Basil Rathbone. Benedict Cumberbatch. Christopher Plummer. Nicol Williamson. Robert Downey Jr. Dozens of actors have played the role of literature’s greatest detective – Sherlock Holmes. Or, as he would call the profession of which he was its sole practitioner, consulting detective. Whatever he’s called, Holmes has been a favorite literary character since his first story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. He was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, although the stories made him famous and wealthy, thought these mysteries were not part of his important work.
So, he was a snob about his own creation. So what? Holmes fans couldn’t care less.
In 1984, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes debuted on American television as part of the PBS series Mystery! Part of what is great about this PBS program is that the host takes the time to give a little history about the mysteries they show. In 1984, the host was Vincent Price and he was perfect. Watch his introduction of one of Holmes’ greatest mysteries here to see what I mean.
It was the British television company Granada TV (now ITV Granada) that produced The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as well as three other Holmes series: The Return of… (1986), The Case-Book of… (1991), The Memoirs of… (1994); and two TV movies: The Sign of Four (1987) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988). In all, 41 of Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries were produced.
The actor who took on and, in my opinion, mastered the role of the legendary sleuth for Granada TV was Jeremy Brett. Admittedly, I haven’t seen every portrayal of the detective, but when I read the original stories it’s Brett that I picture. Much of this has do to his talent and skill as an actor, but much is also due to the production’s intent to accurately depict the settings, language, attire, and culture of England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And each episode carefully follows the source material as closely as possible.
Jeremy Brett portrays all the qualities of Holmes brilliantly. The intellect, the bravado, the confidence, the annoyance of those whose intellect he finds wanting. He’s both rude and sensitive, civil and rough. He gets bored when the criminal element goes quiet or lacks imagination. More than once he laments that the days of the great cases are over, only to have a great case present itself.
The actor also gives Holmes a graceful quickness to his physical actions. He’ll drop to the floor or ground to search for clues without any care to his appearance or propriety. In that first series, Brett is incredibly spry. In the episode of The Red-Headed League, he hops on and leaps over the back of the couch in the sitting room at 221B Baker Street to prevent his friend and colleague, Dr. John Watson, from leaving the room. It’s astonishing.
Sadly, as each new series or movie premiered, the actor’s health could be seen to deteriorate. Brett’s skin became paler, he had put on weight, and his breathing became more and more labored. There was wheezing in his otherwise magnificent voice. No longer would he drop to the ground or leap over a couch. As the series progressed he would be seen sitting most of the time. Gradually, the gracefully quick physical actions were limited to hand movements and the flourishing of his ever-present walking stick.
Of those later episodes, his co-star Edward Hardwicke said that, though the great actor’s health was poor, he was always prepared and never complained. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he would rest and appear quite tired, but when action was called he came to life. He was Sherlock Holmes once again. However, Brett’s health became so bad that in the final series, there were a few episodes that needed to be adapted so that Dr. Watson handled the lion’s share of the investigating, with Holmes appearing briefly throughout the show to advise and then, at the end, to provide the solution.
Another wonderful aspect of these shows was in its handling of the character of Dr. John Watson. Watson was Conan Doyle’s way of explaining to his readers the incredible abilities of Holmes. Watson was an every man. He was us. But he wasn’t dimwitted as he was portrayed in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce adaptions. Bruce’s Watson was much too clueless and bumbling for my liking. Those productions used his character for comic relief. Given Holmes’ reluctance to suffer fools, I find it difficult to accept he would associate, let alone be friends with, such a man.
In Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson was also the record-keeper of the mysteries that his good friend solved. He wrote and published the accounts for a fascinated public. (Pretty meta, wouldn’t you say?) Although Holmes did not approve of the lurid, romanticism of the doctor’s stories, he did highly value his steady and loyal friendship. This dynamic was well-preserved in the Granada TV series.
Watson was played by two actors: David Burke and the aforementioned Hardwicke, son of actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who is best know for his portrayal of Pharaoh Sehti in the ridiculous but awesome The Ten Commandments (1956). Burke handled Watson in the 13 episodes of the first series, Hardwicke took over after that.
Of the two I prefer Hardwicke. David Burke is a fine actor and his portrayal of the doctor is very good, if a little too much on the wide-eyed naivete side for my tastes. Edward Hardwicke’s Watson has a more experienced wisdom. Although Watson may not possess his friend’s talents for observation and deduction, Hardwicke gives the doctor an intelligent confidence that fits better with Jeremy Brett’s Holmes. Both Watsons were also allowed to have a greater appreciation for the social graces and they could properly take Holmes to task whenever his rudeness surfaced.
There have been plenty of actors who played the great consulting detective, but Jeremy Brett is the best. There are several episodes available on YouTube. You really ought to check ’em out!
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