The Brettish Empire

Hello Everyone,

Here's Part II of...


By Lisa Oldham


As a teenager, Jeremy suffered from rheumatic fever. He told Marilyn Willison in 1990 that he'd won a diving championship at Eton and that the water he'd dived into was "a kind of estuary on the Thames" with "unpleasant, dirty things floating about." The filthy water infected Jeremy's ears, and the infection flared into rheumatic fever, which left him with the enlarged heart that would stop beating much too soon in 1995.

Sent home from Eton to recover, Jeremy was sedated for two months, and then bedridden for another eight months. During his convalescence, he still managed to grow four inches. 

Jeremy also had a speech impediment. He told Rosemary Herbert, "I was tongue-tied. [He had an extra attachment of skin under his tongue.] I had a very weak 'r' sound and had to work hard on it. I didn't have the condition corrected until I was 17. And then I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to relearn how to speak."

Jeremy explained that he had met famed theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie, who was staging Tamburlaine the Great at the Old Vic. "And I said, 'I want to be an actor vewy, vewy much.' [Guthrie] was kind of overwhelmed at this idiot. I remember I was wearing my brother's coat to make me look bigger. And he said I could have a walk-on part in Tamburlaine. 'Or,' he said, 'you should go with that 'r' sound to Central School,' which I did. About 10 years later I worked with him on Broadway when I played Troilus for him. Trroilus! 'As true as Troilus,' I had to say."

Part of Jeremy's childhood coincided with World War II. One of the additions built on to Berkswell Grange was an air-raid shelter; Jeremy's father was called upon by the War Office to assemble a regiment. (Col. Huggins commanded the 120th Regiment from 1939-1942.)


It seems likely that a marriage between a career soldier and a kindly Quaker would have its conflicts, and this apparently was true of the union of Colonel and Mrs. Huggins. Jeremy once recalled, "I remember one time [my father] came back and found four huge men lying in this immense drawing room in the country, all exquisitely dressed in lovely clean white shirts, trying to work out what they were going to do with their lives."

He explained, "I had an amazing mother who used to say to us, 'I don't want you to do anything until you absolutely can't help it, or you're sure you want to do it.' Then, when my father would come home and scream, 'For God's sake, get these boys going!', my mother would answer: 'Not until they know what they want.'"

Jeremy even went so far as to tell Rosemary Herbert that his mother and father were "desperately unhappy, and they stayed together for the children...People didn't get divorced in those days; they stayed together."

However, Jeremy added, "Looking back, I'm very proud of what my parents did. They sacrificed a great deal."

And, they managed to raise four successful sons: a clergyman (John); a painter (Michael); a farmer (Patrick); and, of course, a world-famous actor (Jeremy).

Jeremy credited his mother with encouraging him to become an actor. His father was opposed to the idea: "My father thought any respectable middle-class boy shouldn't do a thing like that. He thought it was all drinking champagne out of slippers," Jeremy told interviewer Kay Gardella in 1976. Colonel Huggins wanted his youngest son to be a soldier, not an actor.

In The Television Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy said, "I would like to have been a soldier for a while for my father's sake, but I had rheumatic fever at sixteen and never saw any kind of military service. When I said I wanted to be an actor, it was the end. It was a great disappointment to my father."

Leaving His Mark

Fans know that Jeremy borrowed his stage name from the label in his first suit (which was a green tweed made by Brett and Co., Warwick) because his father forbade him to use the name "Huggins" on the stage. However, Colonel Huggins did come to watch Jeremy act. Not surprisingly, he preferred Jeremy to portray soldiers. Early in his career, Jeremy played a soldier at the Manchester Library Theatre and borrowed a pair of Colonel Huggins' military boots to wear onstage. Jeremy saw Colonel Huggins in the audience (Jeremy later joked that the Colonel had come to see his boots), but was dismayed that he didn't come backstage to visit when the play was over. Jeremy walked back to his flat, only to discover Colonel Huggins waiting for him with a bottle of champagne and two glasses: "You were a triumph, my boy!"

Colonel Huggins changed his mind about letting Jeremy use the family name after watching him portray Hamlet in 1961 to rave reviews, but it was too late--Jeremy Huggins had already won fame as Jeremy Brett.

Sadly, Elizabeth Huggins didn't get to witness Jeremy's triumph--she died in a car accident in 1959, when Jeremy was 24 and his son, David, was just three months old. But, she continued to inspire Jeremy. In 1994, Jeremy told a BBC2 television interviewer that he channeled the anger he felt over his mother's tragic loss into his portrayal of Hamlet.

The Colonel died in 1965, and he and Mrs. Huggins are memorialized on a plaque on a screen in the Lady Chapel at Berkswell Church. The lych gate in the graveyard is also dedicated to their memory.

After Colonel Huggins' death, his family had to sell Berkswell Grange. Although the house now belongs to another family, one of its former inhabitants left his mark--in more ways than one. When the Grange's huge nursery was demolished, a new wall was built. Embedded in the concrete of this wall is the handprint of little Jeremy Huggins--a poignant reminder of the Berkswell boy who made good.


...Not to see the Queen, but to attend the "Celebration Lunch in Memory of Jeremy Brett" presented by the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society at the Cafe Royal on March 16. I'm leaving March 15 and will return to the US on March 21. I'm very excited, not only because I'm able to attend this event, but because this will be my first trip overseas. I'm looking forward to seeing the sights and meeting some of my e-mail pen pals face-to-face. Thanks for all the well-wishes--I wish all of you could go with me! Expect a full account of my adventures in the next "TBE".

Until next time,

Lisa :-)

Originally published as TBE Vol.II, #4, March 3, 1996 (revised November 25, 1999). 

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