27 February 2012


Until only recently I had never seen a episode of the British television production, by Granada Television, of the 1984 to 1994 Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett as Conan Doyle’s master sleuth and David Burke and Edward Hardwicke taking turns at Dr. Watson. There were a few reasons for this that I will go into but in the end I think I may have been simply hard headed and biased towards anyone playing the role other than Basil Rathbone. But that is not the only reason and as time has gone on I can see some flaws in the Rathbone films, though not in his particularly perfect portrayal of Holmes. I picked up the boxed set a month or so ago and at the same time begin reading some of the stories in my two volume collection of the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I keep on my bedside table. 

I went into the series with some skepticism, but not to the degree I went into the new Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. interpretation. My main concern was not with Jeremy Brett, who I knew nothing off other than his performance is praised, but with the fact it was a British TV production. I typically do not like British TV shows, with exceptions of course, simply because of the way they look. The sets usually look like sets and the camera work looks washed out, as if it were all shot on video rather than film. For all I know it may be. Sometimes the camera work is in and out of focus and the sound quality is flat at best. More like something you would see on PBS (which is where this version of Sherlock Holmes wound up) than on American prime time or cable, and not to say what shows up on US TV is really better in substance but is usually better in form than most British TV which is in opposition to the usually above average British cinema.  While the visual quality was better than lets say Fawlty Towers (which I think is a superb comedy) my worries were soon confirmed and I had to force myself through to the end of the first couple episodes I watched but soon I was hooked by Brett’s riveting interpretation. Brett brought life to the Holmes character in a way I have moved over into my reading. The character I imagine still looks like Basil Rathbone for the most part but has more animation and emotion than before thanks to Jeremy Brett. Brett appeared to have a hard time after a while with leaving Holmes on the set and certainly suffered from the intensity he put into the role. He had personal issues as well dealing with manic depression and eventually persistent despair following the death of his wife. Brett, who died in 1995 from heart failure, was considered a kind and warm hearted man with a charming sense of humor. He hid these personal qualities in order to create the near misanthropic character of the brilliant but egotistical Sherlock Holmes whose passion for his work process rather than his love for mankind drove him onward.

I now have completely arrived at a state where I am not worried about how the series was shot and for the most part have changed some of my old opinions about the look of British TV shows. It all seems to work out fine. The show also addresses and corrects two major problems I always had with the Basil Rathbone films. First the series puts Holmes back into Victorian England where he rightfully belongs. The Rathbone films took the extreme liberty of making Holmes contemporary to 1940’s England and even created stories where he dealt with Nazi’s. To be fair at times the scenes in the film had a look and feel that slipped in and out of eras and certainly Rathbone’s Holmes was a man of the 19th century. But an even larger issue with the Rathbone films was the portrayal of his biographer, professional associate and only true friend Dr. Watson by Nigel Bruce. Now as a film partnership the dichotomy created by Rathbone’s shrewd and logical Holmes and Bruce’s simply bumbling and clueless Watson is great. I do not hate the way it comes off at all, but being a fan of the stories I always felt that Bruce’s Watson came nowhere close to the man in the story who actually assisted Holmes in the solving of the cases. Bruce’s Watson is usually shown mumbling to himself and essentially being intellectually worthless to Holmes. Burke and Harwicke present a Watson that is more worthy of being Holmes’ closest human companion. 

The series tries to stay as true as possible to the stories but with some liberties of course. I just watched The Dancing Men and The Speckled Band and found them to be extremely close to the written stories. The series also touches on Holm dependence to various drugs such as cocaine and morphine during times when he has no work or a conundrum to solve with his exquisite mind. I certainly regret that my biases kept me from watching these shows until now but I am delighted that I finally got the series and have been watching a couple a night lately. I do not even know if I have the entire series or not since the information on the box and disc is in Chinese (I live in China for those who do not know) and I hope I have all the 41 episodes Brett did before his tragic death at 61 years old. Like Rathbone Brett’s performances as Holmes have become the roles that have defines his professional career, but what a grand thing to be remembered for. I can say with little reservation (but with fear of blasphemy) that Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the definitive one, even eclipsing Basil Rathbone’s brilliant performances. For what is worth coming in third place would be Peter Cushing in the atmospheric Hammer production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Cushing did some more roles as Holmes for a BBD TV show as well as some radio broadcasts. Those TV shows are all but lost as the TV network reused the original tapes for taping other shows. I did manage to find a couple of the surviving episodes and will review those one day here.


buddy2blogger said...

Nice article about Brett's interpretation of Holmes. He indeed is a magnificent Holmes and put a lot of hard work into his work. He is my favorite Holmes along with Vasily Livanov. Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Livanov as Holmes.


Magnetic Island Artist Edward Blum. said...

Thank you for sharing I will look at some of these movie's now. Greetings from Australia.

Bill D. Courtney said...


I have never heard of this Russian adaptation until now. Seems you regard it highly and I will try to find some episodes and check them out. I assume they are in Russian with subs?


I think you will enjoy them!


buddy2blogger said...


Here is the link for the Russian series (with English subtitles):

I am sure you will enjoy this series :)


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