I had long been a fan of Basil Rathbone and the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s, and on my book shelf I had a handy single volume of the best Holmes stories and novels as chosen by Arthur Conan Doyle's son Adrian. However, it was this British television series which inspired me to request a complete set of the Holmes books and stories one Christmas, a set which I still own and re-read in its entirety roughly once a year.
The original series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starred Jeremy Brett as the World's Most Famous Consulting Detective. Although his brilliance is evident in just about every single frame of the decade-long Sherlock Holmes series, Brett was something of a workaday actor, working in various series both in England and in the U.S, with even such fluff as Galactica 1980, The Incredible Hulk and The Love Boat. appearing on his resume. Before he became Sherlock Holmes to millions, his most famous role was as Freddie, the young man who love-stricken by the charms of Eliza Doolittle in the classic film MY FAIR LADY.
Brett's florid, energetic and sometimes melancholy portrayal of Holmes is considered by many fans, myself included, to be the greatest of all. The late actor often said that he enjoyed playing Holmes because he could never quite reach the character, and once described the character as "a damaged penguin". That sense of aloofness, offputting to some Holmes fans, is what makes Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes so satisfying. He plays Holmes not as an automaton but as a human being, one with flaws, secrets and fears, a man who is both of this world and apart from it.
While Brett is fully deserving of all the accolades he has received over the years, one of the keys to the success and ongoing popularity of this series is the portrayal of Dr. John Watson, Holmes's friend, roomie and biographer. Often remembered as a bumbling fool, thanks to Nigel Bruce's comic portrayals in the 1940s, Dr. Watson was done full justice by David Burke, who played Watson as he was in the books - a more than competent doctor, a valued, trusted friend, and a warm-hearted man who possessed above-average intelligence. In the Rathbone-Bruce films, one can often wonder why Holmes puts up with such a ninny as Watson. In the Granada series, it is obvious that Watson deserves, and receives, great affection and respect from Holmes. After Burke left the series, Edward Hardwicke took over the role of John Watson. Both men deserve applause, but perhaps Burke even more, because his work is often overlooked owing to the much longer time Hardwicke spent in the role.
The idea behind the series was to return directly to the source material - Doyle's writings - and bring it to life for television. That meant generous use of Doyle's own dialogue - there are many times you can actually grab the Holmes story in question and read along with the actors word for word - as well as location shooting and painstaking studio recreations of Baker Street and other locations. Thirteen of Doyle's original stories were adapted for the first series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, including some of the most celebrated such as "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Red-Headed League" and "The Final Problem". Because of the need to stretch each short tale into a fifty-minute production, the writers occasionally added some material or expanded the stories and characters beyond the scope of Doyle's original stories, but it was always done with respect and intelligence. For example, the criminal events of "The Red-Headed League", originally perpetrated by a small gang of criminals in the original story, are attributed to the diabolical Professor Moriarty in the television adaptation, which neatly sets up the confrontation between Holmes and "The Napoleon of Crime" in the next and final episode of the first series, "The Final Problem".
David Burke declined to return to the second series, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, recommending that Edward Hardwicke be cast as Holmes's perennial "Boswell". I have often watched the last Burke episode "The Final Problem" and the first Hardwicke episode "The Empty House" back to back and the effect is remarkable. "The Final Problem" is the famous story in which Holmes grapples with Professor Moriarty and falls off the Reichenbach Falls, presumably to his doom, while "The Empty House" is where Holmes returns a few years later and explains to a shocked Watson where he has been all this time. Watching these episodes as one complete story, the difference in Watsons is absolutely meaningless. Burke's Watson had an impish, boyish charm while Hardwicke's was an older and wiser Watson. While both actors resembled the Watson depicted in the book, they were obviously two different actors. Edward Hardwicke does not make people forget David Burke's portrayal of Watson; instead, he achieves something even far greater. He convinces us that he IS David Burke's Watson, only a few years older. Both men have their fans, and I have no preference. For me, both actors are Watson, one and the same.
By the mid-nineties, when Series 4, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, went into production, Jeremy Brett was a very ill man. He would die of heart failure in September of 1995. His last performances as Holmes may lack the energy of his earlier ones, and his speech may occasionally be slurred, but he was still capable of outstanding work, even down to the series final episode, the aptly (and sadly) titled "The Dying Detective".
There have been many previous Holmes, and there will be
many more. Many will be adequate, some outstanding and some
thoroughly forgettable. Jeremy Brett, however, will reign at or
near the top of the Best Holmes List for a long time to come. He was
that good. ½ - JB