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Jeremy Brett – The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle (Artúr Conán Ó Dúill) on the Western Front, Europe, WWI

I’ve always been a bit of a Sherlock Homes fan (or the much more impressive Irish form, Searbhlach de Hoilm!), especially since he was born of the imagination and pen of an Irish-Scots writer, one Artúr Iognáid Conán Ó Dúill or Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle. Doyle’s relationship with his ancestral homeland was problematic, to say the least, and there is a strong argument that he tapped into the anti-Irish prejudices of his day for the Sherlock Home’s stories, most tellingly in the Irish surnames he choose for Holmes’ two chief protagonists: Moran and Moriarty. He himself veered in his politics over the span of a lifetime from un-apologetic British Imperialist and Unionist to possessing somewhat more nuanced and socially liberal views of the world and Ireland in particular (by 1911 Doyle was convinced of the need for Home Rule or limited autonomy for Ireland within the so-called United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, though that is as far as he could bring himself to go).

Arthur Conan Doyle’s interests in Irish revolutionary movements and the covert (and at times not so covert) war between them and the British colonial state in Ireland clearly influenced his writing. The Fenians in particular, both the Irish and Irish-American arms of the movement, were a major concern to him and at times he allowed himself to be caught up in the hysteria of the late Victorian age and its obsession with “Irish secret societies” (the surnames of Moran and Moriarty were regularly identified in British newspaper reports with alleged Fenian officers operating in Britain in the late 1800s). In some ways the “Irish question” became central to the Sherlock Holmes canon, always implied though rarely stated.

Scholar Catherine Wynne details the Irish influences in the works of Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes’ tales in particular with her short study Mollies, Fenians, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which I highly recommend for any enquiring Sherlockian – or indeed anyone interested in how British society and culture viewed (and feared) the Irish people in the late 19th century. You can also read a full account of all this in her excellent book The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism and the Gothic, especially the section Imperial War and Colonial Sedition (preview via Google Books).

All this has helped me in my own writing (with a nod to Kim Newman), in particular my subversion of the Sherlock Holmes tales by turning them on their head and writing them from the point of view of Professor Moriarty, or rather Séamas Ó Muircheartaigh, 19th century Irish famine-child and exile turned revolutionary (and the efforts of his arch-nemesis to thwart him: the conflicted British Imperial agent Sherlock Holmes, and his baleful older brother Mycroft). Whether those tales of mine will ever see the light of day is, of course, another matter 😉

Jeremy Brett – Searbhlach de Hoilm (Sherlock Holmes)

But for now, a slight twist, as I turn to the Guardian and an excellent article on the late great Jeremy Brett, the British actor who for many of us was Sherlock Holmes. A true thespian (and a genuinely courageous person who overcame many personal problems and tragedies in his life until his untimely death), he defined what Holmes should look like, sound like and act like for a whole generation of television viewers (and still does). From the retrospective by Natalie Haynes:

“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 a year before Brett’s early death in 1995, 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, series 1, episode 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.

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.”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

This weekend I will be indulging my Brettian-Holmes passion by watching the British television drama The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes back-to-back (thanks to a lovely DVD collection grabbed – quite literally – for a ridiculously cheap 10 euros), but here, for the rest of you, is a mere taster:

3 comments on “Jeremy Brett – The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes

  1. Hi there! Many thanks for adding my blog post (Hound of Baskerville book review) as a link. I appreciate it much. Cheers and beers!


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