Cracks in the Marble

As Holmes Jeremy Brett is one of the best. He's also one of the absolutely worst.

It begins well. The first episodes are solidly crafted, intelligently written, superbly acted by one and all. It is clear that the production team is serious and want to do justice to Doyle and Holmes (something that is far from self-evident in many nay most Holmes productions). It shows. And they're out to do the whole cycle, the entire Canon, all of Doyle's 60 Sherlock Holmes stories.

And one of the best features of the series: we get an intelligent Watson, the perfect foil for Holmes. In this series Watson is solid, steadfast and dependable. He has a strong moral sense as well as a deep understanding of how society works or ought to work. Holmes is the brain, Watson is the heart. Watson understands people while Holmes understands ideas and abstract concepts. And thus we get an interesting relationship between Holmes and Watson, an almost unique one: "a relationship in which, as Brett often stated, Holmes needed Watson more than Watson needed Holmes", to quote Brett's obituary by R. Dixon Smith in The Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. Together they form a whole, a complete human being. The one is useless without the other. But Holmes needs Watson more than we usually acknowledge.

Brett comes across as the Holmes to define the role (and maybe even the man). He looks absolutely right, he could have stepped out of a Paget illustration. He's tall, he's lean, he's hatchet-faced. He's a cold calculating machine, but yet volatile, impetuous, and still somehow an extremely well rounded character. And he's got a heart, hidden away, sometimes almost glimpsed at. It's not a particularly healthy heart, but it is a heart nevertheless.

In 1985 the problems begin for Brett, appropriately enough just as the filming of The Final Problem is through, and the great hiatus of Holmes is about to begin. Brett's wife dies and he himself goes to pieces. He may have had his fair share of mental problems in the past but now he cracks like an egg and has to be hospitalised. He's diagnosed as a manic-depressive and his ailment is not cured but treated with an abundant intake of lithium tablets.

He returns to active duty and starts filming The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Many of the episodes are brilliant: The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Priory School, Silver Blaze, The Six Napoleons. Then comes The Sign of Four, easily one of the best episodes in the entire production if not the best, a true gem. I'm ashamed to say, but only after I saw the production did I realize what a good book The Sign of Four is, only then were my eyes opened to its worth and charm. This is the way a Holmes tale really ought to be illustrated - for my money it may be the best and truest Holmes film ever made (and it is, by the way, one of the film length episodes so technically it can be called a film, I suppose). If there is a slight drawback it may be Watson's age - he may be a bit too old too woo Miss Morstan. So in the film he's more the avuncular Watson than the wooing Watson. Not entirely in keeping with the sacred text but works nevertheless within the context of the film. Having the lovely Jenny Seagrove play Miss Morstan as a young lady of intelligence, integrity and dignity lends the film gravitas and a solid emotional core. Having John Thaw - aka Inspector Morse - play the villain is a nice touch indeed, though of course Thaw's Jonathan Small isn't the villain at all, not the real villain. Thaw's Small is both likable and unlikable at the same time. Unlikable so we believe him as the ruthless avenger, likable so we sympathise with his reasons. While we don't exactly root for him, we're not dead against him either.

After The Return of Sherlock Holmes we get another film length episode. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best film versions of the novel. It stays true to the novel, avoids all gimmicks and tricks, feels no need to amplify the tale or improve on it. The novel does, after all, stand on its own two feet very nicely, thank you very much, and really doesn't need improving. At all.

Brett takes his Holmes very seriously indeed. During breaks he is often seen perusing the Canon and he insists that the original dialogue be added to the scenes. He wants the episodes to be as true to Conan Doyle as possible. The producers (the later ones) don't always agree. Brett threatens to quit. The producers give in. Authentic dialogue is used. And then, after a while, conveniently, they again forget all about it.

But the strain is beginning to show. The medication is heavy and had nasty side-effects. Like retaining water. That's why Brett looks quite fat in the later episodes. It's all water his body has retained thanks to the lithium pills.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes starts with quite decent episodes. By no way brilliant, but adequate. The Illustrious Client, The Creeping Man, The Boscombe Valley Mystery. Still, it has to be admitted, the best tales have already been shot. These are the more mediocre ones. They really don't inspire anyone, not the writers, not the directors, not the actors. Then things take a definite turn for the worse. The producer Michael Cox leaves. He's really the brains behind the whole project. It was all his idea, he was the one who envisioned a series that would be true to Doyle's stories, a series with a Watson who's like the Watson Doyle intended, a series with a Holmes who's got his dark and unpleasant side. He it was who wanted to film the entire Canon just the way it was written.

The new producers have rather different ideas. After Cox's untimely exit they do three long episodes: The Master Blackmailer, The Last Vampyre and The Eligible Bachelor. Now, ostensibly, these episodes are based on Doyle's stories - Charles Augustus Milverton, The Sussex Vampire and The Noble Bachelor - but the material has been stretched, altered and transmogrified almost beyond belief. The two latter episodes bear hardly any relation to Doyle's original stories. The annoying thing is that what has been added is deplorably trivial and crass. They never expand the original tales, merely sabotage them.

