The Brettish Empire


by Lisa L. Oldham

As the 70's continued, so did Jeremy Brett's career. He stepped down from the British stage, but found steady work on British radio and television.

Programme, 1976

The stage still beckoned, though, and in June 1976, Jeremy appeared at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival (where Robin Phillips had become Artistic Director) in Ontario, Canada. He played "Mirabell" in William Congreve's Restoration comedy Way of the World, co-starring with Maggie Smith and Jessica Tandy. 

Detail of JB as Mirabell in 'The Way of the World' - Photo by Robert Ragsdale

The Toronto Star's coverage of the play was dominated by Maggie Smith, and reviewer Gina Mallet felt Jeremy was "sadly" miscast: "Jeremy Brett has a beautiful voice which he uses to great effect but little meaning in a far too sombre portrayal of the mischievous Mirabell."

In August, Jeremy played "Theseus" and "Oberon" in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, again with Ms. Smith, Ms. Tandy, and Ms. Tandy's husband, Hume Cronyn. 

Star reviewer David McCaughna had a more positive opinion of  Jeremy:  "Brett is skillful as a wise, compassionate and resolute monarch as both Theseus and Oberon."

An article in the journal Theatre Research in Canada provides an exhaustive overview of the Stratford production of Dream, stating, "Robin Phillips' 1976-77 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stratford Festival has been one of the few since Peter Brook's 1970 production to carve out its own vision of the play. By mounting the production as a dream vision in the mind of Elizabeth I, Phillips discovered an extraordinary unity among the worlds of court and forest, and found analogies with the court of Elizabeth that brought out often neglected aspects of the play in a highly theatrical way." 

The article also mentions that Jeremy's dual performance as Theseus/Oberon "reminded reviewers of Essex" and reveals that Robin Phillips dispensed with the traditional curtain call at the end of the play and had the cast--still in costume--greet the audience in the lobby as they departed. (To read the entire article, please click here.)

Although most of the critics' attention was fixed on Maggie Smith during the run of these plays, Jeremy was definitely noticed, both on-stage and off. 

Stratford actress Gale Garnett warmly remembered years later, "I was 26 when Robin Phillips brought Jeremy Brett to Stratford. He was to play Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (in which my then-boyfriend was playing Lysander), and Mirabel to Maggie Smith's Millamount in Congreve's The Way of the World . As with many of us, of varying ages, sexes and sexual predispositions, I was thunderstruck by his beauty: his face, voice, hands, hair, classical profile. Esthetically, when people insisted that someday one's prince would come, Jeremy Brett was surely what they had in mind.

Photo of JB as Theseus/Oberon with digital effects added by LLO (PLEASE DO NOT COPY)

"For much of that season, a group of us younger actors would sit in the pub of the Queen's Hotel while Jeremy, eyes twinkling, elegant fingers flying, Borsalino hat titled rakishly atop his movie-star head, held court."

Also in 1976, Jeremy hosted a Public Broadcasting System anthology series called Piccadilly Circus. This monthly U.S. series was produced by one Joan Sullivan, a.k.a. Joan Wilson. Joan (who also produced Masterpiece Theatre, Classic Theatre, and Mystery!) reportedly first glimpsed Jeremy in London, where she saw him act in Design for Living.

Joan Wilson with host Vincent Price on the set of 'Mystery!' (DO NOT COPY)

"She said she liked the way I changed weight from one leg to the other," Jeremy later told TV Guide.

Jeremy and Joan also worked together in London on Classic Theatre (where Jeremy filmed a preview for The Rivals). As Joan remembered, it was love at first take: "My audio man put together a video cassette and you could see the chemistry."

Jeremy and Joan's working and romantic chemistry culminated in their marriage on November 22, 1977.

Jeremy acted principally in British and American television and films in the late 1970's, but he did manage to fit more stage work into his busy schedule. In late 1976, he began touring the UK and Canada in the musical (!) Robert and Elizabeth, in which he played poet Robert Browning

Some of the venues on the tour included the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, UK, the Theatre Royal in Brighton, UK, and the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Sally Ann Howes co-starred as "Elizabeth Barrett" in this very old-school musical that wasn't afraid to rhyme "moon" with "June." 

Jeremy was familiar with his role, having played Browning in an audio presentation of The Barretts of Wimpole Street in the early 1960's. (In 1982 he would reprise the role on British television.)

Gina Mallet slammed Robert and Elizabeth as "a shoddy import" and "a bloated parlor musicale" in her review for the Toronto Star, but had somewhat gentler words for Jeremy's performance:  "...Jeremy Brett is the only actor in recent memory to even try and dominate the draughty acres of the O'Keefe. Although his performance is unashamedly overblown, he gets nearer to putting across the story than anyone else on stage."

