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Jeremy Brett: The Actor Who Became Sherlock Holmes -- Memories By Those Who Knew Him

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John loves writing about history and culture. He has read all 60 Arthur Conan Doyle stories and is a confirmed Sherlockian.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street

Sherlock Holmes has been a part of my life for many years. Many of the stories and characters were long familiar to me. But when PBS began broadcasting the Granada Sherlock Holmes series I became hooked. I've watched every one of the 41 episodes starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock. My wife and I watch them again and again. To me, Jeremy's character "is" my conception of Sherlock Holmes.

Jeremy's Sherlock is true to Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of this marvelous hero figure, and the Granada Sherlock Holmes productions authentically represent Doyle's stories.

Well, that's just my opinion. What about those who knew Jeremy? What about the actors and producers at Granada? What was it in the person of Jeremy Brett that was reflected in the character of Sherlock Holmes? The answers to these questions can be found in writings and interviews of those who know him. Let's start with David Stuart Davies, an author who has written about Jeremy Brett and Sherlock Holmes.

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In Bending the Willow David Stuart Davies wrote that "Brett became not only the Sherlock Holmes of this generation but also, to many, the definitive impersonator of Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal sleuth."

According to Davies, Brett became the man Conan Doyle had created. Brett's personal charisma, like that of Holmes, "created a special magic which will remain potent for many years."

Davies quotes Brett as saying he occasionally found himself "bending the willow somewhat, but never breaking it." Davies thought this gave a "fresh and dangerous edge" to Jeremy's portrayal of Holmes while remaining true to Conan Doyle's creative imagination of his Holmes character. He thought Jeremy's "bending the willow" was instrumental in his becoming the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

Everything he--Jeremy Brett--does can ultimately be justified by chapter and line from Conan Doyle's stories

— David Stuart Davies

Davies goes on to write that over the last decade, Jeremy has taken possession of the literary Holmes and displaced it with its own. "For me,“ writes Davies, "that is the hallmark of great acting: to illuminate a text in a way the author could never have visualized."

Now let's hear from the two actors that played Dr. John Watson, Holme's close companion, and Jeremy's close friends during production of the series.

David Burke: The First Dr. Watson

David Burke, the first Dr. Watson, wrote after Jeremy's death, that "I miss his mad-cap spirit and blessed eccentricity. Who else would entertain a lady friend to lunch in the BBC canteen with lighted candles mounted on a branched candelabra, set on a lace tablecloth over a Formica table?. . Jeremy celebrated life on every suitable and unsuitable occasion . . . Above all, Jeremy was bent on doing justice to the Conan Doyle stories. He was passionate in his determination to be faithful to the originals."

Burke wrote about how much playing Sherlock Holmes affected Jeremy's life. He worked hard. For ten years or so Jeremy lived a hotel life in Manchester where Granada Studios was located. Burke recalled that Jeremy would "get up each day at the crack of dawn to make sure he knew his lines for the day."

Burke is also one who believed that Jeremy's workload "eventually cost him his health." I believe that this is a bit too strong -- for Jeremy, the theater was his life.

Edward Hardwicke: The Second Dr. Watson

Edward Hardwicke, the second Dr. Watson in the series, wrote: "My association with Jeremy Brett and Sherlock Holmes covers an eight year period. I owe them and Dr. Watson a great deal. . . [It] was most exciting and tremendous fun. You could never forget that you were working with a very special actor and a very good friend." Edward wrote that "Jeremy never got the recognition his achievement deserved." He quotes Kevin Jackson's 1993 article in The Independent written while filming the last of the Sherlock Holmes episodes and two years before Jeremy's death:

According to Davies, Jeremy Brett took a deep dive into the Holmes character before the beginning of the series when he was given the role. He took the entire Conan Doyle canon along with him on a trip and spent time studying and analyzing Doyle's stories and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character.

Jeremy's conclusion: "I became fascinated with Doyle's tales. I thought--oh yes, there are things I can do with this fellow. . . . Best of all, there was a dark and mysterious character to explore."

The role of Sherlock Holmes "fascinated, frightened, and consumed him. It was a role that will bring him a kind of immortality. It was a role which he played with a brilliance that we are unlikely to see again."

Davies thought that Jeremy's performance as Holmes not only was convincing as the character, Jeremy's Holmes "also touched--really touched-- people's lives. There was "an unfathomable alchemy" in the performance that was very special."

Jeremy's real home was the theater. It was here where his flame burned its brightest, its warmest, its fiercest.

— David Stuart Davies

Why Is Jeremy Brett's Sherlock So Memorable?

What was there about Brett that made his personification of Sherlock Holmes so captivating. First, according to Davies, Jeremy was a brilliant actor who truly excelled in a variety of different roles. But more than that, there were two things Davies mentioned that were subtle but tremendously important in Jeremy's portrayal of Holmes. First, there was a "dangerous, almost eccentric, edge' Jeremy's Holmes. It was both "attractive, and fascinating," but it also created a sense of pleasurable unease in his audience. "We could not help but watch his every move, listen with bated breath to his every nuance."

