The Brettish Empire

Publicity still from "War and Peace" (1956) w/digital effects by LLO

by Lisa Oldham

With his photogenic face and velvet voice, Jeremy Brett seemed like an ideal candidate for movie stardom. In reality, though, he made only a handful of feature films, and unfortunately, most of them were turkeys.

And, Jeremy knew this. In 1967, he told a Fabulous 208 magazine writer, "I've not been pleased with any film I've ever done...There's too much excitement and frenzy over a film. Every time I think 'I'm doing a film--how marvellous', I get all excited and worked up about it; then it's done and it's just another rather quiet, dreary film." 

But, Jeremy was once considered as a possible replacement for Sean Connery as James Bond. And, he appeared in one of the most successful and beloved films of all time--My Fair Lady--so he is assured of at least a footnote in film history.

Because Jeremy played supporting roles in all of his feature films there are long stretches where he's offscreen, so watching these films on tape is like "fast-forward theatre"--one is tempted to keep a finger firmly poised on the fast-forward button to find his scenes!

The films reviewed below were produced for theatrical release. Jeremy's made-for-TV movie appearances will be examined in a future TBE.

THE "LOST" JB FILM!!! (March 13, 1999)

Svengali (1955)

Poster for 'Svengali' 1955

Well, maybe not "lost"--"forgotten," perhaps?

You see, Jeremy Brett actually made a feature film before War and Peace.  I recently discovered a reference to it in a 1956 JB theatre program bio:

"While still at the Central School, [Brett] made his first film, Svengali, in which he appeared as Pierre."

Huh?!  I thought it was a mistake.  After all, I'd never seen Svengali listed in any JB filmographies, not even the ones he was said to have compiled himself.

I did a quick web search.  Yep, there was a 1955 British movie called Svengali.  But, I did a cast search, and guess what--no JB, no Pierre. (Maybe they ended up on the cutting room floor?)

Curiosity got the better of me. I tracked down a copy of Svengali.  I watched it, and guess what--although he isn't listed in the credits, Jeremy Brett is DEFINITELY in this film, albeit briefly. There are a couple of scenes early in the film where Trilby and Billy, the doomed lovers, are in an art studio. Jeremy plays one of Billy's fellow art students.  He has sideburns and wears an artist's apron. Although he is never referred to by name, JB does have a few lines (spoken in sort of a French accent) and even sings a bit.  He looks like he thoroughly enjoyed his first film role!

The rest of the film is pretty good, too, although Donald Wolfit somewhat resembles an ape as the infamous "Svengali" (no wonder he had to hypnotize Trilby into loving him!)  ;->

I found Svengali on Amazon at:

(Wow!  I feel like Sherlock Holmes...)

And, remember--you read it on TBE first!  ;->

UPDATE! (8/11/00) - Svengali was added to JB's IMDB filmography in August 2000 by TBE reader Martin Westers (thanks, Martin!) 

UPDATE! (5/30/09) - The 1955 version of Svengali is now available on Region 1 (North America) DVD. It contains the 1931 film version starring John Barrymore as a bonus feature. It can be purchased from Amazon. The 1955 version was released on Region 2 (Europe) DVD. It's available from Two interesting things about the Region 2 release: it's listed as "B&W" (Svengali was filmed in Eastmancolor); and, although Jeremy Brett is uncredited in the film, his name appears on the DVD cover. :) 


War and Peace (1956)

1956 was the year of the "spectacle." Wide-screen wonders such as The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days dominated both the box office and the Academy Awards. With its epic battle scenes, a stellar international cast and lush Technicolor photography, War and Peace fit right in with the trend.

Naturally, director King Vidor didn't limn Tolstoy's massive masterpiece in its entirety. (That would have been too much of a spectacle!) The basic plot was retained, centering on the prosperous Rostov family of Moscow and the people and events which change their lives. Enchanting Audrey Hepburn was cast as the quintessential "Natasha Rostov." "Aw,shucks" Henry Fonda was miscast as family friend "Pierre." Hiding behind granny glasses, Fonda looks terribly ill at ease. He makes no attempt to alter his Midwestern accent, so he sounds like a Nebraska farmer inexplicably wandering through 19th-century Russia. He's so darned earnest, though, that you gotta like him.

