Friday, December 23, 2011

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.


Douglas said...

I cry over this story, because I love Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock.

You are probably already aware that the second film with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, respectively, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a commercial hit ($90 million in its first 12 days). The film critic community has only considered it average.

Why, sweet why, does Hollywood have to take everything and turn it into something about homosexuality?

Neil Clark said...

Hi Douglas,
I'm pleased we can agree on Jeremy Brett's brilliance if not on some political issues!
I haven't seen the new film yet, but for me there will only ever be one Sherlock Holmes.

buddy2blogger said...

Wonderful post about Jeremy Brett's dedication to Sherlock Holmes..

Brett was totally consumed by his role and his physical tribulations and personal tragedies proved to be a fatal combination. May his soul rest in peace...

Anonymous said...

I am re-watching the Brett series currently and it is such a remarkable performance. It is difficult to avoid the statement (that I made to my wife last night) that it is the greatest performance ever, of anyone. His movement alone could be the subject of a lengthy study.

Neil Clark said...

buddy2blogger: cheers, many thanks.
anonymous: i totally agree. I watched 'The Musgrave Ritual' again last week-another stupendous Brett performance.

Anonymous said...

I knew Jeremy Brett personally in the mid sixties...what a lovely man. But time and circumstances etc meant I did not see him after that. How tragic to die so young, what a loss to us all. But the legacy remains in constant TV repeats of Sherlock Holmes, though I wonder if many people realise what it did to him to play the part so well.

Anonymous said...

I discovered the Sherlock Holmes Films by chance some weeks ago in the Internet. I am German an I saw J. Brett for the very first time. I am spellbound by this actor. This is really great art.

Unknown said...

Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes Jeremy Brett. As simple as that.
Such a sweet kind man who believed in his art so much he gave everything to portray The Master Detective, literally everything.
Love your memory Jeremy <3

Unknown said...

Jeremy Brett's Holmes is the greatest portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. He is a class apart from the likes of juniors and Cumberbatches. I used to even love the way Brett would light his cigarette. It is shocking that he had to go down like this.

Unknown said...

Just remember the name Basil Rathbone.

Anonymous said...

what rot! acting does not cause bipolar disorder and there is no such clinical term as 'nervous breakdown' stresses in his life would have only revealed what was already lying dormant, I don't know what movies you're watching that you think Hollywood homosexulises everything?? I can't see any, and I look for them, i'm a gay psychiatrist! Jeremy Brett had many relationships with other men too.

Darren walton said...

I'm positive Jeremy will be solving cases in another life..what a gifted actor... I salute you Watson cased solved?...