“Someone like Jeremy Brett”: Casting the Ultimate Sherlock Holmes

 Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is seen by many as the definitive portrayal of the great detective.

“Someone like Jeremy Brett”: It was this comment, made in 1981 by Granada Managing Director David Plowright, which stuck in the head of producer Michael Cox as he began to piece together his major new series of Conan Doyle adaptations.  With Brideshead Revisited having just given the studios a transatlantic hit and made stars of its leads, Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, an actor of similar standing both at home and in America was required – not least to appeal to the series’ co-producers at Boston’s WGBH.

No matter how many lists Cox drew up, Brett’s name never left the top.  As it turned out, the only person sufficiently like Jeremy Brett to lead the series was Jeremy Brett himself.

Brett is now seen by many – those members of the community best referred to as ‘correct’ – as the definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes: part cerebral superman, part Victorian gadabout, part puckish imp.  The man whose burning intensity and scarcely-contained brilliance could, in an instant, be undercut by a pursed lip or raised eyebrow as the ludicrousness of a situation threatened to become too serious.  Forever armed with a well-thumbed and heavily-annotated copy of Conan Doyle’s texts and desiring absolute fidelity to the work, disagreements would occasionally ensue when a scriptwriter would wish for a change to the original work be made; sometimes Brett prevailed, sometimes the crew did.

But yet, Brett did not leap immediately to the chance to play the role.  Having recently returned to the United Kingdom and approaching fifty (although he looked much younger), he was at something of a crossroads in his career.  His days as a pretty-boy behind him, the more substantial roles he sought by moving to America had proven elusive; instead he had found work in series such as ‘The Love Boat’.

While cautiously enthusiastic after his first meeting with Cox, Brett also maintained a concern regarding the baggage attached to the role.  By his reckoning, he was the 137th actor to portray the detective (a fact your humble correspondent cannot be bothered to verify), and noted the post-Holmes career of Basil Rathbone (although 1966’s ‘The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini’ does sound intriguing…).

Another obstacle was the executive producer of WGBH’s ‘MYSTERY!’ strand, as part of which Holmes was going to be broadcast.  Her name was Joan Wilson, but was otherwise known as Mrs Jeremy Brett.  Initially keen to keep their personal and professional lives separate, they eventually came to the realisation that the casting would be too good to pass on.

To Cox’s relief – early in casting, he was haunted by the words of a director friend who told him that, “If you’re casting the lead in a series which might last four or five years, it’s a hell of a long time to be wrong!” – Jeremy Brett turned out to be the ideal leading man.  A star who would know the names of all the members of the crew, and what was going on in their lives; not as a means of ingratiating oneself, but out of genuine curiosity and friendliness.  A chance to present someone with flowers was never passed upon, and it was he who bought the champagne for the intrepid stuntmen who took the plunge over the Reichenbach Falls.

Quickly growing to love the role, Brett took an interest in all aspects of the production, including the building of the full-size Baker Street set on the Granada lot (running parallel to Coronation Street) and the selection of Holmes’ pipes and tobacco.  When the series proved to be a hit with children, he lobbied for Holmes to kick his drug habit, burying his syringe on a Cornish beach in the episode The Devil’s Foot.

There was also, however, a darker aspect to both actor and character.  The brooding, agitated Holmes that surfaced when work was light was felt by Brett to sail to close to his own struggles with depression, leading him to often comment of the character that, “I wouldn’t cross the street to meet him.”

“I arranged to meet him once for tea at the Ritz,” Brett once said, towards the end of his life, “but neither of us turned up…”

Health problems were to dog the later series of Brett’s adventures, but his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes was never to become any less captivating.  To his disappointment, he would never win any awards for his portrayal of the detective, but the series remains the most highly-regarded among Conan Doyle enthusiasts.  As well as Brett, the series would also give us two excellent Watsons in the exasperated David Burke and the sardonic, post-Reichenbach Edward Hardwicke. Colin Jeavons’ Inspector Lestrade provides a more rounded character, seen to spend his off-time visiting Baker Street simply to spend time in pleasant company.

Eric Porter meanwhile, skulking in his base of operations at Chetham’s Library, gives a reptilian menace to Moriarty that charges his confrontation with Holmes in Baker Street with electricity (with Brett managing to get a laugh from Holmes’ addressing his nemesis as “Mister Moriarty”).  In Charles Gray, the mysterious and powerful Mycroft Holmes is given a more playful aspect to his character, and is clearly adored by his younger sibling.

It was to be a regret of both Cox and Brett that they would never film Holmes and Watson’s first meeting in A Study in Scarlet – the story’s lengthy American segment would have proven too expensive for the first series, ditto The Sign of Four’s flashback to India.  The first film to be shot, although never intended to be the first broadcast, was The Solitary Cyclist.

Already, however, all the aspects of portrayal that would make Brett’s Holmes so epochal are in place.  To illustrate this, your humble correspondent must defer to the man himself, as he deals with a foreign ruffian in a rural pub…


❉ Further Reading: Cox, M. (1999), A Study in Celluloid: A Producer’s Account of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.  Cambridge: Rupert Books.

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