Simanaitis Says

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THE SAD TALE OF BRETT AND HOLMES

BRITISH ACTOR Jeremy Brett portrayed Sherlock Holmes for Granada TV’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes between 1984 and 1994. Basil Rathbone owned this role of the world’s first consulting detective in movies and radio between 1939 and 1946, and William Gillette owned it at the fin de siècle.

However, Rathbone and Gillette owned the role, whereas, sadly, the role owned Brett.

I gleaned this latter observation from Xavier Leduc, Reims, France, writing in the Letters column of the London Review of Books, June 29, 2017. As Leduc describes, “Brett was determined to be the best Holmes there had been and obsessed over the sleuth’s mannerisms, documenting them in a 77-page manual that he kept with him on set.”

Jeremy Brett, born Jeremy William Huggins, 1933–1995, British actor, renowned for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

Jeremy’s father was a British Army officer; his mother, came from the Cadbury confectionary family. As a child, Jeremy suffered from rhotacism, the speech impediment involving inability to pronounce the “R” sound correctly. Surgery as a teenager and years of practice honed Brett’s diction to English perfection.

Here is the young Brett displaying his almost-too-perfect English as Eliza’s almost-too-perfect admirer in My Fair Lady, 1964.

Many may recall Brett in an early role, Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the 1964 movie My Fair Lady. He also played Shakespearean roles at London’s Old Vic and with the National Theatre Company.

Brett’s most memorable role for many is his Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series. Brett said of the portrayal, “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played—harder than Hamlet or Macbeth.”

Brett as Holmes.

Brett attacked this role with a fervency reflecting what was later associated with a bipolar disorder. His health was further compromised by heart trouble, attributed to rheumatic fever contracted in childhood. What’s more, Brett’s bisexual life style was far from accepted in Britain at the time.

Brett’s 77-page manual collecting Holmes’ characteristics dictated his portrayal of the detective. In time, Brett’s ardor for the role led to nightmares exacerbating his mental problems. Prescribed lithium treatments affected his physical health.

Xavier Leduc, writing in the LRB Letters column, notes that Brett became “so spooked that he began to refer to Holmes as ‘You Know Who’—the title of [English poetess Abigail] Parry’s poem—rather than mention his name.”

There’s a parallel of sorts in theater lore with regard to bad luck arising from uttering the word “MacBeth” within a theater except for specifically within the play. Otherwise, it must be referred to as “the Scottish play.”

During 1995, the last year of Granada’s Sherlock Holmes productions, Brett’s bipolar disorder, its treatments, and his heart trouble took their toll.

Leduc cites a Brett observation that “ ‘some actors’ were afraid that if they played Sherlock Holmes for too long he would ‘steal their soul, leave no room for the original inhabitant.’ ”

Leduc says, “He was talking about himself.… and it destroyed him.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

4 comments on “THE SAD TALE OF BRETT AND HOLMES

  1. Marc René Yvon
    July 7, 2017

    Cher Monsieur Semanaitis,
    You never cease from surprising us/me with the the span of your interests! Each time I visit your column, I learn something. Accordingly to my late father ( a humble but very wise man) “Going to bed at night without having learned something is a waste day, mon garçon. Remember this. It will serve you all your life”. Thank you Dennis for helping me keeping my oat. Marc René

  2. simanaitissays
    July 7, 2017

    Thank you, MRY. Your kind words are much appreciated.

  3. J Perry Arnott
    July 7, 2017

    It was indeed a sad ending to a life. And yet, it has to be said that Brett’s mental health might have deteriorated even without the rôle. He might well have simply had, as M. Yvon says, a wasted life. What we can say is that he was, is, and will remain, Sherlock Holmes.

    Others will no doubt play the role but there is no point. Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. All others are merely actors – and some of them weren’t even that good.

    Thank you for writing about this man – and for your continuing series of articles about the marvellous stories that he illustrates for us.

  4. Skip
    July 10, 2017

    Brett was the best. He found a way of bringing Holmes to us that was so true to the books’ character and made the previous, and subsequent, actors who portrayed Holmes seem second best. Interestingly, Brett is the uncle of British actor Martin Clunes, who can be found online discussing his memories of Brett.

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