In his second feature film, Jeremy Brett plays "Nicholas," Natasha's dreamy brother. King Vidor reportedly saw Jeremy's photo in Spotlight, a British casting directory, and thought he resembled Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, Brett and Hepburn--both tall, dark, and attractive--make perfect siblings in War and Peace. The scene where Natasha gives Ensign Rostov (leaving home in his fancy uniform) a moving send-off is a classic, as is the scene where Nicholas escorts Natasha to her first dress ball.

Publicity photo for 'War & Peace' 1956

Despite its lavish production values and talented cast, War and Peace was not a box office blockbuster. However, it's worth seeing. It's available on DVD. W & P is nearly as long and tragic as a real war, so be sure to have plenty of popcorn--and tissues--handy as you watch it.


Jeremy's next foray into feature films was also spectacular, but in a far different sense. He appeared in three spectacularly dreary, low-budget films which no doubt played the bottom half of the bill when they were originally released.

Gilbey's Grin

The Wild and the Willing (a.k.a. Young and Willing, 1962) sounds like a lurid drive-in flick, but it's really a dull film about English university students. It features a Who's Who of fledgling British stars, including Ian McShane (Lovejoy), John Hurt (Alien), Samantha Eggar (Dr. Doolittle), and, of course, our own Jeremy Brett. While all of these actors look astonishingly young (especially Hurt), they still seem a bit old to be portraying undergraduates.

Jeremy, who was nearly 30 at the time, plays "Andrew Gilbey," a dour wet blanket who appears whenever "Harry Brown," (the "angry young man" played by McShane) starts having fun. Gilbey wears ugly pajamas and gets most upset when McShane and Hurt, his rowdy next-dorm-neighbors, thoughtlessly disrupt his sleep. "Some people come here to study!," he angrily chides as he bursts into their room.

Gilbey acts like a whipped puppy at an officious professor's party. His obsequiousness is due to the fact that he's been seeing the professor's wild and willing wife, and the prof knows it. In fact, so does the entire party, since Gilbey spends a lot of time locked in the kitchen with the professor's wife. However, the prof's wife not only kisses him--she kisses him goodbye.

Later that evening, Gilbey stumbles upon the prof's wife enjoying a kitchen tryst with her new boyfriend--Harry Brown. (Grass doesn't grow under her feet!) Gilbey handles his discovery with aplomb. "The Professor wants another bottle of sherry," he drily explains. "And how are those canapes coming along--heating up nicely?"

Photo copyright 1964 Universal Pictures Co. Inc.

The next day, Gilbey confronts Brown at a pub and taunts him about being the professor's wife's latest boy du jour. The sole reason to watch The Wild and the Willing is to see the wicked grin Gilbey flashes at Brown. Brown promptly flattens Gilbey. (Gee, who would have thought Lovejoy could deck Sherlock Holmes?)

Finally, Gilbey tattles to the authorities as Brown attempts a dangerous stunt.

All in all, Jeremy has only a few minutes of screen time. He looks great, but has little to do but act annoyed.

Tip: Keep the remote handy to mute the silly "ballad" sung over the endcredits.

Girl in the Headlines (a.k.a. The Model Murder Case) - 1963

Still from "Girl in the Headlines" 1963

A model's murder makes headlines. But, whodunit? Was it the TV star--or the narcotics ring? Or, perhaps someone closer to home? It sounds like a case for Holmes--but Jeremy plays a character named Jordan Barker. Incidentally, this film was based on the novel The Nose on My Face written by actor Laurence Payne, who later appeared with JB in the Thriller episode "One Deadly Owner". 

UPDATE!: Girl in the Headlines was released on a Region 2 (Europe) DVD on June 25, 2007. Order your copy today at (Region 2 disks may not work in North America unless you have an all-region DVD player.)

The Very Edge - 1963

Spanish mini-poster for "The Very Edge"

Former fashion model "Tracey Lawrence" (Anne Heywood) is assaulted by an obsessed stalker and suffers a miscarriage. Although badly shaken, Tracey handles the tragedy better than her self-absorbed husband, who expects her to recover and get back to being his wife ASAP. In the meantime, he leans toward his attractive French secretary for comfort. 

Although Tracey fears her attacker, she courageously faces him at the film's rooftop finale, where he meets his inevitable end. (Hopefully, Tracey finds the courage to stand up to her hubby, as well.)

