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Jeremy Brett: The Real Sherlock Holmes

Actor Jeremy Brett muses on Sherlock and the great detective's thoughts about Watson, women, and death.

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  • Photo Credit: Getty Images

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The following is excerpts from an interview that first appeared in The Armchair Detective Vol. 18 Issue 4, Fall 1985.

It was a windy April morning when revolving doors spun me into the lobby of a large hotel in New York’s theater district, there to meet Jeremy Brett, a.k.a. Sherlock Holmes, for breakfast. Having seen him in the Holmes role in the highly acclaimed Mystery! series on public television, it was difficult to imagine the actor in everyday attire. I wondered if I would recognize him.

I was already seated at my table when Jeremy made his appearance, full of energy, brimming with ideas and anecdotes, and looking for matches with which to start up his “breathing apparatus,” the cigarette. In appearance, he proved far less austere than his Holmes portrayal; The same eyes that seem full of intelligence and scrutiny on the screen are darting, dancing, luminous green. I suddenly believe that this is the same actor who portrayed the enigmatic Max de Winter in Rebecca (also on Mystery!) and the transparent Freddie Einsford-Hill, who wore his heart on his sleeve for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

In person, Jeremy Brett is warm and animated, casually dressed, even a bit tousled. His voice and accent are as impressive in small talk as they are in rehearsed scenes, and his skill as an actor is shown when in a moment he turns his face, without makeup, into that of Holmes, to illustrate a point. The posture and the piercing eyes say it all; suddenly the conversationalist across the table is Sherlock Holmes. Then, just as quickly, his face breaks into a winning, whimsical smile all his own.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Herbert: To begin with, would you tell us about your idea of Sherlock Holmes’s character and in what ways you are or are not like him in personality? Was the Holmes role a natural one for you?

Brett: It’s not natural. Funnily enough, I think I’m more like Holmes now that I’ve played him for the last two and one-half years than I was [when I began]. I have to watch it. (He smiles.) I was very gregarious, and I still am at the drop of a hat. I’m nota recluse [by nature], but I’ve become a little bit of one. (He says this as though it is a discovery which has taken him by surprise.) I’m inclined in a lot of ways [to see Holmes’s behavior and natural reticence] as an alternative behavior for me.

My success at the part, I find, is really and truthfully a miracle to me because the part was never one that appealed to me. Watson is much more my kind of person.

Related: Holmes's 10 Most Iconic Portrayals 

Herbert: There must be an extra difficulty in playing a part that is dear to the hearts of so may people, a part for which people already have a definite picture in their minds.

Brett: Yes, that’s the most frightening part. [The reaction of] my eldest brother is a great example of this. He’s a great pipe smoker and a great Holmes buff. And he told me quite frankly that I couldn’t play the part because I didn’t smoke a pipe!

He also said, and quite rightly, “I can’t think why you’ve been cast because you aren’t anything like Holmes.” And I said, “Yes, you’re right.” And he said, “But now listen, if you’re going to do ‘The Copper Beeches,’ you will remember … ” and he proceeded to give me detailed advice. And so then I had some element to please nearer to me; I had my brother. I had then the fascination of getting it as near to the book as possible.

Herbert: I loved the interaction of Holmes and Watson in the series. Can you tell us how you worked on this with David Burke?

We talked and munched it through. The very nature of David and the very nature of me means in any case I’m going to be leaning a little bit on somebody. A part like that can be very frightening because you’re so alone. I think this is the great danger. I’m not sure that it’s true, but I think that many actors who have played this part have become megalomaniacs to a degree. They try to do it alone. By the very nature of my not being a loner, I find that very difficult; that’s why I find the part so difficult.

Related: 10 Books for Sherlock Holmes Fans 

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  • David Burke and Jeremy Brett in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"Photo Credit: Granada Television

Herbert: What sort of decisions did you make about the Watson character together?

