The Quintessential Holmes

July 14th, 2009 | Posted in General

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
The incomparable Jermy Brett

Last month I wrote this post about my lack of confidence in the upcoming Guy Ritchie film “Sherlock” starring Robert Downy Jr. as literature’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. As I said in that post, I am actually a fan of both Ritchie and Downey Jr., but also as a fan of Sherlock Holmes I find it difficult to believe I will like that film. You can read the post if you want the details.

In that post I confessed to not having much exposure to the many films, TV shows and plays featuring the Great Detective. My expertise with Holmes begins and ends primarily with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original cannon of 56 short stories and four novels, and from the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s. I received numerous e-mails from people telling me that I had to see the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. I was told that many Holmes fans consider Brett one of, if not THE, definitive Holmes. Fellow caricature illustrator Lash LeRoux went so far as to send me a few DVDs on loan to watch. Once I saw them, I was so hooked I ordered the entire series on a 12 disc DVD set.

Brett truly is Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth brought to life. He obviously went to the source material to incorporate the mannerisms, idiosyncrasies and many details that defined Conan Doyle’s character. He even looks like a Sidney Paget illustration sprung from the pages of The Strand. Brett’s performances as Holmes are remarkable, and make this series really shine. He displays the impatience and hints of immense ego that defined the less savory side of Holmes with enough substance that they are definitely present, yet his Holmes is also likable and as gallant as his class and the times would expect. The sharp laughter and moments of intensity are played as if they escape from the man despite his efforts to remain collected. This Holmes delights and revels in his powers when they are in play, and is frustrated when his deductions are not coming together fast enough. So many of the details I imagined from the stories are brought to magnificently to life by Brett.

Not that Brett’s Holmes is the sole reason for the success of the Granada series. I say “series” but actually there were four series in all, totaling 41 episodes… all with Brett as Holmes but with Edward Hardwicke later replacing David Burke as Dr. Watson, both playing him splendidly. Obviously the creators of the show intended to stay as closely as they could to the original Conan Doyle stories, and must have went to great lengths to be accurate in both the time period and the tales themselves… right down to much of the dialogue coming straight from the pages of the canon. It’s always been a mystery to me why so many Sherlock Holmes films and shows insist on inventing new stories or changing the settings and fundamentals of the characters and original tales as Ritchie’s upcoming movies seems to do. Conan Doyle’s stories and characters have not endured for 120 plus years because his plots and concepts were bad. Most of the Rathbone Holmes films were changed from Victorian London to take place in the 1940’s. What the????? Still more only incorporate elements from Conan Doyle’s original stories into their own plots. Again… I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Watson, for example, is often portrayed in film and TV as a bumbling stooge as was the case when played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films . That could not be farther from the original character’s persona. Dr. John H. Watson was an educated man with a doctorate of medicine from the University of London and a physician of some experience who served in the Afghanistan wars as an army surgeon. We was written by Conan Doyle to be a brave and capable man, who despite his intelligence was continually amazed by the insight and brilliance of Holmes who could easily make normal men seem to be slow and unobservant by comparison to his unmatched powers of observation and deduction. Yet this character has often been turned into a clown presumably to provide a comedic foil for the cimenatic Holmes.

The Granada series shatters this and many other conventions that have hung around the Holmes legend like an albatross. The shows are very faithful to the plots and characters of the original stories, and they are the stronger for it. It was a sad loss when Brett died of heart complications at only 62.

I cannot recommend this series more highly. I shall have a difficult time when I revisit the Conan Doyle canon, as I often do on audiobook, to not see the lean and intense face of Jeremy Brett in my head as the Great Detective’s adventures unfold before me.


  1. Neil Davies says:

    I’m really enjoying reading the original Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles in particular I thought was brilliant. The upcoming film looks more and more detached from the source material the more I read of it, although I think Jude Law is going to be a great Holmes, not at all the bumbling stooge.