JB as "Robert Browning" in "Robert and Elizabeth"

"What's A Little Blood Between Friends"

Photo by Kenn Duncan -  Copyright The New York Public Library For The Performing Arts

Ann Bloom, writing in Applause Magazine, dubbed 1978 "The Year of the Bat". Brant Mewborn concurred in After Dark:

"...Dracula [t]hat demonic but debonair tragic-hero, condemned to prowl the night for transient transfusions not unlike more contemporary urban predators of hedonistic nightlife, has been infamous for centuries and is once again in cultish vogue. The dynamic Mr. D is everywhere...a bloody bunch of matinee-idol vampires have been winging it on stages in New York, London, Boston and Los Angeles. Stalking through lightweight melodramas that hardly have enough substance for them to sink their teeth in, this theatrical fang gang has had to rely on their own charisma to cast the old-black-magic spell that crowds have come to count on."

In late 1978, Jeremy slipped into fangs and a cape to star in a national touring production of the spooky, kooky Broadway hit, Dracula. The play stopped in Denver, Los Angeles (where it earned $1,104,704 in just seven weeks at the Ahmanson Theatre, an all-time house record), San Diego, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Playbill, San Francisco, 1978

Jeremy obviously had a ball portraying the corpuscle-craving Count. It took him 20 minutes to apply his minimal makeup and don his multi-layered costume, and, according to Ann Bloom, "...Brett luxuriates in every layer: crepe blouse with 'bat wing' collar; black velvet vest with watch fob of teeth; black velvet trousers with patch covering hole incurred during a split second, onstage vanishing act; voluminous cape with 'ingenious collar you can peer around, like this' (he demonstrates).

Photo by Kenn Duncan - Copyright The New York Library For The Performing Arts

"The cape is a show in itself. He swirls it, flutters it, flaps it like giant wings. On the first day of rehearsal for the show, Dennis Rosa, the director, explained the significance of the cape to Brett. 'Rosa has this wonderful fantasy life. He told me, 'When I was a child, I expected a whole mess of swallows to fly out of the cape like must use it as a sort of bat wing.'"

(Jeremy's es-CAPE-ades had a downside: he developed "Dracula elbow" in his left arm from flinging the 30-pound cape around.)

Photo by Kenn Duncan - Copyright New York Library For The Performing Arts

But, even in a phantasmagoric production such as Dracula, Jeremy tried to do things by the book. The producers of the play ordered some genuine Romanian earth to place in Dracula's coffin, since it's customary for a vampire to rest on soil from its own grave. 

Unfortunately, Jeremy's Drac couldn't take that dirt nap. When the package from Romania arrived at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, it contained only a note from the U.S. Customs Service, saying the soil had been destroyed because it was "capable of upsetting the local ecological balance" and could have threatened American agriculture with dangerous microorganisms.

Pic from Pittsburgh Press November 1 1978

Even without his authentic prop, though, Jeremy felt he'd found the "trick" to playing Dracula. He told a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, "...all of us have our Draculas inside us. We all have somebody we liked to scare--our little brother, our mother, or someone. Each of us knows the most scary thing about us, whether it's short-sheeting someone's bed, jumping out from behind a door, or rigging a bucket of blood above it."

Jeremy said the scariest thing about him was--his nose and his voice!  

He explained, "When I'm crossed I rear back. I have a dominant nose...I have enormous nostrils...I have a loud voice and I roar. I lowered my voice four notes for this role."

Surprisingly, Jeremy was--according to his own calculations--onstage only 18 minutes as Dracula. But, what an 18 minutes! Ann Bloom continued, "This Dracula adds a new dimension to the Count himself. His elegance and magnetism envelop you like his magnificent cape, inviting you to overlook his less endearing traits. His graceful, almost tender seduction of Miss Lucy has half the women in the audience wanting to become his next victim. After all, as Jeremy Brett points out, 'This is 1978, and what's a little blood between friends.'"

Jeremy told Jeff Lyon of the Chicago Tribune, "That scene amazes me. Here a man in a black cape comes in the window with a blast of mist and he seduces a girl on the bed, and there isn't a laugh or a titter in the place. I think it affects women terribly. To be swept off their feet, to be possessed, is their wildest dream. Men get an enormous fizz from it, too."

Another interviewer, Joan Crosby, further described Jeremy's technique: "As far as playing Dracula goes, Jeremy does not use fangs or leers. Rather, he thinks of him as a charming, sexy character. 

As Jeremy explained to Ms. Crosby, "After all, [Dracula] really does little harm. We're living in an age where people do much worse than sip a little blood. All he does is take the blood he needs to live, and he gives the girl a great night of love-making. Her only problem in the morning is that she is a little pale and feels a bit weak."

But, Jeremy's Dracula wasn't just a walk in the dark:

"When he's onstage, Dracula makes a thunderous amount of noise, especially in the second act. I thought Hamlet was rough, but this is, too. It's so violent when it actually explodes, it drains me. I stagger off."

Jeremy added, "All that roaring--I roar all the time through the show--is bad on the throat."

