Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes

Just before Christmas I wrote about how much I admired the late Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, and the production values of this excellent television series. I thought it might be interesting to look at Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in more depth.

To me, Brett is the definitive Sherlock. To my mind he brings to the part all of the often subtle moods that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended for his character. He can be playful and humorous, traits that are there in the stories, but neglected by many actors. We see the boredom of Holmes when he has no case to work on, the lethargy that comes with boredom, depression and drug addiction. No, addiction is the wrong word. Holmes only succumbs to his seven per. cent solution of cocaine when the game is not afoot!

Jeremy Brett often demonstrates the impatience of the character he plays here. Watch the wave of his hand as he dismisses witnesses to a case, when they have told him all he needs to know to solve the problem he is grappling with. Observe the expression on his face as he considers the matter in hand. And the delicious smile of satisfaction as he solves each conundrum.

Acting is not just about pulling faces. Jeremy Brett’s performance always make you think that the expressions come about because he is pondering the very thoughts that Sherlock would have in his mind. The way he reacts to other actors is an object lesson in the art of acting. Reaction is a huge part of the performer’s art. Note the fun Brett’s Sherlock has with Watson when he is in a playful mood. Note also the impatience that he tries so hard to conceal when Watson is slow on the uptake.

If you haven’t read the Holmes stories for a while, it is tempting to think of Holmes as just some gigantic brain. But that is to lose half of the character’s qualities. Holmes can be indolent without a problem to solve. But when he needs to he can show a huge energy and physicality. Brett portrays this in a remarkable way. Often dashing around the scenes of a crime or leaping over the furniture in Baker Street. The Holmes of the stories is often quite prepared to get his hands dirty, often getting into fights with his opponents. He is, Conan Doyle tells us, a student of the Japanese wrestling system of Baritsu (an error by the author, this method of unarmed combat is actually called Bartitsu and was devised by an Englishman J.C. Barton-Wright).

Jeremy Brett brings out this side of Holmes with great aplomb, look for example at the fist fight in The Solitary Cyclist or how he wrestles with Eric Porter as Moriarty on the rocky crags above the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem.

And then there is the awkwardness of Holmes when dealing with women. Jeremy Brett leaves us in no doubt that his Sherlock is quite bewitched by Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, and yet – through quite a stunning piece of acting – shows that there is nothing sexual about his feelings towards her. It is more a total admiration of one human being for another, a meeting of equals, the sex is irrelevant.

And there are the touching scenes in The Master Blackmailer, where Holmes – in disguise – has to court Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When she returns his affection and tries to kiss him, Brett brings out a bewilderment that is not just touching but almost heartbreaking. Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a situation he simply cannot deal with, and Brett makes a feeling of great loneliness emanate from the character.

Jeremy Brett is probably never better than in that scene, where he has to be Sherlock Holmes disguised as someone who has emotions that Holmes himself can hardly contemplate. It is almost a double performance as both Holmes and the character he is pretending to be are emotionally wrestling with each other. When the housemaid asks for a kiss Holmes replies, in a voice of utter despair and bafflement, ‘I don’t know how!’ I doubt that any actor who has ever played Sherlock Holmes could have delivered the line with such pathos as Jeremy Brett. If you want to see real acting watch that scene!

I will return to some other aspects of this fine series in blogs to come. But just now I would like to salute the composer of the theme music, Patrick Gowers, who died a little while ago. His atmospheric music, often slightly altered to suit each story, is quite wonderful!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes

  1. A wonderful thesis; that scene you mention with the kiss is the highlight of Brett’s acting! It shows how truly befuddled Holmes was by emotional feelings. Thank you for mentioning the music’s composer, too!

  2. Thank you, Marni. We’re currently watching the whole series again and it remains impressive. The production values are just so good. Sadly, few British dramas of the present day match up to it. Sad to report that the Granada Baker Street set was allowed to fall into disrepair and has just been sold off for development.

  3. keithbadger

    You are so right John about Jeremy Brett. It just doesn’t get any better as he brings Sherlock to life in a way unequaled by anyone else.

  4. Keith, It’s sad that he didn’t film the whole canon, John B.

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