Brett: We asked ourselves, “Who’d stay with Holmes? Well, Watson does. But therefore why does he stay?” All right, he’s fascinated with deduction–he still has never recovered [from the surprise at] Holmes’s knowing he had just come back from Afghanistan–but there’s more than that. [Holmes is] an impossible person to share rooms with! I think that what I found in what I call the under-bedding of the part is that somehow Watson sees this man’s need. 

First of all, Holmes falls apart when he’s not working. Well, that’s easy to play because actors do that–we all fall apart, really, when we’re suddenly made redundant. But what does Holmes do? He actually shoots up, straight to the vein, the seven-percent solution. He smokes too much. He scrapes on his violin, not very well. He does chemistry–nearly blows people to pieces if he’s not very careful or, as happens in “The Solitary Cyclist,” nearly sets fire to [221B] Baker Street. So he’s obviously a problem child as well as a brilliant friend. Watson sees that. Watson sees that Holmes can’t say “Thank you”; he can’t say “Good night,” can’t say “Help.” But what Holmes does occasionally is rather sweet little things like in “A Scandal in Bohemia” he tells Watson, “You see, I did remember you were coming; here are your cigars.” And it’s the little things that mean a lot. I tried to show how much Holmes does actually need Watson without actually saying it.

I think that Holmes would be dead–(with a twinkle in his eye) I mean, just pretending that they were real people–if Watson weren’t there. If Watson suddenly decided to go and live, let’s say, in Madagascar, Holmes would be dead inside of six weeks. And that’s what we chose to play.

Herbert: Does Sherlock Holmes experience fear? And if so, does Watson know it?

Brett: Yes. I put that in, in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Holmes is quaking, but he’s got his back to Watson. An actor’s got a choice in dramatizing something. Watson doesn’t see it.

Related: David Stuart Davies: My Life with Sherlock 

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Herbert: Can you tell me what you get out of Holmes in disguise?

Brett: [Holmes finds] escape. Escape from himself.

Herbert: And when he has his closest brush with a woman in the affair of Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” it is significant that he’s in disguise.

Brett: Yes. This is the lovemaking of a shy man. [He would like to remove Irene, too] from his life because he can’t waste his precious energies on emotion. But Irene sings divinely, and that means a very great deal to him because he loves music.

The interesting thing about this is, why the two disguises? Don’t forget, these [stories] were written pre-Freud. You mustn’t over-analyze because that can cripple. But this is my estimation. He uses a groom–a rough animal which he’s not–for the approach. He then [disguises himself as] a priest. I think the priest is a spiritual element used as Holmes chooses to get near to her.

I’d love to go back and do that film again because there are so many things in it. When he pretends to be hurt, Irene comes very close. The actress, Gayle Hunnicutt, wears a scent called “Bluebell” by Penhaligon. Holmes is affected by this–his senses are acute–and he becomes disoriented and fails to get [the compromising picture of Irene Adler and the Grand Duke]. Holmes covers his error. He says he’ll go back. But she has cheated him and gone away. She’s a very remarkable woman. Holmes changed his whole code of ethics about women after meeting her, but he does this at a cost. The question is, is it worth the cost?

John Mortimer, who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey, said if you move in the circle of crime you learn the ways of the criminal mind and you are touched by this, you are tarnished by it. Holmes has to deal with people in distress, therefore he’s colored by that, too. And as the stories move along, you get Moriarty [who represents] the final element of evil. Holmes is to be erased. In comes the biggie, Moriarty. And in “The Final Problem,” you see Holmes facing death.

Related: The Criminal Twin of Sherlock Holmes 

Herbert: And what do you feel is his attitude toward death?

Brett: Well, I play him–well, that’s giving it away. Holmes knows that Moriarty’s network will get him. So very sweetly he says, “Listen, Watson, I’m going to leave the country because I don’t want to endanger you.” But then he turns around and says, “Do you want to come with me?” So the answer is, yes, hes scared. And then he uses the Reichenbach Falls as one of the greatest coups of all times. But that’s another story.

Featured photo of Jeremy Brett and David Burke: Getty Images; Additional photos: Alchetron