There are several interesting parallels between Jeremy's portrayal of Dracula and his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes:

However, Jeremy had a bit more fun with Dracula, and with Chicago. Jeff Lyon revealed, "Brett...did admit, though, that at a recent cocktail party a woman begged him to bite her neck and he consented, repeating the gesture several times over the evening. And the other morning he bit the hostess on A.M. Chicago."

But, the ladies of Chicago really had no need to fear. Jeremy loved 'em:

"I love the look of girls in Chicago," he told the Tribune's Maggie Daly. "The high heels, the jeans, short furs and shades."

One thing Jeremy didn't love about Chicago, though, was its blood-chilling February weather (PETA members may want to stop reading here):

"But, I hate the cold. In L.A. they say, 'How could you shoot a seal?' In this climate, if a skunk ran across the road, I might shoot it and use it for a muff.

"The lobby of the Shubert is heated, but the theater itself isn't for this have to depend on body heat. I haven't been outdoors much, but I did walk up Michigan Avenue one day and spent $500 within 25 minutes. The salesperson had everything I asked for...the cashmere scarf, the alarm clock, etc. Then, I rushed back to the Ambassador [Hotel] and hid."

The critics had fun with Dracula, too. Some samples of their "biting" wit:

(The San Francisco Chronicle)

Dracula, that mobile unit for box office transfusions, opened Thursday with Edward Gorey's award-winning decor and a style-show of broad, melodramatic hotdog theatre. This is endearingly silly kids-show culture, but Jeremy Brett's vampire is a debonair, been-around aristocrat. He chews the scenery. Gorey's witty scenery chews back...Still, the cast is better than the current Broadway version, and the style is more consistent..." (The Chicago Tribune).

Photo of JB and Isabel Sanford , 1978
"Hey, Weesie, George put too much starch in my cape!"
(JB clowns with Isabel Sanford of The Jeffersons
at an Actors' Fund blood drive
 held during the L.A. run of Dracula)

"Much More Like Me"

The lid closed on the Dracula tour in early 1979, and Jeremy returned to doing television guest shots. However, in late 1980, he took on a role at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles which later proved very helpful to him when he played Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Watson, in the Sherlockian pastiche, The Crucifer of Blood.

Program, Los Angeles, 1981

Jeremy once said that "[Playing Watson] was tremendous fun, and it taught me a lot about how to approach Holmes when the Granada series got under way. I learned a great deal about the inter-relation between the two men."

He also admitted, "Watson is much more my kind of person...Watson is a warm, loving, sunny person who's very enthusiastic--and hurt and slightly upset when his friend is rude to people or him. This is much more like me."

(Jeremy also cited a most unusual inspiration for his portrayal of Dr. Watson--Snoopy!)

Holmes was played by Charlton Heston, whom one reviewer dismissed as "Audio-Animatronic." The same reviewer described Jeremy as "a rather junior Watson." Indeed, this was not the same old Watson--he was young, tall and handsome, with a raffish moustache. He was still a bit dense, though--he fell in love with a beautiful woman who turned out to be the villainess of the piece!

Incidentally, a small mystery surrounds this play, aside from the plot.  Although many sources state that Jeremy won a "Los Angeles Drama Critics Award" for playing Dr. Watson in Crucifer of Blood, his name is not among the winners listed in the newspaper account of the L. A. Drama Critics awards ceremony, nor in the awards section of The Best Plays volume for 1980-81.  The play garnered awards for set design and special effects, but none for acting. (Other sources state that Jeremy won a "Drama-Logue" award, but this doesn't seem to be accurate, either.)

It's no mystery, however, that Jeremy's next stage role was the lead in NoŽl, a musical tribute to NoŽl Coward based on his life and works. NoŽl ran at the historic Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, from April 8 through June 13, 1981.  Although Jeremy was the star of the show, he did not nominally play "NoŽl;" actually, his character is listed in the program as--"Jeremy"!  (All the actors went by their real first names in this revue.)

Program, CT, 1981

NoŽl was adapted from an earlier revue titled Cowardy Custard. Both revues were authored by Ned Sherrin, who also directed this production. This show was originally going to be called Play the White Keys Only for its run at Goodspeed, but the title was changed to the much simpler NoŽl (with an umlaut). 

The New York Times thought NoŽl was okay and that Jeremy amusingly suggested an "inner" Noel Coward. However, the local reviewer (from the Hartford Courant) felt this heaping helping of Cowardy custard was half-baked. The crabby critic felt that NoŽl was overproduced; its songs were bizarrely staged; its choreography was routine; and its sets looked like "someone's art deco-ized bathroom." 

He was no coward in expressing his opinions about Jeremy or co-star Millicent Martin, either: 

"Jeremy Brett is the Coward surrogate, and occasionally he does quite nicely. Too often, however, he strikes wrong notes in his characterization and bearing. He uses his hands far too frantically for one thing; very un-NoŽl-like indeed. He also pushes his voice in a way that is anything but suavely polished. And though he might be perfectly appropriate as a Coward hero, he is very far from the man himself. The same might be said--only more so--for the moments when the buxom Millicent Martin comes to us as angular Gertrude Lawrence. It simply doesn't work."

