A Great Actor, a Greater Human Being, And the Greatest Sherlock Holmes There Will Ever Be: Jeremy Brett—Rest in PeaceBy Kumar Bhatia
Dear Friends and Fellow Sherlockians
Eighteen years ago, on this day, 12 September 1995, the Sherlockian world lost one of its most radiant jewels. Jeremy Brett, at the height of his career and only sixty-one years old, died of heart failure and other medical complications.
In a career that spanned forty years, Jeremy who trained in Shakespeare, portrayed a formidable array of roles, from Hamlet to Freddie Eynsford-Hill. But his magnum opus was, of course, his brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV series of 1984. I have restricted this tribute to his portrayal of Holmes in the Granada production.
When Granada first asked him, in February 1982, to play Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy was not very enthusiastic; “I really don’t want to do it. I think it has been done so many times – I can’t see any point in trying to do it anymore.” Fortunately for us Jeremy Brett re-read the entire Canon and revised his opinion: “I discovered all sorts of things I could do if I had the opportunity to do it! So I said ‘Yes!’”
And the rest is history. Jeremy went on to deliver thirty-six one hour episodes and five full-length movies in the Granada TV series that started in 1984 and spanned nearly ten years. Sadly, the last few episodes were made when he was rather ill, in spite of which, with his boundless energy and dedication to his craft, Jeremy gave his best.
Jeremy said he saw Holmes as “a man of isolation . . . a very private man.” So he strove in his performance to bring out the inner workings of the character. “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played—harder than Hamlet or Macbeth,” he said.
There have been many fine actors who have tackled this difficult role. So what is it that has made Jeremy Brett’s rendition stand tall over every other actor who had played Holmes? Jeremy made up his mind that he would portray the character exactly as per Doyle. “So I had to go on an extraordinary journey of discovery, and it’s all there . . . in Doyle, and what is so extraordinary is that no one has done Doyle before.”
As an actor Jeremy was a becomer. In his own words “You ‘become’ the creature, the person you are playing. I’m a romantic-hero actor, so I had to hide an awful lot of me, and in doing so, I look quite often brusque, even slightly rude.”
During the course of the production Jeremy constantly referred to the ‘Canon,’ the original stories as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which he believed “. . . should be the touch stone for every actor playing Holmes.” He even carried to the set of the films his own seventy-seven page “Baker Street File” detailing everything about Holmes, from the mannerisms down to his eating and drinking habits. When he gave us Holmes, Jeremy was not playing to the gallery with the cliché deer-stalker and magnifying glass; He gave us the complete Holmes, the gestures, dress, nuances of body language, bouts of melancholy (“The Devils Foot”), bursts of energy (the leap over the couch in “The Red Headed League”), tapping the pipe in impatience, that smirk of arrogance, the amused snigger (“The Musgrave Ritual”): just playing You-Know-Who to perfection! (That’s how Jeremy referred to Sherlock Holmes—“You-Know-Who”). Sheer poetry! Just watch every frame closely.
He even captured with incredible accuracy the sketches of Sidney Paget. To mention a few: watch him holding a rose (“The Naval Treaty”); as the Clergyman (from “A Scandal in Bohemia”); seated, surrounded by pillows and smoking a pipe (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”); the fist fight (“The Solitary Cyclist”); even his ‘casual’ hairstyle in the later episodes has a precedent in Paget’s sketches (“The Red Headed League”): Pure Paget as only Jeremy could.
For a boy who had a speech impediment (he was born with “rhotacism” and could not pronounce his R’s properly, a defect corrected when he was a teenager by surgery), Jeremy’s diction was superb. He did a great job of “You are the stormy petrel of crime – Watson,” with 4 R’s in it (from the “Naval Treaty”).
Nearly thirty years after the first episode, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” telecast on 24 April 1984, the accolades show no signs of fatigue:
“I have had nothing but praise. I have received twelve plaques from twelve societies for being the best Holmes ever.”
“I have this lovely blessing over my head: Dame Jean Conan Doyle says I am the Sherlock Holmes of her childhood.”
“Jeremy Brett, the man who mastered the Master!”
“Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is fundamentally faithful to Doyle’s original. The magnetism of his bravura performance attracts a new generation of admirers to the stories. In the years to come it will be his face they see when they read the books, and it will be his voice they hear when the great detective speaks. A part of the monument that is the legend of Sherlock Holmes now has Brett’s name indelibly carved on it.”
Khumar Bhatia, JHWS “Bobbie” resides in Dubai, UAE and is a member of The Sherlock Holmes Society of India, his native country. He is a successful industrialist and a life-long devotee of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.