What Jeremy Brett brought to the role of Sherlock Holmes – tenacity

In preparation for tonight’s debate about the different actors who have played Holmes and what they each brought to the role, I did a little research into my personal favourite and was reminded of how much he had to overcome in order to continue with the Granada series, writes Charlotte Anne Walters.

Jeremy Brett was, in my opinion, the best screen-Holmes and his performances were engaging and timeless.  However, in order to continue with the role and complete a staggering 41 episodes in total, Brett had to overcome the death of his wife just before the filming of the third Granada series, a breakdown, a diagnosis of manic-depression and the side-effects of taking lithium.

He still managed to film the two-hour adaptation of The Sign of Four despite having only recently being released from hospital and continued with the third series even though he needed an oxygen mask on set and was battling against drugs which robbed him of his energy and caused weight-gain.

Brett had an enlarged heart, the valves of which had been damaged by a childhood bout of rheumatic fever and it was heart failure which ultimately caused his death in 1995.  To see how much love there is in the international Holmes community for Brett and how regularly he is still talked about (via many Facebook pages, websites, the campaign to award him a posthumous BAFTA etc.) sixteen years on, is testament to what a fantastic Holmes he really was and how he captured the imagination of so many people.  I am not aware of any other Holmes actor receiving this level of recognition.

At his best, Brett played an energetic, eccentric and accurate Holmes – with a twinkle in his eye and a perfect blend of humour, intelligence and depth.  He even kept a 77 page file on set which detailed all Holmes’ mannerisms and habits in order to keep his portrayal as accurate as possible.

At worst, he was clearly ill, over-weight and struggling to continue.  I cannot help but admire the tenacity it must have taken to do this, especially playing such a complex and often dark character when experiencing mental-health issues in real-life.   No other actor had to endure so much to play Holmes.

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7 Responses to What Jeremy Brett brought to the role of Sherlock Holmes – tenacity

  1. cim902 says:

    I first saw the Granada version of Sherlock Holmes in the early ’90’s…say, 1991-94, when it was shown on PBS’ ‘Mystery” here–and since I was living in a one-room studio, completely broke with an old portable b/w, PBS was all I could get. I wish now I could remember what episodes I saw, but I only remember really vague snippets. The funny thing, though, is that I remembered Jeremy Brett’s voice, so clearly that when I started reading through the entire canon for the first time, years later, that’s what I heard. He was Holmes, Hardwicke was Watson, and that was just it. Even after I watched the ’09 movie (dvd), and the BBC series, they’re still who I see and hear, even in pastiche. Lately, I’ve been re-watching the Granada version (thank you, Netflix!), and with the exception of a few goofy photography moments, it still holds up, almost (ulp!) 30 years later. It’s so much fun to recognize lines of dialogue that come straight from Doyle. I had never seen the earliest episodes, with David Burke, so I hadn’t seen Brett when he was healthy. Now that I’ve seen the transition, and know the story behind it, it’s just so sad to watch. ‘The Mazarin Stone,” in particular, is just difficult to get through (I skipped some at the end, actually). Not because it’s poorly done, really, but because you know why Holmes is “unavailable,” and no one seems to bother to try to reach him, even with a potential diplomatic crisis at hand.

    It’s always nice, too, to see the stories that people put up about Mr. Brett. Obviously everyone has flaws, but he does seem to have been a very decent man. In fact, a friend from France told me that, when she was on a school trip in the early ’90’s, she got separated from her group in a train station and was scared out of her wits. A nice gentleman helped her find them again; until her teacher got all bug-eyed and flustered, she didn’t know he was Jeremy Brett. I have no way to verify this, of course, but it is a nice story. Great post! Have a great time with the debate tonight!!!!

    • What a lovely story about your friend from France – thanks so much for sharing it. The debate went really well, there is clearly much love out there for Jeremy Brett and I passionately put forward my arguments for why he is my favourite Holmes. However, there is certainly a growing love for Benedict Cumberbatch – talk of whom dominated the debate in my opinion. Interesting to see how the new series of Sherlock will be received by Holmes fans and whether Cumberbatch achieves the longevity which Brett has maintained in the hearts of Sherlockians.

      • Benedict Cumberbatch is truly incredible in the role of Holmes. The revamp of the character and mythology is equally good and compelling. I like what they’re doing. Mr. Brett was the first, though, and it is obvious that Mr. Cumberbatch took notes from him. Frankly, in my opinion. Mr. Cumberbatch is a very close second. VERY close. Many times, there is “overlap,” where it’s basically a tie in my mind.

        In the final analysis, though, we MUST credit Mr. Brett with interpreting and portraying Holmes as the hyperactive, tightly focused, socially jagged “misfit” that we’ve come to know and love. We could even take it further and postulate that Mr. Brett’s portrayal made possible other characters and shows such as “Monk” and “House,” whose main characters are the abrasive geniuses that modeled the Brett Holmes.

        Depending on how the writers and producers of “Sherlock” work the episodes, I think Cumberbatch can attain longevity. He’s good. He IS Holmes — at least in the three episodes that were made. I hope for many more and that he achieves a place in the hearts of Sherlockians everywhere.

        Robert Downey, Jr. on the other hand … Well, I honestly like him as Holmes. He does wear the “jacket” well. Unfortunately, the writing of the movies leaves much to be desired. They’re fun, but let’s face facts: It’s “Jason Bourne” rather than Holmes.

        All the BEST!

        Have fun … Tony.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article about Jeremy Brett and what he suffered as he filmed the Sherlock Holmes series, which established him as the definitive Sherlock. When I watch those later episodes, Mr. Brett’s energy and vitality are still apparent. One only notices the “diminished” efforts when comparing the later episodes to the early ones.

    Yes, Jeremy Brett was the definitive Holmes. Watch the recent performances of Holmes on screen and TV: Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. You’ll see them aping Mr. Brett’s interpretation. And that’s a good thing! For after Mr. Brett’s performances, there can be no other way that I can watch Holmes.

    All the BEST!


    • I think for those of us who admire Brett’s work, he will always be the voice we hear and the person we see when reading the canon. His performance is the benchmark for those who try to portray Holmes. It will be interesting to see what the future brings now that the character has become so fashionable again.

      • Please see my above comment. I think that we’re seeing the influence of Mr. Brett’s interpretation in many places.

        And yes, whenever I read a story now, I hear Mr. Brett’s voice as Holmes. 🙂

        Have fun … Tony.

  3. Jeremy Brett was a splendid Holmes.. Right out of the pages of Sir Doyle’s books.

    Wish he had not suffered from his physical tribulations. He would have completed the entire canon and still be alive today to enjoy his much deserved success and recognition

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