However, the reviewer for The Hour was a bit kinder, saying that although he felt Jeremy didn't "really suggest Coward physically and at times seemed more menacing a character than one remembers the real NoŽl as having been (as he peaks in the song 'Mrs. Worthington' for instance)", he added that JB "...does establish a rapport and an acceptance in the title role."

Incidentally, this was not the only NoŽl Coward tribute in which JB  participated. On February 24, 1980,  he'd performed a scene from Private Lives with Lynn Redgrave at a Coward tribute presented in Los Angeles by the Friends of the University of Southern California Libraries. (According to a review, both JB and Ms. Redgrave were "impressive.") And, in 1969, he participated in A Talent to Amuse, a star-studded birthday bash thrown at the Phoenix Theatre in London. The celebration began at midnight on December 16, Coward's 70th birthday.

(A CD recording of this momentous birthday celebration was released by the UK's Must Close Saturday Records in 2010. It includes a performance of "Time and Time Again" by Jeremy with Anne Rogers.)

In 1982, Jeremy appeared in Canada as "Prospero," the exiled Duke of Milan, in Shakespeare's The Tempest at Toronto Workshop Productions, an experimental theatre company. 

JB as "Prospero" in "The Tempest" 1982

Critic Herbert Whittaker had seen a rehearsal of the play:

"The Tempest is to have a setting by its director and star, the British actor Jeremy Brett (whom we saw doubling Theseus and Oberon at Stratford a few seasons back). Sharon Purdy does the costumes to match Brett's vision, or revision, of Shakespeare's masque for five speakers.

"Toronto will see it May 14 at Toronto Workshop Productions, before Brett takes it on to launch a new theatre in the Bahamas, and later film it there. His last such venture was a Macbeth made for Home Box Office, with Piper Laurie as his Lady M.

"Here Brett plays Prospero - 'Why should he always be old?' - with two young Canadians, Peggy Coffey and Geraint-Wyn Davies, as his Miranda and Ferdinand, and the Barbadian actor, Iain Deane, doing the remarkable double of Ariel and Caliban."

Jeremy also produced The Tempest. Unfortunately, his highly subjective vision of the play didn't sit well with other reviewers. Ray Conlogue, writing in The Globe and Mail, called this heavily edited, minimalist staging of The Tempest "a vanity production" and described Jeremy's Prospero as "bombastic" and  "wild-eyed" in his scathing review of the play. 

Conlogue coldly added, "There is no question that Brett, who was directed in Hedda Gabler by Ingmar Bergman and in Troilus and Cressida by Tyrone Guthrie, is a confident and powerful actor. What this soggy Tempest teaches is that even such an actor, in the absence of a director, can lose perspective on his work. One example: The noisy speech that leads Miranda to make her 'cure deafness' remark is delivered noisily enough, but with odd, intermittent bellows that are even louder than the rest. This bellowing is pure technique. There is no feeling whatever behind it.

"This, and most of Brett's performance, is in fact a hollow recitation of technique. He makes no sustained eye contact, either with us or his fellow performers; his emotions spin themselves in a void, a vacant room. I have rarely seen such an opaque and unrevealing performance. No director worth his salt would have tolerated it."


But, Jeremy learned something even from the stormy experience of The Tempest. As he told Canadian interviewer Sue Lerner in 1983, "It taught me to be grateful to anyone who offers me a job, because it means all the money has been raised, all the casting and costumes have been done and it is ready to go. One realizes how lucky one is because it is an incredible tunnel of work from inception to delivery. I appreciate the other side [of acting] much, much more."

Strangely enough, The Tempest indirectly led to Jeremy's role as Sherlock Holmes. He had been offered the part of Holmes, but was actually more interested in trying to raise money to film The Tempest. He wasn't having much luck. Aside from the drubbing the play received in Toronto, the fact that a big screen adaptation of The Tempest starring John Cassavetes was about to be released didn't help Jeremy's cause, either.

He realized the timing on Tempest was all wrong. He admitted to Sue Lerner, "I'm first and foremost an actor. But, if I have an absolutely bright idea, I'll do it. I thought The Tempest was one, but now three films and 60,000 productions have been done. But, that is the luck of the draw, because who is to know so many people would be doing it at once."

So, he decided to reconsider Holmes. Jeremy took the entire Holmes canon with him to Barbados. The Tempest was blown away as "Prospero" fell under the spell of Doyle's stories. Jeremy accepted the part of Holmes, and the rest is history.

The Last Dance

At the end of Granada's The Final Problem, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes is seen plunging into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in the death-grip of Professor Moriarty. Little did anyone know that shortly after this memorable scene was filmed, Jeremy would be gripped by a tragedy which would help plunge him into an emotional maelstrom.

