Eliminating the Impossible

Ian Jones on Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes

First published January 2000

Conceived at a time after the so-called golden age of TV “period” drama (the mid to late ’70s) but before the boom of detective series (the late ’80s: Morse, Poirot, Wexford, etc.) Granada’s TV Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (various titles, 1984 – 1994) not only match the best of either case but also eclipses them, resembling the most consistent, uniformly laudable and coherent attempt to adapt historical fiction as contemporary drama. It’s also a series I deeply love and am drawn back to time and again.

The adaptations benefit from an eye for atmosphere and detail matched with a palpable respect for language, the text being given room to breathe and delivered by actors who positively relish that space and the verbosity of Conan Doyle’s lyrical flourishes. But it is clearly Holmes himself, superbly played by Jeremy Brett, who in my opinion seals the lasting success of the entire project. Sympathetic to the production team’s agenda – in staying as faithful to the original publications as possible, both in terms of characterisation and appearance (no lazy use of props like the obligatory deerstalker and magnifying glass, both appended to Holmes by previous erroneous screen adaptations) it is Brett above all that secures the legitimacy of the series.

In the first season of seven stories he is at his most outlandish, deliberately playing up those traits (wild mood swings, casual disdain for everyone but himself, sudden bursts of physical and mental energy counterpoised with moments of complete stasis) which went against received impressions of Holmes. It is this I find most endearing about Brett’s characterisation – the unpredictability, meaning that each episode always debuts some new nuance to Holmes personality, reaching a point where the viewer feels they can predict Holmes behaviour. His joyous fist-fight with a country local in “The Solitary Cyclist”, compared to the drawn-out lugubrious analysis of a goose in “The Blue Carbuncle”, is typical of this.

David Burke played Dr Watson as an intelligent, resourceful, energetic companion, certainly nothing like the bumbling stout fool often seen in feature film versions. And viewers were able to enjoy insightful embellishments to the original stories, sometimes major changes to plot denouncement (the discovery of a body at the end of “The Musgrave Ritual” in total contrast to the original), but more effective I think, when concerned with the personal relationship between Holmes and Watson – such as at the end of “The Resident Patient” which presents a delightful coda where Holmes has a friendly quarrel with Watson over how to write up their adventures for public consumption. Risks were taken with form and convention: this episode is also notable for featuring two and a half minutes of total screen silence as we follow Holmes meticulously exploring the scene of a crime.

“The Final Problem” (1985), which ends with Holmes plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls tussling with his nemesis Moriaty, is a stunning hour of dramatic television; Brett acting to his best abilities, filmed on location in Switzerland and culminating in a superbly realised tumble through mid-air (by stuntmen, but breathtaking all the same) in complete silence, save a solo violin sounding a mournful elegy. It was never to be the end, however, for in the same way Conan Doyle brought his protagonist back to life, so did Granada. For this third series (1986) Watson was now played (and would continue to be done so) by Edward Hardwicke, sticking to the template for the character set by Burke but not as youthful or engaging. However Jeremy Brett still delights, revealing more of an impish sense of humour and childlike qualities (sneaking into a spare bed to take a nap at the scene of the crime in “The Musgrave Ritual”, yelping with joy as he leaps off a flight of stone steps in “The Second Stain”).

The series never flinched from portraying Holmes’ cocaine addiction, and although we never see him shooting up on screen, the numerous pre and post-injection scenes plus plenty of syringes and bloodstained towelling in evidence are if anything more effective for playing on the power of suggestion.

The first full length novel was tackled (“The Sign Of Four”, Christmas ’86) and is just as much a triumph as the previous series, more so for the location work in and around famous London landmarks (Tower Bridge, the Thames, all appear totally as if in Victorian times). The fourth series (1987), however, is shorter than before (four stories) and something is different, as if Brett’s appearance (hair cut very short, losing the dramatic swept back fringe that was so much part of his character) augured a deeper shift in Granada’s policy. Indeed there is a feel of business as usual about some of the stories, particularly the two hour “Hound of the Baskervilles”, where Holmes – or Brett – seems alternately petulant, bored, and tired. The remarkable “Devil’s Foot” is however one of the best; set in Cornwall where Watson is on holiday and Holmes is sick (Brett seems to enjoy playing an “ill” Holmes, always accentuating the eccentricity of his character’s semi-regular bouts of bad health) we see Holmes not only suffering from a surreal drug-induced fantasy sequence in which he meets the image of himself as a boy, but addressing Watson by his first name (“John” – something Conan Doyle never did) before symbolically burying his syringes in the seashore.

The knowledge that Jeremy Brett himself suffered recurring bouts of ill-health, catalysed (he claimed) by the dark depressions and moods brought on by taking on the guise of Holmes, cannot help but mediate my response to seeing him on screen in these later stories – it certainly enhances my reading of his performances, not least in evaluating who is actually on screen before me: Holmes, or Brett himself? His lapses into illness and fatigue most clearly manifested itself in the huge gap between series four and five (1991), where Brett appeared on screen visibly aged and withered. This somehow leant more gravity, weight and a severity to Holmes, the exuberance of the early series tempered into a worldly-wise forlorn streak, imbuing a number of the latter stories with a moral edge – Holmes holding forth on the errors of humanity and his own personal regrets and failings. But crucially this too works in the series favour, rendering the whole 10 year project within a dramatic arc, a superstructure tracing Holmes’ life and ageing from capricious young upstart to mature elder coping with the passing of time, culminating in Brett acting as if his life depended on it during “The Dying Detective” (1994) a storyline necessitating Holmes to appear to be suffering from a fatal illness to prompt a suspect’s confession. This took on a grim resonance 12 months later when, having now committed over two-thirds of the Holmes canon to film, Brett’s health declined permanently and he died in late 1995.

Overall I’d argue a mark of the series greatness is the way aesthetic is never allowed to overrule and compromise narrative; appearance and attention to period detail is minute but not at the cost of action, dialogue and plot trajectory. If ’90s period drama can be subjectively generalised as on balance a triumph of style over content, the Holmes series are the complete reverse. Everything purposefully complements the other – the haunting score by composer Patrick Gowers, the sepia tinged title sequence – and is perfectly ordered, reminding us who is at the centre of everything, underscored by the final frame in the title sequence: Holmes himself turning from his Baker Street flat window to stare thoughtfully but knowingly just slightly away from camera.