Oddly, "Mullen", the troubled stalker played by Jeremy Brett, is almost a more sympathetic character than Tracey's clueless husband. Mullen's handsome face belies his disturbed mind, which gives Jeremy's portrayal that extra "edge." 

Still from "The Very Edge" (1963)
The rooftop finale, from a French magazine. Rough translation: 
"Mullen was back, his face scarred, his eyes mad, his hands greedy. 
He'd rather die than live without Tracey!" 
(To view the first page of the article this pic came from, click here--PDF file)


My Fair Lady - 1964

Jeremy's back in the big time, reunited with luverly Audrey Hepburn. We now know that it isn't really Jeremy's voice we hear when Freddie Eynsford-Hill sings Eliza's praises on the street where she lives--but no one (except maybe Fred Astaire) ever looked better in a top hat.

"How DO you do!"

Jeremy reportedly beat out 40 other "shiny young Englishmen" for the role of Freddie. Since everyone on the planet has probably seen JB as the "sniggering" Freddie and knows the plot of the film inside out, I thought it would be fun to share some of Jeremy's reminiscences about filming My Fair Lady. (NOTE:  JB's words are in quotation marks and are quoted from the articles "Jeremy Brett Says: Holmes is Where His Heart Is," A & E Magazine, June 1992, and "'Hope I Made Sense,' Says Swashbuckler Brett," Woman Magazine, 2/18/1967)

How did Jeremy find California? Not easily! He once told an interviewer that his favorite school subject was geography, but he must have been absent the day they studied America. When he landed in New York from England, he was shocked to learn that he needed to board a second plane to complete his journey: "And I said, 'Oh, another plane?' 'I thought, 'That's rather strange. I'm in America, I'm here.' I said, 'Another plane? I'm sure I could take a car.' And they said, 'No, Mr. Brett, you'll need a plane.' I'd done my geography at school, but I had no idea! So we flew the same distance again."

It's probably a good thing Jeremy didn't try to drive cross-country. When he landed in Los Angeles after two long flights, he was in a bit of a daze. He got a car: "I was so excited and I set off and put my foot on what I thought was the clutch and what turned out to be the brake, because it was automatic, and nearly went through the windscreen. And I got down Sunset a little way, so excited to be there, turned onto the freeway, and nearly ended up in San Diego."

Plus, the filming of My Fair Lady turned out to be not so fair:

"Worst decision I ever made! It was eight months of frustration. Yet, it seemed so good at first. I was told they were building up the juvenile lead for the younger audiences, as Rex Harrison was the more mature star. But it didn't work out that way..."

Jeremy said he was befriended by other Britons in the My Fair Lady cast such as Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Higgins) and Mona Washbourne (Mrs. Pierce, the housekeeper).

One fellow countryman who wasn't so welcoming was star Harrison.

Jeremy explained, "...I arrived with a streaming cold, a pale and wan complexion, a beacon-red nose. And, there was Rex--tanned, fit and handsome.

"The moment [Harrison] saw me, he said, 'Perfect! Needs no make-up.' I rather guessed how things would turn out from then on."

Unfortunately, Jeremy's guess was correct. Reportedly, Harrison didn't fancy a mere supporting player such as Jeremy singing on "his" street. The huge mock-up of Wimpole Street where Professor Higgins lived seemed more like the main street of Dodge City as Harrison dug in his heels for a showdown.

Jeremy was not amused: "So I looked at Rex and thought, 'You monkey!' I said, 'Does it turn out that we're going to sing it in a coal shed now? Where am I going to sing the song if I can't sing it in the street? I'm talking about 'the street,' am I going to climb up a drain pipe and sing it on the roof? Where am I going to do it, in the basement?"

A second view of Wimpole Street was built so Jeremy's song On the Street Where You Live wouldn't encroach on Harrison's I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face number.

Jeremy recalled that Cecil Beaton, the film's costume and set designer, had problems of his own. Beaton draped sylph-like European extras in his graceful gowns. However, it proved too costly to board these imported players at local hotels, so the studio replaced them with busty beauty queens from Central Casting.

Now, Beaton was not amused: "[Beaton] stood at the door and ripped the clothes off of them as they walked on the set! We couldn't shoot. With all these enormous you-know-whats popping out of these elegant gowns. It was impossible! Garish lipstick. You know what I mean! Terribly funny time."

