stimulation by the paucity of really good crime.

It is crass of course to suggest that the mental health issues of the actor made his performance as Holmes more realistic, but certainly when you looked at Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, you saw a brilliant human being at the mercy of his moods. If you were looking for a man whose frame and face and eyes spoke of haunted genius, and you were given the pick of Equity in the early Eighties, you’d go for Jeremy Brett every single time – and you’d be right every single time too.

The production values of the show that surrounded Brett were second to none at the time, meaning you had a Sherlock Holmes who moved round an entirely authentic-feeling Victorian London, in colour and on film, rather than something that felt poky and enclosed – you never had the feeling that Sherlock Holmes was filmed on a studio floor, and production company Granada even built a full-scale outdoor replica of Baker Street to enhance the realism of the show.
It also had a fantastic supporting cast. Although David Burke, who played Watson in the first series, left and was replaced by Edward Hardwicke, they delivered a similar energy in the role, that did a lot to establish a balance between Holmes and Watson, rather than letting Holmes’ personality and genius always blot out the contribution of his friend.

Bringing in Colin Jeavons in any role was always going to improve any show, anywhere. Bringing him in as Inspector Lestrade was clever, because Jeavons had a reputation for slimier roles, and as Lestrade he was able to bring a little underdog to the role, but also to give it some steel and authority when it was called for. The result was a delicate balance between Holmes, Watson and Lestrade. While Holmes may occasionally make sport with the Lestrade, Jeavons’ performance, and the reactions from Brett and Hardwicke especially underline the fact that Lestrade is among the BETTER elevated policemen among Holmes’ and Watson’s acquaintance.

Other moments of especial joy include the casting of Eric Porter as a kind of almost cavalier Moriarty, and Charles Gray as a relatively unlikely but never less than entertaining Mycroft. Oh and Robert Hardy as Charles Augustus Milverton, the Master Blackmailer? Perrrrrfect.

And beyond these leading roles, it’s always interesting to rewatch Sherlock Holmes for the people who suddenly pop us, young as they were in the early Eighties – yes, that really is Marina Sirtis, pre-Star Trek: TNG in The Greek Interpreter, for instance.

If there’s any nit to pick with the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett in the lead role, it’s that the ITV format (with advertisements), while allowing for the lavish recreation of Victorian London and that feeling of really being there, also occasionally left the stories feeling a touch truncated – whether or not you’d read the original.

If you HAD read the original, there was sometimes a feeling of indecent haste in the way the stories had to be crunched to fit the schedule. That occasionally makes the genius deductions of Holmes – which frequently come as if out of thin air in the books anyway, based on Holmes’ encyclopaedic knowledge of things never shared with the reader until he explains the case – even more oddly random than ever, which can sometimes give you a sense of disconnection between cause and effect.

But for the most part, you don’t care too much about the time crunch, and thankfully, some of the longest and most convoluted of Conan Doyle’s stories are allowed feature length episodes in which to really breathe.
The tragedy of Sherlock Holmes is that while the character seemed immortal, even coming back from the “dead” after his battle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, Brett the actor was dogged by ill health throughout the majority of the decade he spent inhabiting the character. His bipolar disorder was treated with Lithium because he badly wanted to keep playing the role that clearly spoke to him loud and clear. But he was also an inveterate, almost a legendary smoker (regularly getting through up to 60 cigarettes a day), and that, coupled with a cardiac issue (his heart was twice the size it should have been), meant he would frequently get breathless on set, requiring oxygen to carry on.

While you can tell there’s some Lithium-triggered water retention in his later series, it’s a credit to the actor that you would rarely if ever know of his breathlessness and heart issues in the finished product.

And then, of course, Jeremy Brett died, just 19 stories short of completing the entire Sherlock Holmes canon.

His death devastated not only his cast and crew, but also a nation of Holmes fans who had come, even during the time of its broadcast, to regard his version of the great detective as definitive. The actor’s honesty about his mental health issues, as well as the relatively unquestioned nature of his long relationships with both men and women, endeared him as a person to large swathes of his audience, and to those who knew, his determination to keep playing Holmes in spite of his declining health was inspiring.

Jeremy Brett said that playing Sherlock Holmes was the hardest role of his career – harder than Hamlet, harder than Macbeth. But he kept on playing it, seeming to be instinctively aware it was a role that was his for the taking, and his to make his own.

Rewatching the series a decade and a half after it ended with his death, there’s no doubt that he succeeded in spades.

There have been other great Sherlock Holmes performances, absolutely beyond question. Call me a heretic, but I love what Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss did with their version in the 21st century. But for sheer dedication to the multi-faceted energy and personality of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there was then, is now, and only ever will be – Jeremy Brett.

Watch Sherlock Holmes today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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