In interviews Jeremy gave in early 1985, there was no hint anything was wrong. About his decision to perform in America during his Holmes hiatus, Jeremy simply said, "I wanted a holiday...and it was also to be near my wife." However, he had a particularly compelling reason to be near Joan.

As the making of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes wound down, Jeremy knew that Joan had cancer. However, the demanding Holmes filming schedule had kept him from being by her side. Joan thought this may have been best, though. 

Jeremy explained in a 1991 interview, "I felt so frustrated that I couldn't be with Joan, although actually she didn't want me around while she was having chemotherapy. She said, 'You're not up to this.'

Joan was correct. Jeremy was so sensitive to his wife's suffering that he fainted the first time he saw her receiving chemotherapy at a Boston clinic:

"I walked into the treatment room and saw the equipment pointing up at her. I just fell apart.

"But what really threw me was a two year-old girl who'd lost all her hair because of the chemotherapy. Seeing Joan and that child together was just too much for me. And I fainted.

"I was such a dead loss. Joan said, 'You mustn't do any more of this; it doesn't do you any good.' I apologised, and in fact I did go again and was better."

Once the Adventures series was completed he was able to spend more time in America. He took on two assignments in New York, which enabled him to stay near Joan and kept him from brooding about her tragic situation.

In April 1985, Jeremy performed as the off-stage narrator of Martha Graham's 28-minute visionary ballet Song, based on "The Song of Solomon" from the Bible and set to music by Gheorghe Zamfir, "King of the Pan Flute" (whose albums were later hawked endlessly on cable television). 

Song was the 171st ballet choreographed by Ms. Graham. It was commissioned by fashion icon Halston, who also designed the costumes, and it was dedicated to Lila Acheson Wallace, the co-founder and publisher of Reader's Digest and a major benefactor of the arts and culture.

Song was part of a three-week repertory of Graham's work which ran through April 21, 1985, at the New York State Theatre at the Lincoln Center. The opening night program also included Diversion of Angels, Errand into the Maze and The Rite of Spring, three other ballets by Martha Graham. 

The New York Times described this sensuous Song:

"The inspiration is the biblical 'Song of Songs.'  These are love poems, once attributed to Solomon but generally regarded as fragments from a marriage ritual in which the bridal couple acted out the roles of a king and queen. The shepherdess-heroine calls herself black in the poems and Miss Graham has cast black dancers in that role - Thea Nerissa Barnes in the first cast, Kim Stroud in the second. The selected lines from the text are recited offstage by the British actor, Jeremy Brett.

'The lover revealed to the lover - this is the theme of  Song, and its eternal value has an apt resonance in the timeless Rumanian folk tunes played, in recorded form, on a shepherd's pan pipe by Gheorghe Zamfir."

Some nights Jeremy spoke his lines live. Other nights, it was Memorex rather than Jeremy, because at this time he was also acting in previews of his next assignment, Aren't We All? 

But, in any form, his narration was noticed. The New York Times gave him special praise:

"'I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.' These familiar words come from the Bible, and more specifically from 'The Song of Songs.' And when Thea Nerissa Barnes of the Martha Graham Dance Company steps sensuously forward while Jeremy Brett, the British actor, speaks these lines, she is unabashedly a flower abloom....

"The Songs of Songs,' sometimes called 'The Song of Solomon' is an outright love lyric. And while nothing in Miss Graham's canon can be totally lyrical - it is not her innate style - she has managed to make the theme of Song one long caress.

"And perhaps this is felt most uncannily in the way Mr. Brett's voice seems to actually caress the words. Most television viewers of the moment know Mr. Brett as Sherlock Holmes, a part he is currently playing on a mystery series. He is, of course, also a Shakespearean actor and it is a coup, in fact, to have this Shakespearean resonance waft out from the wings. Mr. Brett is offstage, but he does not go unheard.

"Nor can one call his narration a voice-over. Again the success of  Song lies in the way all its elements fit together. One in particular does not dominate."

Jeremy was typically enthusiastic about Song. Although it may seem like a mere footnote in the story of his career, Jeremy told The New York Times that Song was one of the "four most important things" he had done as an actor. "It was one of the greatest joys of my life. I kneel at the altar of Martha Graham. I think she is as important to the United States as the Chrysler Building."

(Ms. Graham was enthusiastic about Jeremy, as well. At the age of 91, she climbed up and down two flights of stairs to visit him backstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre after one of his performances in Aren't We All?)

Playbill, New York, 1985

On April 29, 1985, the curtain of the Brooks Atkinson rose on a revival of Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? Headlining were two masters of effortless elegance, Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert. Jeremy played Harrison's son, "Willie Tatham." Jeremy had visited Lonsdale territory a few years earlier when he portrayed the "Duke of Bristol" in a TV adaptation of On Approval. Of course, he had also vied with Harrison for the hand of Audrey Hepburn in the film version of My Fair Lady in 1964.

