Remembering Jeremy Brett: The definitive Sherlock Holmes

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Before Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jonny Lee Miller’s turn as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective, television audiences of the 1980’s and 1990’s were treated to actor Jeremy Brett, whom for many remains the definitive interpretation of Sherlock Holmes since Basil Rathbone’s depiction in the 1930’s. But why?

For ten years in the role alongside both David Burke, and then Edward Hardwicke as Watson, Jeremy Brett breathed new life into a character who had already been played by many on the stage and on screen. Granada Television’s bold attempt to televise the cannon as faithful to the original as possible was the brainchild of writer John Hawkesworth, alongside Executive Producer Michael Cox. Bolder still was the idea of building a full scale set of Baker Street on the backlot of the studios. It would also serve as revenue stream for Granada, doubling as a tourist attraction with neighbouring Coronation Street.

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English actors Jeremy Brett (1933 – 1995) and David Burke (right) star in the television series ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, UK, 7th March 1984.

Jeremy Brett’s casting was inspired. A leading man with great acting pedigree from the school of Laurence Olivier, as well as famously starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Brett was determined to be as faithful to the works of Conan Doyle as was possible, often highlighting when he felt the series was deviating from the source.

‘Holmes could be rude, impatient, abrupt, and his intolerance of fools was legendary. I tried to show all this, all of the man’s incredible brilliance. But there are some cracks in Holmes’ marble, as in an almost-perfect Rodin statue. And I tried to show that, too.’ Jeremy Brett

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England, 1985, Actors Edward Hardwicke (left), playing the role of Doctor Watson, and Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, are pictured in a scene from the Granada television productions of the Sherlock Holmes canon

Like Fleming’s Bond, Holmes was an enigma wrapped inside a mystery. It needed an actor like Brett who could bring as much of his own personality to the character in order to make him three-dimensional. Brett’s ‘Edwardian acting style’ sat extremely comfortable with Doyle’s vision of the character, but was enhanced with something much more…theatricality. Brett’s Holmes could be deep in contemplation one minute, and then leaping around the next – gesticulating his way through scenes some actors would need to play out with full dialogue.

“I’ve done 33 Sherlock Holmes stories and bits of them are all right. But the definitive Sherlock Holmes is really in everyone’s head. No actor can fit into that category because every reader has his own ideal.” Jeremy Brett

From 1984 to 1994 Brett dominated the part on screen, as well as appearing on stage in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes with Edward Hardwicke, which toured the UK and internationally to great success.

During his time in the role Brett suffered from manic depression and would be later diagnosed with bipolar. He showed enormous courage in battling the disease, often soldering on with filming during some of his darkest moments, and continuing to thrill audiences with his powerhouse performance as Holmes. Brett also made the decision to announce his illness to the public in an attempt to raise awareness of mental health.

Jeremy Brett left us far to early at the age of 61 from heart disease on September 12th, 1995. His contribution to Sherlock Holmes is revered by Holmes fans the world over, but less so by the industry at large, something which must be corrected.

The Sherlock Holmes Granada collection is available on DVD through Amazon and digitally through iTunes.

Bipolar UK is the national charity for supporting individuals with the condition.

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Fan letter response from Jeremy Brett ahead  of filming his last Sherlock Holmes story. Here he also remarks on his illness. Image: William Altimari
Jeremy Brett’s plaque at Clapham Common – a place he loved and lived close by to

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