I know that when I watch Brett as Sherlock, I notice how even his facial muscles reflect the moment in time. In intense scenes, his nostrils move ever so slightly hinting at the mania that lies just below the surface. Or his eyes, how they pierce the atmosphere as he studies another character. Or his finger placed thoughtfully upon his lips or his lithe body as it springs into action when clarity is revealed in his mind. Just watching Brett perform is entertaining and satisfying.

Why is Jeremy Brett So Appealing?

Jeremy Brett as Freddy in My Fair Lady

Jeremy Brett as Freddy in My Fair Lady

But there is another thing that Davies cites: "a fierce sexual ambivalence, ideally suited to the character of Holmes, who moved in that paradoxical Victorian age when lust and primness jostled side by side in the public consciousness. Men were fascinated by Brett's Holmes, a fascination which stirred uncertain emotions . . . Women were less troubled: they admired and lusted after him." Davies writes that Jeremy's Holmes' grip on the public's imagination goes deeper than the thrill of the investigation, the unmasking of the villain, “He touches emotions."

Davies observed that while many famous actors have played Sherlock Holmes over the years, but "what Brett achieved that none of others did was that he explored the "mystery" of Sherlock Holmes. .. Jeremy Brett saw Holmes as a 'real' character, not simply a cardboard cut-out with a ragbag of eccentricities."

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Michael Cox: The Creative Producer of Granada's Sherlock Holmes Series

Michael Cox, the creative producer of the Granada television series, explains in his book, A Study in Celluloid, the attributes that made Jeremy the perfect Holmes:

. . ."the voice, the looks, the intelligence, the presence, the physique, the ability to jump over the furniture, handle the horses, do the disguises, and whatever may be.” And Jeremy was "devilishly handsome."

Jeremy Brett's solo as Freddy in My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn was "On the Street Where You Lived" was played on the organ during his funeral service at St. Martins in the Fields church. Jeremy's singing voice no doubt strengthened the character of his spoken voice as Sherlock.

Paul Annett: Director of the First Series of Granada's Sherlock Holmes Series

Paul Annett directed the first series of Granada Sherlock Holmes stories. Paul described Jeremy as a "wonderful actor and a brilliant Sherlock Holmes but he was a little crazy, wonderfully eccentric at times." When Jeremy was first creating his character, he tried to use makeup and a fake nose in his effort to look like Paget's Sherlock. But Annett dissuaded him, saying Jeremy's own face was just the right look for Sherlock. And it was. Throughout the series, Jeremy used his natural face to create the perfect Holmes.

My God. It is a live Paget drawing.

— Paul Annette, film director, quoted by Cox, speaking about Jeremy Brett as Sherlock

Paul Annett directed "Scandal in Bohemia" the first of the Granada Sherlock Holmes episodes to air in Britain. In it Sherlock is first revealed in a shot showing the back of his head. Slowly, Jeremy turns around. "My God, it is a live Paget drawing" writes Davies about how Annett revealed Holmes. (Sidney Paget was the artist who created the illustrations of Holmes in the Strand magazine.)

Benedict Cumberbatch: The Modern Sherlock Holmes

Of all the actors to have played Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch says that Jeremy Brett "has made the most lasting impression" on him. Cumberbatch is among those who think the character of Sherlock Holmes took over Jeremy Brett.

Cumberbatch writes that Jeremy "was a friend of my mom’s, and he was around our family a lot. He and the part [Sherlock] collided, and he let it take him over. He was a manic depressive, but that was a side issue, but he then played one.”

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Terry Manners: Author of "The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes"

Manners is an author and editor of The Express in Scotland. His book, The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes offers this summary of Jeremy Brett and his Sherlock Holmes character:

  • "For more than a decade, television audiences had been fascinated by his brilliant portrayal of Baker Streets world-famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. To Conan Doyle’s moody master of disguise, he brought a brooding concentration and a disturbing power. But Brett, who had always been uncertain about playing the dark role, was obsessed with becoming the addictive, gifted Victorian detective. Brett’s body and soul were taken over in his quest to become the ultimate Sherlock Holmes."

I don’t like this summary nor the subtitle of his book, “The tortured mind of Jeremy Brett.” There is so much more to Jeremy Brett than Sherlock Holmes. And although the book is full of details on Jeremy’s personal life, career, and achievements, it contains too many gossipy details without sources.

I certainly don't believe Jeremy's soul was taken over by Sherlock Holmes. Read below about Linda Prichard's memories of him during his last years.

Linda Pritchard: Jeremy's Companion During the Final Years of His Life

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Linda Pritchard, in the book she wrote with the help of Mary Ann Warner On The Wings of Paradise, presents a narrative of her life with Jeremy during the last years of his life. She tells how she became enamored with Jeremy and how they developed a tender and loving relationship after the death of his second wife. As Jeremy's health gradually deteriorated due to manic depression and heart disease, Linda became his faithful companion, caregiver, and lover until his death on September 12, 1995.

Linda presents Jeremy as a loving, spiritual, outgoing, fun-loving, generous human being -- not as the unloving, staid, and dark character of Sherlock Holmes he portrays on camera. She helps me understand that, yes, Jeremy "became" Sherlock Holmes in the Grenada television series. But offstage he was simply Jeremy.

"We have touched the wings of paradise" was how Jeremy described the relationship he and Pritchard had together as two human beings with kindred spirites

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