When asked if he had spent much time pondering his character's background, Rex Harrison stated, "Absolutely not." He felt a light romantic comedy was hardly the place "for dredging up and theorizing about your mother and father. It spoils the play."

However, even in a trifle such as Aren't We All?, Jeremy's character was worthy of the intricate Brett analysis:

"The way one works on these things, if you're me, is to try and find the essence of the person, where you came from and where you're going to."

Jeremy crafted a back story for Willie. Tatham served in World War I, and lost most of his contemporaries in battle.

If that sounds familiar, consider this quote from The Television Sherlock Holmes--"Both of his parents died many years ago, but Jeremy has retained a strong sympathy for his father who lost all his friends killed in the war, and then tried hard to readjust to being a soldier in peace-time."

Jeremy confessed in The New York Times, "I based Willie on my father. He was Henry William Huggins, a famous soldier in World War I. I dedicated my performance to my father. I even have his medals," proudly showing his four tarnished treasures to the interviewer.

Aren't We All? is the kind of play where a character like Willie Tatham wishes his wife would hurry home, and she does--just in time to catch Willie being pounced on by a hot-cha-cha '20's flapper.

Photo by Martha Swope - Copyright The New York City Library For The Performing Arts

And his wife (played by Lynn Redgrave) smolders with self-righteous indignation--mainly because she just pounced on someone herself. 

As a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "Dating from 1923, Aren't We All? makes a heady example of the work of an author who gave NoŽl Coward lessons in how not to take anything seriously. If Lonsdale had written nothing else but the malicious On Approval, he would deserve the world's respect and gratitude.

"...On the play's terms, Harrison and Colbert are of only secondary importance. The plot centers on the extramarital flirtations of a happily married couple, played by Lynn Redgrave and Jeremy Brett, of recent Sherlock Holmes fame.

Photo by Martha Swope - Copyright The New York Public Library For The Performing Arts

"Redgrave surprises Brett in the act of kissing a woman (Leslie O'Hara) he does not in the least care for. His protestations only make her more indignant, at least until an indiscretion of her own threatens to catch up with her. Harrison is the husband's father, who has everybody out to his country house and proceeds, with more cunning than is good for him, to set up a situation that he thinks will fix everything."

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, John Beaufort noted, "The mellow maturity of Aren't We All? is counterpointed in the Tatham's emotional ordeal--painful enough for them, but treated for purposes of laughter. Brett is a dab hand at the Lonsdale style, combining the nuances of vocal precision with the conviction that is at the heart of all true comedy."

All very 1923, but it was a hit in 1985, as well. Aren't We All? would eventually gross $3,208,200 with a total audience of 98,681 during its limited Broadway run.

And, critics raved about the play and its players. Frank Rich of the New York Times said, "Mr. Brett, in a part played by Leslie Howard on Broadway in 1923, is the most charming specimen of debonair English manhood to come our way since Jeremy Irons skipped town."

Photo by Martha Swope - Copyright The New York Library For The Performing Arts

Critic Don Freeman of the San Diego Union wrote about how charming Jeremy was offstage, as well:

"Now it is a Wednesday, which to the working actor means a matinee and an evening performance, and between shows we are doing an interview in Jeremy Brett's dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York...Brett, one of the best of a younger crop of British actors, is starring with Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert and Lynn Redgrave in a deliciously witty play, Aren't We All? A farce dating back to the early '20s, but it is surprisingly modern in point of view and humor as well as exquisitely played. Aren't We All? was a great hit in London [LLO note - JB did not appear in the London production] and now it is a ringing success on our shores.

"As for Jeremy Brett, he's a medium-tall fellow, as lean as a three-wood and with his highly detailed features he still looks like Sherlock Holmes even though he's relaxing in a T-shirt and blue jeans. Moreover, Brett yields to humor with hearty howls of laughter, which I don't recall being an attribute of the dour and cerebral Sherlock."

Jeremy was ecstatic about the success of Aren't We All?:

"The producers had taken the Rainbow Room on opening night. It was April, and the room was full of peach blossoms. Joan looked absolutely radiant, wearing silver and scarlet, and a glorious wig, a facsimile of her hair. And, we danced as the notices flooded by. There was Lynn Redgrave, looking wonderfully Twenties, and darling little Claudette, looking like a girl of 83...and the critics fell at our feet! Frank Rich mentioned me eleven times, I couldn't believe it!"

It was Joan and Jeremy's last dance.

"And then it all ended in tears because Joan died on July 4th, Independence Day. I staggered on and finished the play, but the lights were out."

Their busy careers meant that Jeremy and Joan spent only about three months out of the year together. Joan recounted in a 1980 interview, "I spent a week with Jeremy in January. In February, we got together when Mobil threw a party for Masterpiece Theatre. In April, I saw him in London. Mostly, he stays in Los Angeles and I'm here in Boston. We see each other in different places - wherever we happen to be."

