Tuesday, June 29, 2010


For ten years, between 1984 and 1994, Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes in a series of 41 stories for Granada TV in the UK. His performances earned him the reputation as the definitive screen Holmes for his time, perhaps for all time. Any starring role in a long-running television series tends to absorb the life of the actor, as well as define these actors for their careers, and beyond. Often as well, these roles change the personalities of the actors, sometimes thoroughly and permanently. Jeremy Brett exemplifies all of these possibilities, except perhaps for one. The role of Sherlock Holmes did not change his subsequent career, for he had none. A year after he completed the Holmes series, Jeremy Brett was dead.

In the Granada episodes, now available in restored condition on DVD, Brett created a more intense and mercurial Holmes, his sudden stillness exploding in quick motion and flamboyant gestures. Brett was a close student of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and felt his interpretation was accurate, but it also reflected his own personality, as such long-running roles often do. But in his case, it's difficult to find the line between character and actor.

Biographical sketches as well as DVD commentaries and interviews emphasize how deeply Brett delved into the stories and the character, and how relentless were his efforts to use the TV medium and make the best possible films to serve them. It became his obsession.

In contrast to other Holmes incarnations on film which eventually invented new stories for the Holmes character (including the classic Basil Rathbone movies, and certainly the recent Robert Downey feature), the Granada series based its stories closely and exclusively on the original Conan Doyle stories. His first series of stories ended with Holmes apparent death, though popular demand would cause Conan Doyle to revive the character and write many more stories about him. Brett had just finished filming that death of Holmes episode when his own wife died of cancer.

Soon after, due to popular demand, the second Granada series was commissioned, and Brett's identification with Holmes grew even stronger. The qualities that he had already perceived as similar in Holmes and himself became overwhelming--especially that contrast of periods of fierce energy with periods of lassitude-- until Brett was forced to seek treatment for manic depression. (The symptoms apparently became pronounced during the "Return of" series, and he'd begun undergoing treatment just before starting the "Casebook of" final series.) But he kept up his concentration and his exhausting schedule, playing Holmes on screen and on stage. Yet the lithium he took for his illness began to change him physically, as became apparent on screen. The later episodes chronicle these physical changes--such as weight gain, especially in his face, gaunt and spare at first, then puffier, wan and haunting.

Though overwork and his overwrought obsession as well as effects of lithium and the manic depression itself probably contributed to physical deterioration, in the end it was his enlarged heart and scarred heart valves, basically from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, that led to his death in his early 60s.

I first saw Brett's portrayal of Holmes when the A&E cable network--back when it actually was an Arts and Entertainment network--ran the Granada series late at night (during the period it also ran the UK Lovejoy series.) I was lost in the wilderness of western PA then, and the Holmes series was an oasis. Brett's portrayal was riveting, and inspiring.

Now I'm somewhat obsessed with watching episodes on DVD, particularly the second, Return of Sherlock Holmes series. The clarity of the DVD--much better than the prints of cable--show Brett as even more of a revelation, as well as showcasing the visual splendor of the series. And I ponder the question of whether Brett's obsession was wholly tragic, or perhaps a little to be envied. In various ways, he gave his life to being Sherlock Holmes for millions of people, including me. He'd been a fairly successful stage, TV and film actor for years, but the chance to star in an iconic TV series comes to few. He made the most of it. He made the best of it, at least as his work. He undoubtedly sacrificed something, including probably years of his life.

On the other hand, in pouring himself into Holmes, he also made the best of his own personality, and eventually of his illness. We can speculate that identifying so completely with Holmes exaggerated these tendencies into a true illness, or the opposite, that he turned the illness into something incredibly creative.

In the end, it seems to me that his tragedy is not so bad as more ordinary tragedies, of lives unfulfilled. An excellent, iconic series of 41 televised stories--of intriguing and entertaining but hardly profound popular art-- may not be the greatest accomplishment, but it is a great one. Is it worth a life? I think so--that is: I think I'd take that bargain.

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