The Doyle originals aren't good enough for the new producers. They need to be improved on. They need to be boosted and worked over. Doyle just isn't up to par.

What is significant is how the standard of Brett's performance drops. Quite drastically. This is partly - mostly - due to the poor quality of the new scripts. They don't give Brett much to do and to act, his role merely seems to be to be and to emote. No wonder he starts hamming it. What choice does he have really?

Now there's no turning back.

The last episodes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Homes, are pretty rotten. The stories aren't first-rate, obviously, but when they're indifferently scripted they become absolutely ghastly. Brett doesn't act anymore, he simply exhibits himself, pulling out his worst mannerisms at the drop of a hat, chewing the carpet at every turn and killing every line with uninspired and extremely lazy over-acting. His heart is no longer in it. Also, Brett is uncomfortable with his bulk, ashamed of it, and it affects his performance. No longer does he cut a lean Sherlockian figure, he's no longer thin as a rake, taut as a whip, rather he's a bloated whale, an elephant. He tries but cannot hide it. It shows even in his face, the sad bloatedness. And his manic-depression is getting worse. Sometimes he doesn't even turn up so they have to have Charles Gray as Mycroft replace Sherlock as the detective of the piece. Not particularly convincing. Not really Canonical.

As for the scripts, the producers even consider doing un-Canonical stories, stories by others than Doyle. (At least that's what David Stuart Davies claims. He offered one, the producers almost did it, but turned it down at the very last minute, so Davies expanded his script to a novel - The Scroll of the Dead, if I'm not entirely mistaken.) Sacrilege. On the other hand, what's the difference, the last episodes bear precious little resemblance to anything Doyle wrote. Going outside for stories would not have made it any worse.

The last episode, The Cardboard Box, goes out in April 1994. In late 1995 Brett is dead. His heart gives out. Maybe the shambles that the series has become is part of the reason.


PS said...

Interesting thing: Brett was actually called Huggins but had to adopt another name so as not to offend his stern father. The early great Sherlockian actor Eille Norwood also used a stage name. His real name was - Brett!

K V Laihonen said...

Now, I definitely need to rewatch The Sign of (the) Four after this, although the memories of it seem not discordant to yr views. But, don't get me even started on the dismal misadventure known as the Granada Hound... I found it quite insufferable - indeed, one of the few true disappointments in the Brettian ouevre: not because of the adaptation per se (although, that is whence it came, when all is said and done),or the acting or production values, but because it seemed to be stripped of everything that even remotely whiffed of drama. Which is a far cry from the still very exciting novel! Guess I can but blame the 'direction' by the non-entity that is one Brian Mills, Esq. - who seems to have an affinity for Dartmoor, as he also directed the adventure of the 'Silver Blaze', which turned out quite nicely in the Return series, au contraire...
As for the trio of full-length films, I quite liked the (essentials of) The Master Blackmailer, esp. Mr. Hardy as the titular CAM; whereas the vampiristic silliness of 'Dalgliesh' in the next one was completely off the mark; The Eligible Bachelor, on the other hand, remains baffling, as there are many real sparks of splendour in it, but admittedly it veers too far off the beaten Canonical track.
Re: the last series... methinks the malingering episode of The Dying Detective - even with all the addenda, or padding - is curiously effective & engaging, especially due to the strong portrayal by Jonathan Hyde of the villainous Culverton Smith (maybe also because it's so suggestive of Brett's indisposition); and the very last one, The Cardboard Box, comes off as quite a strong tragedy indeed (had to go and re-read it afterwards).

PS said...

Oh yes, Robert Hardy is extremely superb as the icy Milverton, especially for those of us for whom he will always be the likable Siegfried. It almost - almost - makes the episode commendable. You may well have a point about the Hound, haven't seen that in a while, not the Granada one, so maybe it's time for a fresh look. Perhaps I overpraised it because I was concentrating on the sub-par aspects of the series and those are by and large lacking in it. Jonathan Hyde is indeed a delightful villain, but Brett's acting spoils the piece for me. He's simply chewing the carpet on a champion level (which is partly called for by the text, I have to admit). Another thing - I don't like Watson's role. It's a bit off, to be honest. I haven't seen The Cardboard Box in quite a while, must have a look. The short story is one of the Canon's most disturbing - and according to scholars - may well be more autobiographical than is commonly understood.

PS said...

I caught The Cardboard Box last night and was rather amazed at how frightfully good it was. It's not a terrific mystery as such so it's a bit of a challenge to dramatize it. I think Bowen did a bang-up job, really splendid - especially considering how stupid the previous episode The Mazarin Stone was. The Cardboard Box dealt with the actual murder in a supremely touching way - not exploiting it but uderstanding it and subduing and sublimating the emotion, thus elevating it. And Brett! A truly great performance - he's so fragile and otherworldy. He's lost a great deal of weight and sometimes his face looks like a death mask of wax. In his eyes there's a very sad, ethereal look: like he knows all the secrets of the human heart and the knowledge makes him both sad and weary.

This episode leaves a good taste in my mouth about the whole Granada series.