all this week, all day while I’m working on my various freelancing jobs, has had a strange effect. I want to become a detective for the style of it. This is not just Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character though, it’s mainly the effect of the late Jeremy Brett. (I should add that my choice all of last week was HR Puffnstuf, every episode; I love Puff, but I was ready for high culture by the weekend). The strange effect is that I can’t watch anything else, and also I’m remembering watching some of these (which originally aired on PBS stations from about 1984-1994) as a child, and being frightened of both the bad guys and often Sherlock Holmes. He was brilliant and impossible to read; for children and guilty parties, this a terrifying combination.
A very brief background on Jeremy Brett, one of my favorite British actors: he started, like many of the great actors, at the Old Vic in London. He worked his way up through bit parts in movies; his Sherlock Holmes, in a BBC TV series and two movies, is considered his defining role. And, he sort of defined Sherlock, for the later 20th century. Also very important to know about Brett: he overcame a childhood speech impediment, the inability to pronounce the letter “R.” After some length as a married man and father in the 1950’s and 60’s, he came out as bisexual. And, maybe most interesting of all, he was manic-depressive. For those who wondered why he suddenly gained thirty pounds or so later in the Sherlock Holmes series, it’s because he started taking lithium regularly (and speaking out on behalf of bipolar people).
Leaving all that for a moment, I will return to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Brett created a very disciplined set of mannerisms for the man; strong, forceful and graceful hand movements, and a particular movement of just his lips and not any else of his face. The accoutrements of his profession and character—pipe, magnifying glass, old school heroine needles, cape and cane—all of these are like extensions of Jeremy Brett’s being. The only specific episode I’ll mention is called “The Devil’s Foot,” named after a poisonous African root; the reason this episode is sort of my favorite of the series is twofold: 1. it’s set in Cornwall in spring, weaving around really old stone graves, and 2. as Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett inhales some of the devil’s root and has a wonderfully cheesy trip, completely opposite in style and tone from the rest of the series. There are goofy flashing lights and colors, the hovering face of Moriarity, dissonant music, and Jeremy Brett prancing around ancient ruins.
I have no way to close this off, except to say if you haven’t seen Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, rent the box set from your library or watch it on Netflix. Or just keep it mind for the next time you need a dose of crisp British wit and elegance.