There are two things you will hear over and over again about the Grenada Television series of Sherlock Holmes which ran for four series between 1984 and 1994 under the banners of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. The first is that Jeremy Brett is the definitive Holmes. My brother first made this remark to me in the early 1990s and if I had a dollar for everyone who’s ever said it to me since… well, you know how that saying goes. The second is that Jeremy Brett was such a tortured soul, mentally and physically, and you especially see this in his latter performances.
One of these statements is true, to my mind. The other is somewhat overblown, to my mind.
Jeremy Brett has, I believe, the best on-screen interpretation of Holmes to this day. Angular, his hair slicked down, a polished middle class accent, ejaculations of surprise that come from nowhere while at other times he is completely understated and still and only acting with a quick hand gesture or with the eyes. On top of this, some occasional quirkiness and oddness that never comes across as, “Look at me, being all quirky and odd…” like modern TV would no doubt have him play it. His performance is everything you expect Holmes to be, if you’ve been reading the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Off-screen, Brett suffered from bipolar disorder (more commonly called manic depression in decades past), causing all the usual mood swings and unsociable behaviour that general society is more familiar and understanding of today. Prescribed lithium to treat the condition, the drugs certainly helped Brett more than they hindered him. Indeed, you can see YouTube videos of interviews with him at the time where he will even allude to ‘health issues’ and ‘feeling better’, which I find rather extraordinary for their honesty, given this was the later 80s and early 90s. One side-effect of the lithium was weight gain (through fluid retention), and although much is made of this in many fan writings, I never saw it as a problem at any time during the series. Yes, Holmes does bulk up and get a bit jowly, but it just feels like a progression for the character as he ages over the 10 years of the series. Given he almost always wears black, and often a long coat too, the weight gain is generally hidden anyway, so I can’t go along with the rather melodramatic way it’s written about elsewhere.
Also off-screen, Brett would smoke like a chimney. A real ’60 a day man’ and, for someone who had heart valves scarred by rheumatic fever as a child, not a very safe thing to be doing. Clearly it led to the heart failure that was to kill him in 1995. Reports talk of him even having oxygen on the set of Sherlock Holmes before a take and, again, fan writings on this make it seem like you will watch an episode and be able to tell, oh yes, he’s definitely unable to breathe in this scene. What nonsense. Having just watched the whole series back to back over the past few months, I saw no significant degradation in Brett’s performance. He’s shouting and barking orders in every episode and if you’re watching them with the ghoulish desire to see his decline, I think you’ll be very disappointed.
I’ve actually given a great deal of thought to these online writings you can find from time to time about how sick Brett seems to fans onscreen. Certainly there’s one episode ironically titled, The Dying Detective, where Holmes plays at being sick to get a confession from the baddie of the piece. Another, The Eligible Bachelor, has Holmes suffering bad dreams and running around like a maniac in his nightgown for almost the first hour. He seems like a very ill man here… because he’s playing at being a very ill man. Around these episodes – indeed within the same episodes – Brett’s performance is absolutely, breathtakingly normal. I can’t help but wonder if people see him playing sick, and think of his real life conditions, then put 2+2 together to make 5 because it makes for “better” drama?
When you look at how much of this piece I’ve spent talking about Jeremy Brett, it might indicate how important he is to this series, and how wonderful his performance is in general. This is not to say he isn’t backed up well. In the first series his Dr Watson is played by David Burke and in the remaining series’ by Edward Hardwicke. Although it took me a couple of episodes to get used to ‘the new Watson’ when the changeover occurred, by the end of the series I couldn’t tell you which I preferred, particularly as they play the part in a very similar way – and play it very well, I might also add.
The script writers also do right by the cast, generally giving them quite solid adventures to act out. I will note, however, that towards the end of of the run, some episodes seem to be running out of ideas. In particular there are episodes based on very short stories, which feel a little over-stretched to meet their running lengths. Speaking of, there’s also a selection of movie-length films in the mix which prove to be very hit and miss. They do The Hound of the Baskervilles as a movie-length episode and it’s fine while meanwhile, the aforementioned The Eligible Bachelor seems to have literally next to nothing happen for the first hour before it swings into action. This is a great shame as it’s a dark old tale with a masterful performance by Robert Hardy, one of the stars of All Creatures Great and Small.
If you have read and enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories in the past and haven’t seen this series, I honestly can’t commend it enough. Yes, there is a mid 80s to mid 90s aesthetic to the production which dates it somewhat. However, as the production is set in Victorian England, it already has an old world feeling to it anyway, so any acting or direction that’s perhaps more stilted than you would see on TV today feels like it’s part of the world it’s portraying – to some degree at least – rather than just being the result of old television techniques. The first few series, in particular, are a delight.