You can keep Basil Rathbone, fond as I am of him. You can keep Robert Downey, Jr, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Cushing. You can even keep Michael Caine in Without A Clue (my secret favourite portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on the big screen). You know why you can keep them? Because, in exchange, I get Jeremy Brett, the Sherlock for the connoisseurs.
Jeremy Brett is the Sherlock Holmes of my childhood, and perhaps (as with the Doctor or James Bond) we simply attach ourselves to the first one we see. But I don’t think so. In the ITV series which began in 1984, and ran until Brett’s early death in 1994, Sherlock Holmes was as close to his literary roots as he has ever been on screen.
Brett understood completely how mercurial Holmes could be. And he could play every variant of him: loyal friend, relentless pursuer, bored logician, avenging angel, and mischievous impersonator. Brett’s performance is an astonishing exercise in dynamics: he murmurs advice, whispers hints, bellows irritation, barks laughter. He is also the master of the subtextual glance. When the King of Bohemia (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1,1) wishes Irene Adler was his social equal, Brett turns to him with every facial sinew screaming contempt, for just a fraction of a second. Then he agrees, with such seeming politeness that the king is impervious to his real meaning, that Adler was indeed on a very different level. No wonder Adler leaves the country, declaring him too formidable an opponent, even though she knows she has beaten him in this encounter.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has two excellent Watsons (though not at the same time) in David Burke (season 1), and then the teddy-bearishy lovely Edward Hardwicke. The writers remembered that Watson is not a fatuous Captain-Hastings-figure, but is a medical doctor, who has served in the army for years. He is never stupid, never bumbling: the perfect foil to a genius (because why would Holmes ever tolerate an idiot as his companion?)
Watson is, rather, the norm from which Holmes deviates: Watson likes music, Holmes can both play like an angel or pluck a discordant cacophony from the violin, depending on his mood. Watson can deduce some information about a visitor to 221B Baker St, Holmes sees everything, and sees it instantly. Watson has an old-fashioned chivalry to him, Holmes refers to Irene Adler with grudging admiration as ‘the woman’. Watson also has a solidity to him, which Holmes cannot ever achieve. Even if Brett had not been so ill when filming the series, his Holmes is intrinsically fragile: he really looks like he forgets to eat for days on end, and that he carries the lead weight of ennui between cases.
In re-watching The Red-Headed League last week, I also detected a disdain for poshness that verges on the revolutionary. He describes John Clay (Tim McInnerny) thus: ‘His grandfather was a royal duke and he himself was educated at Eton and Oxford. So, Watson, bring the gun’. And because he is Jeremy Brett, he slightly rolls the r of ‘bring’, just so we know Holmes knows that he is funny.
He is, however, serious enough that we never question the intrinsic silliness of Conan Doyle’s odder plots: I’m no snake-charmer, but I doubt you can train one to climb down a rope, bite someone, and climb back up it, using only whistles and a saucer of milk to reward its obedience (The Speckled Band).
Iconic? Obviously. More than 75 actors have played Holmes. Jeremy Brett is the man. Who else delivers the words ‘snakish temper’ with such relish? No-one.
Duffers? None. Only regrets: if only Brett had lived long enough to film every Holmes story. And if only the red-headed league had taken off as a super-hero gang.