    I did a caricature piece of Downey Jr. as Holmes for Jason Seiler’s caricature course just recently and although I used the costume he has in photos I dug up from the filming of the movie, I wanted a pose that came from the books so I put him lounging in a chair with his fingertips touched together as Doyle describes him frequently doing. I’d love to get your opinion on it Tom:

  2. Great you finally got to see Brett as Holmes. I grew up watching it. Might have to get that box set now!

  3. Hi Tom
    Glad you discovered the definitive screen Holmes.
    I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the complete Holmes cannon which ran here between 1989 and 1998 starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams and dramatised by Bert Coules.

    They are a remarkable piece of work. I’ve gone through the lot and back again over the years and I’d say Merrison gives Brett a run for his money but doesn’t quite take the crown.

    But the highlight of the series has to be Michael Williams’ Watson. A perfect portrayal not equalled anywhere else. Watson is strong, compassionate, intelligent and entirely convincing as the human link between the the detached Holmes and the world in which he lives.

    Check one out when you get time and let us know what you think.


  4. Paul McCall says:

    Welcome to the Brett fan club, we’ve been waiting for you.
    You may be interested to know there’s a biography on Brett, “The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes” by Terry Manners, published by Virgin Books. Not a pretty tale as Brett was a manic depressive. Did you know he played Freddie in “My Fair Lady?”

    • Tom says:

      No, but I did now he was being considered for the role of Bond after Connery left the franchise in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” but the part ultimately went to George Lazenby.

      • he also bizarrely played a tanned and gleaming toothed villain in Galactica 1980

        I was very surprised when I stumbled across that a few years back. I think it involved super powered boy scouts playing baseball??!!??

      • Paul McCall says:

        In the biography it’s mentioned that he auditioned for Bond, didn’t get it, and publicly stated that had he been chosen it would have ruined his life but privately believed it would have made him an actor his son would have been proud of. His son was a baby at that time. I’m rereading the bio, when I get to the Holmes part I’ll let you know if it gives any interesting behind the scenes information.

  5. Mugshotz says:

    I truly can’t understand why so many movies feel the need to change great stories. Obviously compacting long stories into two hour time frames does take some cutting out and compacting. I get that. I don’t always mind when they change Superhero costumes either. Not everyone can pull off spandex in a manly way. But making a smart character a buffoon, or rewriting an origin story, or character makes no sense to me. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

    I did really like the Sherlock Holmes stories when I read them in Jr. High and High School. I haven’t seen these episodes you have written about, but, I’ll look to see where I can rent them. I was a taken aback by the trailer for the Robert Downey Jr. film. I as well like Guy and Robert. But the trailer reminded me alot of the Will Smith “Wild Wild West” movie. Hopefully the outcome will be more palatable.

  6. Jim B! says:

    Ah, Mr. Brett! I remember eagerly awaiting new episodes to air on PBS’s Mystery program and trying to video tape all of them! Great that they’re all on DVD(perhaps if we think good thoughts toward Britain we’ll get a Blu-Ray release). Jeremy replaced Basil as the voice and face of Holmes when I read(or re-read) a story.

    Besides “My Fair Lady” and “Galactica 1980” I recall Jeremy’s guest star stint as a Hugh Hefner- type character in an early episode of “The Incredible Hulk” along wtih star Bill Bixby and a pre-WKRP Loni Anderson!

  7. I’m currently re-watching series (or season for the US market) four while I work and also in the UK tv channel ITV4 are showing the series too so its always on. Superb series and Brett is Holmes, no mistake.

  8. Bearman says:

    I was in the bookstore and saw something like “The Essential Sherlock Holmes Collection” on the discount shelf. Knowing your love for the character, I wondered what you might think of Holmes being relegated to the Bargain Books section.

    • Tom says:

      Well, there is no accounting for taste. It’s no reflection on the quality of any product or piece of art when it’s peddled to the Great Unwashed to end up in the bargain bin. After all, these are the same moronic public that make shows like “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” or “Bret Michaels: The Rock of Love” top rated programs.

  9. Daniel (Sweden) says:

    Hear hear!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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