Despite the occasional tiffs, Jeremy wistfully remembered the filming of My Fair Lady as "the end of an era." MFL was the one of the last old-fashioned Hollywood musicals.

In 1994, Jeremy served as the charming host/narrator of the "making of" documentary which accompanied the restored My Fair Lady video gift set.

TRIVIA: The famous black and white gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in her scenes with JB during the "Ascot" sequence of My Fair Lady was auctioned by "Profiles in History" along with other Hollywood memorabilia on March 31, 2004. The gown was sold to an unnamed buyer for a single bid of $100,000. UPDATE (6/19/11): The unnamed bidder turned out to be legendary actress and movie memorabilia collector Debbie Reynolds. Ms. Reynolds re-auctioned the famous frock along with the rest of her prestigious collection through Profiles in History on June 18, 2011. This time, the gown sold for an astonishing $3.7 million.

TRIVIA: The next time you watch 1997's Titanic, take a good look at the clothes on the steerage passengers. Some of their costumes were originally worn by actors in the opening Covent Garden scenes in My Fair Lady. (Source: Behind the Screen, American Movie Classics cable network.)

Because he concentrated on television and theatre work, it would be nearly 15 years before Jeremy appeared in another feature film.


The Medusa Touch - 1978

Blink and you'll miss Jeremy as "Edward Parrish," a smug, handsome actor who steals the wife of another man (Richard Burton). Big mistake: the man is a vindictive telepath who can kill people with his thoughts. What does he think of Edward? (You don't need telepathy to figure this one out.)

JB impresses in what's little more than a bit part. (He's onscreen less than three minutes in The Medusa Touch.)

After The Medusa Touch came another long gap between Jeremy Brett's feature films. (Something called Sherlock Holmes took up most of his time.) Sadly, his screen career ended not with a bang, but with a whimper...


Mad Dogs and Englishmen - 1995 (U. S. video title - Shameless)

This is not a remake of the 1971 Joe Cocker concert film, nor is it a biography of Noel Coward. The title correlates to nothing in the film. In fact, this muddled movie would be more accurately titled Mad Englishmen and No Dogs.

Jeremy eventually said he was "mad" to do this one, and he wasn't kidding. But he's not the only one:  other distinguished players such as Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom were trapped in this mess, as well.

Elizabeth Hurley is the nominal star of the film. She woodenly acts the role of "Antonia," an overprivileged heroin addict entangled with some unsavory characters, as if she was modeling in an Estee Lauder ad. (An Estee Lauder print ad, that is.)

MD&E was touted by its makers as an "anti-drug" film when it was released. And, apparently, Jeremy himself sincerely believed the film would send a powerful anti-drug message. While filming MD&E, he told a Sherlock Holmes Gazette interviewer, "[The film] carries a very clear message: don't take drugs - it's as simple as that." Also, the film's writer and director, Henry Cole, was an ex-heroin addict who quit drugs six years before making the film.

But, unfortunately, the finished film actually trivializes drug abuse. When Antonia decides to quit heroin, she spends a weekend in the country with her scraggly boyfriend (C. Thomas Howell), gets a bit nauseous, has a heart-to-heart chat with her daddy, attends an AA meeting, and--voila! Faster than you can say "Hugh Grant," she's off heroin! (Somehow, I think it's a little more difficult than that...)

JB wanted to do something different after his decade-long stint as Sherlock Holmes, so he took the role of "Tony Vernon-Smith," Antonia's aristocratic drug supplier. (Apparently, Merchant/Ivory wasn't hiring that day.)

Talk about "different"--Jeremy does some things in this film which scream, "Look, Ma, I'm not Sherlock anymore!" Indeed, his first scene would no doubt send girl-shy Sherlock into shock. (Along with most of Jeremy's fans...) And, his dialogue contains some expletives which it's safe to say probably weren't in Holmes' vocabulary.

Tony Vernon-Smith meets an end more befitting Charles Augustus Milverton than Sherlock Holmes. It's hard to determine who's more repulsive, though--Jeremy's lecherous, drug-dealing Vernon-Smith or Joss Ackland's incestuous, murderous policeman. In fact, it's hard to determine much about the film, period, because most of it looks as if it was filmed during a power outage. (Apparently, the director confused "dark" with "art.")

