Since 1982, Britain’s Granada Television has been adapting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories about the moodily brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. Shipped over here as part of the Mystery! series, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes has provided a career-defining role for Jeremy Brett.
This week brings a five-week run of Holmes stories to a conclusion with Shoscombe Old Place, which, Mystery! host Diana Rigg informs us, was the last Holmes story Conan Doyle wrote. As adapted by Gary Hopkins and directed by Patrick Lau, Shoscombe is no grand summing-up of the Holmes mythos — it’s just a typical Holmes tale, the story of a chunk of human bone found on the estate of a British nobleman (Robin Ellis). Holmes and the perpetually impressed Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) are summoned to figure out who the bone belonged to and how that person died.
But really, does anyone watch these things for the twisty plots or the invariably indignant suspects? No, you tune in to see Brett’s performance, which is a hilarious marvel. It’s Brett’s achievement to have taken the full measure of Conan Doyle’s creation, and to refuse to make this hero sympathetic and lovable in the modern manner; Brett plays Holmes as a cold, morose, arrogant man whose over-riding genius makes him fascinating.
Of the scores of actors who have portrayed Holmes, it is commonly said that Brett’s only real competition is Basil Rathbone, who starred in a series of movie adaptations in the ’30s and ’40s. Rathbone was elegantly understated, embodying the icy reserve of Holmes, but Brett has gone the other way — he is fearlessly florid, grandly melodramatic in a style that matches the tone of Conan Doyle’s prose.
Physically, Brett is at once the perfect Holmes and an idiosyncratic one. He possesses the slitted eyes and canoe-shaped nose we expect in a haughty Holmes, but he also has a pair of highly entertaining ears that jut out from his head like the wings of a child’s balsa-wood airplane. Brett’s Holmes never smiles but keeps the corners of his mouth permanently turned down; when this Sherlock laughs, it is a momentary eruption — a quick, harsh bark of fleeting amusement. Of course, this mannerism ends up giving Holmes a quality Conan Doyle never managed: The guy is funny, with a wry sense of humor.
Brett’s Holmes is a man who lives inside his head — he’s always deep in thought, always busy puzzling out the next clue, and the outside world gets in his way. Brett expresses this by giving Holmes a dismissive air. Easily distracted, disorganized, and annoyed, the detective is always curtailing conversation by holding up one of his soft, plump palms and commanding silence, always wordlessly pointing one of his long, pink, cigar-shaped fingers at a piece of paper or a muddy footprint that proves his point more eloquently than words can.
When he does speak, Brett’s line readings are a hoot-he mumbles whole paragraphs of Conan Doyle’s fussy dialogue in a rude rush, as if he can barely deign to speak to the dimwits around him. This Holmes delights in being stubborn and perverse; last week, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, the long-suffering Watson remarked on how pleased he was that the duo’s investigation had taken them out of sooty London and into the bright English countryside. Holmes, however, responded by inhaling so loudly that his nostrils seemed to flap in the breeze, and then groaned, ”Oh, Watson, all this fresh air will kill me!”
I confess I had avoided the pleasures of Brett’s Holmes all these years, assuming that his was just another variation on a pop-culture hero I had outgrown. The cult of Holmes has always seemed insular and more than a bit nuttily obsessive, rife with fan clubs that comb the sacred texts for clues about Holmes’ private life as if he were a real person, and that always seem to be toting up how many times he smoked his pipe or clapped that silly- looking deerstalker cap on his head.
And while Conan Doyle was certainly a first-rate purveyor of popular entertainment-the creator of an enduring fictional archetype-his Holmes adventures are really a kid’s (and perhaps more specifically, a boy’s) dream of what life should be like: You get to lounge around in a well-furnished bachelor pad doing anything you darn well please, from peering into a microscope to solving cases; people come to you with problems and you solve them with ease; you have no emotional obligations or commitments but are the object of nearly universal admiration. No one even laughs at your funny clothes. As the literary critic Clive James has written about the Holmes stories, ”Perhaps only an adolescent can get the full thrill, and the price of wanting to go on getting it is to remain an adolescent always.”
A recent rereading of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and a few Holmes stories confirm James’ judgment for me, but Brett’s work either raises Holmes to a new level or lowers me to a perpetual teenager — in either case, I’m happily hooked. I’ve been catching up on Brett’s previous performances on cable, where the Arts & Entertainment network is screening the earliest entries in Granada’s Holmes series every Monday at 9 p.m. Whether you’re a novice or a dedicated fan, there is enormous pleasure to be taken in watching an actor bring a myth to life the way Brett has done so consistently for so long. A