The Brettish Empire

'JB - Best Holmes Ever' - I second that emotion! :-)


by Lisa Oldham

At last, our journey into Jeremy Brett's television career reaches his best known characterization: Sherlock Holmes.

When Jeremy first assumed the role, he had reservations about playing such a well-known character. However, he probably had no clue his fresh yet faithful interpretation would enchant most viewers and enrage others.

Few performances have sparked more heated debate than Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes:

"Jeremy Brett is the best Sherlock Holmes that I have ever seen. If you love the great Victorian detective, or just want to see what he looks like when he is perfectly played, you should not miss Brett's artistic triumph." -- Philadelphia Inquirer TV critic Lee Winfrey

"An abomination." -- author Marvin Kaye

"The Holmes of my youth." -- Dame Jean Conan Doyle (late daughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

"A bad Holmes." --Boston Globe TV critic Ed Siegel

"Of the scores of actors who have portrayed Holmes, it is commonly said that Brett's only real competition is Basil Rathbone...Rathbone was elegantly understated, embodying the icy reserve of Holmes, but Brett has gone the other way--he is fearlessly florid, grandly melodramatic in a way that matches the tone of Conan Doyle's prose." -- Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 12/6/91.

"Conan Doyle only hinted at what Jeremy Brett brought out. [Brett] played Holmes as deeply neurotic. That was crucial. Both Basil Rathbone and Brett made [Holmes] more interesting than he came off in the stories."--Caleb Carr (author of The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness)

" long as Brett was in it, The Adventure of the Successful Selfridges Food Hall Expedition would probably suit me perfectly well."--Lynn Truss, London Times (3/5/94)

As you may have already guessed, I'm in Brett's corner. Why? Well, I actually had a pretty poor perception of Sherlock Holmes when I was growing up. Sherlock Holmes was that chap who appeared in grainy black-and-white on local TV's "Saturday Matinee" when they weren't showing Jungle Jim or Bowery Boys movies. You know--the guy in the goofy hat who went around sternly puffing on a pipe and declaiming, "Elementary!" (Did he ever make it to junior high?) And, there was his doughty old assistant, Dr. Watson. (How did this doofus ever make it through medical school?)

Sorry--that's all I had to go on. None of those old "Saturday Matinee" flicks prompted me to even consider reading a genuine Holmes story, nor did any of the awful pastiches which occasionally popped up in prime-time (e.g., Sherlock Holmes in New York).

Then, one day my mom started raving about this new Sherlock Holmes show on PBS.

"You should watch this!" she'd chime.

"Um...I gotta wash my hair," I'd answer.

After some time, I finally listened to Mom and gave this new Holmes a try. After just a few minutes, my interest was captured:

"Hello! What's this? Who's that sad-eyed fellow with the quick grin? He's Sherlock Holmes?! Where's his goofy hat? Why doesn't he say 'Elementary!'? Hey--who's that other guy? Dr. Watson? But he's young! (And, he can actually think!)"

I never missed an episode after that. In addition, I found this Holmes series so intriguing, I went to the library and checked out a big book of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

Eureka! I discovered how wrong I'd been about Sherlock Holmes--he really wasn't the stilted sleuth from "Saturday Matinee" who'd been parodied in countless cartoons and commercials. I also learned this new PBS series was remarkably faithful to the original Holmes stories and illustrations. From then on, I saw Sherlock Holmes as a tall, top-hatted gentleman who moved with cat-like grace and reasoned with computer-like speed. Jeremy Brett became Sherlock Holmes, and, to my mind, Sherlock Holmes became Jeremy Brett.

By now I'm sure we all know Jeremy was laboring under tremendous emotional and physical stress while filming most of the Granada Holmes series. (See "Later Stages," TBE, Vol.III, #3). How Jeremy managed to act (or even survive) during this time is the greatest mystery of all to me. He gave life to Sherlock Holmes as his own life was tragically ebbing away. Yet, although he literally acted his heart out, Jeremy Brett apparently never won (or was even nominated for) any major acting awards for his bravura performance.

Furthermore, the series was compromised by staff changes, industry politics and budget cuts during its decade-long run. The show even lost its lovingly constructed Baker Street set, which Granada Television converted into a tourist attraction while the series was still in production.

However, despite the turmoil offscreen, I still think what ended up onscreen is one of the best television programs of any kind ever produced. It's truly "must see TV."

And, that's what matters to me. It really isn't necessary to be a Sherlockian or a Brett fan to enjoy Granada's Sherlock Holmes series. It's only necessary to watch it.

Therefore, I now begin a discussion of my 10 favorite Holmes episodes starring Jeremy Brett. (I won't rank them in order, but I will save my very favorite episode for last.).

(For a complete, comprehensive episode listing for the Sherlock Holmes series, click here.)

PLEASE NOTE: My reviews may contain SPOILERS (details about the plots that may reveal clues and thus "spoil" the episode for new viewers). So, if you haven't seen the reviewed episode(s) yet, you may want to skip my reviews until after you've watched the episodes.

First up: The Master Blackmailer

(These dancing men spell out the name "Brett")

Originally published (as part of TBE Vol. IV #2): March 3, 1998.
Last updated: September 7, 2007.

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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.