A reviewer in The Independent cited Jeremy as the film's "sole moment of interest." 

Indeed, he goes to town in his outrageous role. It's a gas hearing Jeremy say lines like, "It's really so simple--you give me the money, and I don't have your limbs broken" in his elegant accent.

However, it's tragic that JB chose what turned out to be such a ghastly project to stretch his acting muscles in--especially since Mad Dogs and Englishmen ended up being his penultimate film.

At the conclusion of the Sherlock Holmes Gazette interview, Jeremy said, "The success of the film is dependent on audience reaction. I hope people feel fairly sick when they see the film. Entertained, but nauseated. If it's left as it is, and they don't hide the drug-taking, I think it will probably give people a fairly good scare..."

Well, it did--but for all the wrong reasons.

MD&E, rated "R," is not for children, due to violence, profanity, and sexual situations. In fact, it's not really for anyone. :0

Watch a preview of Shameless (Mad Dogs and Englishmen) - believe me, this trailer is more coherent than the actual film! :)


Moll Flanders - 1996 

I personally believe Jeremy Brett did his tiny turn in Moll Flanders just so Mad Dogs and Englishmen wouldn't be his last film. Gravely ill, he spent one day in Ireland filming his scene. Yes, "scene"--Jeremy is on screen about three minutes, total. But, he almost makes one forget the rest of the movie.

Not that Moll Flanders is bad. In a summer movie season full of twisters and impossible missions, Moll was an island of tranquility. It's lyrically photographed, it costars Morgan Freeman, and its story holds one's interest. However, about all it has in common with Daniel Defoe's picaresque novel is the title. It is not the bawdy, explicit (albeit more faithful) Moll produced by Granada Television. No--it's "Moll Lite."

Robin Wright plays Moll as an anachronistic free spirit. Unlike the naughty lady of the novel, this Moll is prone to jumping into fountains and improvising impromptu dances. Despite her fey behavior and rather ordinary looks, Moll has men falling at her feet and women stewing with jealousy.

There is little sense of Moll's "fall" in this version. The novel's theme of sin and redemption is virtually ignored. Problems plague Moll, but they are caused mostly by fate, injustice, or other people's machinations rather than by her bad behavior. A cross necklace figures in the plot. Aside from that symbol of faith, however, Christianity gets the short shrift. The only "religious" characters in the film are a lecherous, tyrannical priest; a lecherous, hypocritical minister; and a cowardly nun.

The film strives to convince us that Moll is strong and independent, but she's forever being rescued by the men in her life--"Hibble," a former slave (who is not in the book), and "Jonathan Fielding," an eccentric artist (who is not in the book). Fielding lifts Moll from her life of prostitution by hiring her as a model. When she is savagely beaten, Fielding tenderly nurses Moll back to health, and ends up proposing to her.

Moll and Fielding travel to his family's estate (which is so large it should have its own postal code) to seek his parents' blessing. His snobby folks give Moll two thumbs down--way down--instead. Fielding's mother does most of the talking, but his father puts in his two pence as well.

This is where JB, who plays Fielding's father, comes in. Although dressed in a period costume and grey wig, Jeremy wears no makeup and his ill health is apparent. However, his performance is surprisingly forceful. At one point, he even leaps to his feet--which caused my heart to leap into my throat when I first saw this scene because I knew how sick he was. But, then I remembered I didn't need to worry about his health anymore (the film was released nearly a year after his death).

Jeremy's scene--his last ever--ends all too quickly. One feels like shouting, "More! More!" But, alas, Moll moves on without him to a corny "surprise" ending which most viewers will probably have already figured out by the time the opening credits have finished scrolling.

Incidentally, The Los Angeles Times ran a tribute to Jeremy when Moll Flanders was released, which is remarkable since he had such a small role in the film and had died nine months before. Although the author of the tribute apparently didn't know much about Jeremy or Sherlock Holmes (the article is ridden with careless errors--see how many you can spot!)--it's a nice remembrance of Jeremy, so I've included it here in its entirety. For the reaction of a Holmes fan to this article at the time--and my reaction to their reaction--see TBE Volume 2, Number 8.


Originally published (as TBE Vol. III #6): June 29, 1997.
Last updated: August 3, 2013.

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