Jeremy Brett: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

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When you think about the character that has appeared on movie and television screens more often than any other, several candidates spring to mind. Frankenstein’s creature. Dracula. Satan. And, of course, Sherlock Holmes. To the best of my knowledge, more movies have featured Dracula as a character than any other, but I’d be willing to bet Sherlock Holmes is at least in the top ten if not the top five. Many of the screen presentations of the great detective have been forgettable, and most have been okay. But there is one actor who truly stands out as the ultimate Sherlock Holmes and you have the ability to to judge for yourself.

Ask ten people to name the best Sherlock Holmes and probably three will answer Basil Rathbone and four will answer Jeremy Brett and the rest will not be worth listening. For the record, the three who answer with Rathbone are also clueless. There is only actor who fully realized the complexity of Holmes and that was Jeremy Brett in a series produced for British television and later shown on America first as part of the PBS Mystery series and then on A&E back when it wasn’t an embarrassment. The great thing about DVDs and streaming content, of course, is that you don’t have to rely on television networks anymore. While A&E is convinced that high quality programming today means things like a reality show about a mass murderer’s ugly daughter, you can delete the channel from your channel surfing and simply press the “video” button. Begin by putting The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on your binging queue.

This five-disc set is just the first of several and includes twelve different Sherlock Holmes mysteries from the first season. The first season is a fan favorite because it features David Burke as Dr. Watson. Burke left after this season and was replaced by Edward Hardwicke. There’s nothing at all wrong with Hardwicke; in fact, in his own way he’s equally good as Dr. Watson. But many fans prefer David Burke because he has a twinkle in his eye and provides a bit more comic relief. Rest assured, however, that his comic relief is not in the tradition of the bumbling idiot Watson as portrayed in most Sherlock Holmes movies. In fact, in all of these presentations, regardless of whether acted by Burke or Hardwicke, Dr. Watson comes across as he does in the stories: curious, bewildered, helpful and down to earth.

Of course, the real reason to watch these television shows is Jeremy Brett. Most actors see Sherlock Holmes as a human computer and try to play him as an emotionless robot. If you read the stories, however, you will see that Sherlock Holmes is anything but emotionless. He doesn’t give in to simple emotions, however, and that may be the problem. Jeremy Brett succeeds in presenting Sherlock Holmes as a man of profound pride who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Brett’s Holmes can often seem petty and sometimes even vengeful; he often seems to want to solve a crime simply to prove himself superior. Well, wouldn’t you if you knew you had superior talents? It is for this very reason that many fans don’t care for Jeremy Brett. His Sherlock is a prickly individual, not easily categorized. He often laughs with glee and indulges in caustic wit. In other words, he sometimes appears to be too human for those raised on the tradition of Sherlock Holmes as a human computer.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes opens with A Scandal in Bohemia, which relates the story of how a woman outwitted the great detective. This episode sets the stage for the series: Victorian London, a client coming to 221B Baker Street to tell a strange story, Holmes and Watson setting off to solve the case. It also showcases Holmes’ talent for masquerade and includes the first of many references to Holmes’ penchant for cocaine when bored. There isn’t much actual mystery and the case isn’t about murder, but then Holmes was often called upon to solve mysteries where nobody ends up dead.

For instance, in The Red-Headed League Holmes must solve the bizarre circumstance of a man given an enormous salary simply to show up at an office and write out the contents of an encyclopedia all because he happened to have a fine head of fiery red hair. And in The Solitary Cyclist, the mystery is nothing more macabre than finding out why a young woman’s bike ride to the city each week involves her being followed by a strange bearded man on a bike during a small stretch of the path.

Several of my favorite episodes appear on this collection. I really enjoy The Norwood Builder, for instance. One of my favorite moments in the entire Brett canon occurs when he is attempting to smoke out a suspect. He calls upon several men to cry out “fire!” and you simply must watch his reaction when they fail to sound properly concerned. It is a priceless example of why Brett is the greatest Sherlock Holmes ever. My all time favorite

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes concludes with The Final Problem. This was the mystery where Arthur Conan Doyle actually appeared to have killed off his creation. Holmes had taken over Doyle’s life. Doyle fancied himself a writer worthy of recognition for things far greater than simple detective stories. Of course, the outcry from the public resulted in a Doyle bringing Holmes back to life. So have no fear when you read the end of The Final Problem. There is a lot more Sherlock Holmes yet to come and you should watch them all.