How Conan Doyle's detective destroyed Jeremy Brett
This piece of mine on the late, great Jeremy Brett, appears in the Sunday Express.
With a movie and TV series based on Sherlock Holmes out soon, Neil Clark recalls Jeremy Brett and the sacrifices he made to be the greatest Baker Street detective.
This weekend the latest Sherlock Holmes film, ‘A Game of Shadows’, starring Robert Downey Jnr in the title role, opened in cinemas across Britain. The New Year meanwhile sees the return of Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC‘s series ‘Sherlock’. Overall, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective has been played by more than 70 actors on the big and small screens but for Sherlockians-the hardcore fans of the pipe-smoking Victorian sleuth, one stands out from all the rest for his portrayal: Jeremy Brett.
Brett played Holmes in 36 one-hour episodes and five feature length specials on ITV between 1984 and 1994, programmes which are still regularly broadcast all over the world today. Brett’s Holmes is widely regarded to be the definitive version; the closest to the Sherlock Holmes in the original stories.
Brett was a perfectionist who took his role seriously but he paid a terrible price for his art. In a story as fantastic as any of Conan Doyle‘s tales, the brilliant but melancholy detective took over the life - and mind- of the sensitive British actor who played him.
"Holmes was a shell in which he (Brett) began to live. The dark, cerebral detective sometimes took him over, and the actor and the part he played for ten years eventually became one,” says Terry Manners, author of ‘The Man who became Sherlock Holmes- The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett’.
At the time he started playing Holmes, Brett was already a well-established actor. Born Peter Jeremy William Huggins, into a wealthy upper-middle class background in 1933, Brett’s father was the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, while his mother, Elizabeth Cadbury, was a member of the famous chocolate manufacturing family. After attending Eton, Brett set out to be an actor and made his stage debut in 1954. His most famous film role came 10 years later, when he played Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the classic musical My Fair Lady.
In 1982 he was offered the part that was to change his life. Terry Manners says that Brett’s close friend, the actor Robert Stephens- who had played Holmes in a 1970 film, warned him about the demands of the role. “Don’t bloody well do it! You will go into such a pit to get into that man that you will self-destruct“.
For Brett, however, the challenge of playing the great sleuth in the new Granada tv production was too big to pass up. Brett immersed himself in his new role. He re-read all Conan Doyle’s original stories. The producer of the series and his assistants compiled a 77-page ‘Baker Street File’ on everything relating to Holmes’ habits and mannerisms which became Brett’s Bible. “While other actors disappeared to the canteen for lunch, Brett would sit alone in the set’s Victorian sitting room , thinking about Holmes, fretting about him,. Terry Manners records. “Jeremy was anxious to capture not just the darkness and cerebral power of Holmes, but also the period. Day and night he would sit huddled over history books, trying to recapture the Sherlockian 1890s”.
Brett was determined not only to ape all of Holmes’ mannerisms, but to look exactly like the man he was supposed to be portraying. He grew his hair longer and lost a stone in weight to appear as Holmes appears in Walter Paget’s illustrations. His brother even taught him to smoke a pipe.
Brett’s meticulous performances earned him rave reviews. “Brett’s true brilliance is overlooked not because no one says he is splendid but because everyone does”, wrote Kevin Jackson. Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of Sir Arthur, sent him a letter which said : “You are the Sherlock Holmes of my childhood”. Few knew the stresses that the actor was under however. The death of his second wife Joan from cancer in 1985, pushed Brett into depression. Playing Holmes added to his anguish. “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played — harder than Hamlet or Macbeth. Holmes has become the dark side of the moon for me. He is moody and solitary and underneath I am really sociable and gregarious. It has all got too dangerous”, he admitted.
After suffering a nervous breakdown, Brett spent eight weeks at the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in London. He was diagnosed as a manic-depressive.
Brett’s mental torment took a toll on him physically. The lithium which he was prescribed for his depression made him appear bloated. During the filming of the last Holmes series in 1993, Brett, whose heart had been damaged by childhood illness, arrived on set in a wheelchair and needed an oxygen mask. When the programmes were televised, fans were shocked at his physical deterioration. Those who worked on the set with Brett, and who loved him for his generosity and kindness, were greatly saddened at his decline.
Brett died from heart failure in London in September 1995, aged just 61.
“Some actors fear if they play Sherlock Holmes for a very long run the character will steal their soul, leave no corner for the original inhabitant", he said in one of his final interviews.
As the latest incarnations of the world’s most famous detective appear at the cinema and on our television screens over the festive season, let us remember the ultra-dedicated professional who gave everything he had in his ambition to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes of them all.