Jeremy characterized those scattered precious moments as "a bonfire of fun." He described Joan as "a milkmaid from Wisconsin, really, originally, and a quarter Cherokee, a breathtakingly beautiful woman," and told TV Guide that she "was my confidence. She understood the hell actors go through."

He told another publication, "We had a once-in-a-lifetime love. She was an incredible person, the best wife a man could have. This was the kind of relationship where I would start a sentence and she would finish it. Sometimes you can see behind somebody's eyes and feel as if you have known them all your life. That's how it was."

Jeremy would cherish Joan's memory for the rest of his life. It's easy to see why:

Born in Wisconsin on November 3, 1931 (exactly two years to the day before Jeremy's birth), Joan was the daughter of John Harland and Esther (Stanton) Wilson. She graduated with a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College in Iowa (she would later receive honorary doctorates from Grinnell and from Salem State College in Massachusetts).

Joan arrived in Boston in 1967  to produce, direct and act in the WGBH Radio Drama Development Project.  Her early work as a television producer at WGBH included programs such as Eliot Norton Reviews, Kitchen Sync, and Growing Up Female. She later created and produced Classic Theatre - The Humanities in Drama, Piccadilly Circus and Mystery! 

In 1973, Joan became the executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre (which she did not create, as is often reported). Joan took a "hands on" approach to her work, ensuring that every aspect of the series was the best that it could be. She traveled the world to find productions for the show, and had an uncanny knowledge of actors and crews that helped her determine instantly how good a project would be. Her discerning taste was respected internationally. 

And, the mementoes from various Masterpiece Theatre productions that were shown during the series' opening credits were from Joan's personal collection. 

An associate remembered in a Boston Globe tribute, "Joan was a tough bargainer for everything that was important to her. Nobody could get in the way of what she thought was best for her shows. She was one of the unsung powerful women in the annals of television. But, she was also very warm and very funny. Joan was known at staff meetings for launching into these tangential stories, often at a very tense time, that were hilarious. She was a strong, funny, consistently interesting woman."

A production coordinator also recalled Joan's lighter side: "She was so much fun to work with, it was like going to the movies every day. She had a background in the theater and she was a wonderful mimic. She would often imitate people, as well as sing and dance; she was so upbeat that she'd carry you along. You had to work very hard, but it was more like an adventure."

Alastair Cooke, host of Masterpiece Theatre, movingly captured Joan's spirit in his remembrance:

"She was Masterpiece Theatre. She prepared all the dishes, I was only the head waiter...she had this appalling tenacity through the hours. She was a slight woman, but gave the appearance of being very muscular. When we came to London, along with Herb Schmertz [Mobil's vice-president for public relations], watching series we might take, she would spend all day watching video cassettes and go to the theatre every night. 'Dedication' is an overworked word, but she dedicated herself to an early end, I fear. She was a marvelous boss."

Following her death from cancer on July 4, 1985, Joan was remembered not only by her husband, family and associates, but by the industry to which she contributed so much. The Joan Wilson Fellowship for Drama was established by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences shortly after her passing to "to enable young, non-American professionals under the age of 30 working in television drama to experience drama production in another country. In most cases this has meant young writers, directors, or producers coming to the United States for a 1-2 week period."

Jeremy never forgot Joan's commitment to quality drama, either. He dedicated his performances as Sherlock Holmes to her, and tirelessly helped raise funds for PBS. Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that Jeremy had recorded a poignant appeal for pledges while visiting the local PBS station in 1991:

"The current membership pledge drive on WVIZ Channel 25 features one of the most effective appeals you're likely to see. It was taped during a recent visit by Jeremy Brett, the enormously personable and popular actor who portrays Sherlock Holmes on Mystery!. After noting that both Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre were [produced] by his late wife, Joan Wilson, a public TV executive who died in 1985, he talks briefly and touchingly about her and then asks viewers to become station members:

'If you won't do it for me, please, will you do it for her?'"

Joan (Wilson) Sullivan, circa 1977

Despite his enormous loss, Jeremy Brett somehow went on with his life. He acted in Aren't We All? until the play closed on July 21, 1985.

Over the Edge

In August 1985, Jeremy was back in Britain filming The Return of Sherlock Holmes. He seemed to think that immersing himself in work would make his loss easier to live with. He told reporters "The dust has settled, and I'm coming to terms with it."

However, the dust had not settled. Grief must be dealt with--it should not be deferred or denied. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, "Give sorrow words: for the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart, and bids it break". 

And, as Jeremy later told his friend, Linda Pritchard, "Don't be too brave. Bravery is a fine thing on some occasions, but sometimes it can be quite a dangerous thing. The stiff upper lip is not always the best." 

Unfortunately, he came by this wisdom the hard way. Unresolved grief and anger, compounded by long days spent filming on location and lonely nights spent in hotel rooms, took their toll on Jeremy. He finished the first episodes of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and shortly afterward experienced what was widely described at the time as a "breakdown."

"I tottered to the edge and fell over," Jeremy later explained.

