The impact of Sherlock Holmes relies on the actor who plays him. Some swear by Basil Rathbone. Hip metropolitan young things won’t have heard of the character until Benedict Cumberbatch took on the role. In between, a number of names have come and gone: Matt Freyer, Robert Stephens and even Michael Caine acting as a hopeless sidekick to Ben Kingsley’s Doctor Watson in Without A Clue. For me, the definitive version is Jeremy Brett.
Jeremy Brett played the role for ten years from 1984 to 1994 in ITV’s sublime incarnation. Brett had the ticks, the grimaces and grins, played the languid drug user and the fiddle and had Mrs Hudson in knots. ‘When would you like dinner?’ she asks Holmes in one episode. Quick as a flash he barks in her face ‘Half past eight, the day after tomorrow.’ One of many Brettish outbursts, flashes of an intense portrayal that would drive him towards nervous exhaustion.
Born in 1933 Peter Jeremy William Huggins cut his teeth on television movies and mini-series, appearing in productions as diverse as The Love Boat, The Merchant of Venice and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. His career stretched back to the early 1950s, but I suspect for most people all of that work and energy was engulfed and buried by his mesmerising performances of Sherlock Holmes.
Brett wanted to be the best Holmes, possessed detailed notes on the characters actions, habits, mannerisms and whatnot and ultimately became consumed by it all. As if the character of Holmes wasn’t enough he had already played Watson opposite Charlton Heston in a stage production. Not many actors have played both Holmes and Watson.
In The Norwood Builder Holmes has the task of defying Lestrade’s confidence and prove a man arrested for murder is in fact innocent. Solving the case involves disguising himself as a tramp, crawling through the charred remains of a builder’s yard, a forensic examination of a house owned by a creepy looking woman, a bale of hay and two buckets of water. The day is saved, revenge thwarted and Holmes returns to his usual state of melancholy and between-case tedium.
In spite of surrendering his personality to a character who never missed a detail, never overlooked a clue, Brett virtually killed himself with a diet of cigarettes which would never sit well with an already swollen heart and lithium medication for bi-polar disorder. Brett died of heart failure in 1995.
And who are we left with? Holmes or Jeremy Brett, he played the part so well, so comprehensively it’s hard to see the man for the character. But when we watch him we know he’s in there somewhere.
The full Sherlock Holmes television series box set, featuring Jeremy Brett, is available on DVD. Just click the image below to buyit on Amazon.