In 1990, he told a Times of London interviewer, "And then the whole thing went. The one place I couldn't control, which was my brain, just went. My body was fine, but my brain...Well, the first thing that happened was that the whole world went pink. And white...I was very angry, I remember. During that time I would go into my favourite restaurant and buy every table in the place a bottle of champagne. Everyone was totally delighted, but the people who loved me, and my friends who ran the restaurant, were concerned. I thought I was in dazzling form, but my behaviour wasn't comfortable for anyone else." 

Alarmed, Jeremy's family conducted an intervention at his home and took him to Maudsley Hospital. He ended up staying at Maudsley for two months. Afterwards, Granada TV paid for a two-week stay at the Charters convalescent home for Jeremy. He suffered a minor set-back after being cruelly ambushed by tabloid reporters ("Vile people!" Jeremy described them) at Charters. He continued his recovery at the home of his Sherlock Holmes co-star, Edward Hardwicke. 

Tragically, Jeremy's "breakdown" was not simply a temporary condition caused by grief and overwork. In the course of his treatment it was determined that Jeremy was actually suffering from bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression).

Jeremy had apparently had the condition most of his life, but the symptoms--enervating depressions alternating with energizing "highs"--were chalked up to actorish temperament.

In retrospect, however, it's clear that Jeremy Brett fit the profile of a manic depressive. The Mayo Clinic Book of Family Health could almost be addressing Jeremy's condition specifically, so precisely does it describe many of the symptoms he experienced:

"Your feelings may become so intense that they take over completely, and you lose contact with the real world. The manic phase usually is the episode that may require the person to be hospitalized. During the manic episode, you may feel very 'high' or irritable. Euphoria may not be obvious to those who do not know you well, but friends and loved ones will come to recognize it as unusual or as typical of the manic phase. Your speech and thoughts seem to run at high speed, so fast that it is difficult to understand them. Your speech may be become so laden with puns, jokes, and plays on words that it makes little sense.

"The self-esteem of an individual with manic-depressive illness may soar, often to the point of delusions of grandeur. In fact, you are likely to take on far more activities than you can reasonably handle. Should such activities be thwarted, however, irritability may result. You may have an inability to judge the consequences of your actions, manifested in shopping sprees, self-destructive sexual activity, unwise business decisions, or reckless driving. You may change moods frequently, alternately laughing and crying, and there may be fleeting delusions or hallucinations."

Prior to his breakdown, Jeremy's bipolar disorder was comparable to the Minotaur of Greek mythology. Confined in the labyrinth, the monster could do only limited damage. But, when Jeremy's defenses finally collapsed beneath the overwhelming stresses in his life, the Minotaur of manic depression was released and could never quite be confined again. Jeremy's depressions became deeper and his highs often spun out-of-control. Jeremy would wrestle with his illness for the rest of his life. Sometimes he won; sometimes it did.

Fortunately, Jeremy Brett used his influence as a celebrity to try to educate people about manic depression. Toward the end of his life he candidly discussed his illness in interviews, hoping to dispel the fear and misunderstanding which surround the disease. His last public endeavour was a brief, moving appeal recorded on 8/23/95 on behalf of the Manic Depression Fellowship for the BBC Radio 4 program The Week's Good Cause. In the appeal--which was broadcast on 9/3/95, only nine days before his death-- Jeremy described his symptoms and urged fellow sufferers to seek treatment and to join support groups. He reminded listeners that he had managed to live "a fulfilled and successful life" despite his serious mental illness.

However, back in 1986, while recovering from his first breakdown, Jeremy Brett feared he would never be able to act again.

Just a few months later, though, he was back to work as Sherlock Holmes. And, incredibly, he would triumph on stage once more.


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  2. Bennetts, Leslie. "Stars of Aren't We All? Make It Look Easy." The New York Times 5/8/85.
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  26. Knopf, Terry Ann. "Joan Wilson Bids For Masterpieces." Boston Globe 12/13/80.
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  30. Lyon, Jeff. "Without His Fangs, Dracula's a Nice Guy." Chicago Tribune 2/16/79.
  31. McCaughna, David. "Bottoms Up, Mr. Phillips!" Toronto Star 8/19/76
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  38. Stashower, Daniel. "And Here There Are Genuine Tears." The Armchair Detective Winter 1996.
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  43. Whittaker, Herbert. "Designer's Role a Key One." The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario)  4/21/82
  44. Who's Who. "Joan Wilson"
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  46. Willison, Marilyn. "When the Lights Went Out." The London Times, 2/18/90.
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  48. Winship, Frederick W. Song (review), Houston Chronicle, 4/5/85
  49. Zuckerman, Ed. "The Legacy of Masterpiece Theatre." American Film December 1977-January 1978.

Theatre programme covers scanned from L. L. Oldham's personal collection of JB memorabilia.

Originally published (as TBE Vol. III # 3): February 11, 1997.
Last updated: September 27, 2014.

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