Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Happy Birthday to the Best Sherlock Ever!

Jeremy Brett would have been 86 today.

To a great many of us, he is THE Sherlock Holmes. Many actors have essayed the role and several have owned it — I’m thinking of Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, and Benedict Cumberbatch in particular– but Brett was the only one that made me believe I was looking at the real guy.

More than any other actor, Jerermy Brett grasped that Sherlock Holmes was not a thinking machine devoid of emotion; he was one of the very few cinematic Sherlocks to avoid the mistake almost everyone makes, the idea that Sherlock Holmes fears showing his feelings.

And he was the only one, as far as I’m concerned, to capture the manic energy of Holmes that Conan Doyle describes in the books. Probably because Jeremy Brett was, himself, bipolar.

To those that are Doyle-or-nothing Sherlockian purists– and honestly, I’m not, I can rattle off half a dozen authors who’ve done better Sherlock Holmes stories than Doyle– it often ends up being about the purity of the prose, whether or not Holmes says the lines we all remember. Rarely does anyone note the delivery of the lines, and that was Brett’s genius.

Our friend Kris Hambrick from Hello Earth is also a Sherlockian, and in preparing for a talk she was giving about the cinematic Holmes she asked folks to name their favorite, adding that she wanted to focus on what the actors were actually doing. For me it was a no-brainer.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a wonderful sampling….

And here is the real Jeremy Brett, being delightfully humble and charming.

One more, that completely encapsulates everything I loved about Brett’s Holmes. Smart, funny, razor wit…. and badassed.

I’ve said I’m not a Doyle purist, but Jeremy Brett was, and that likely had a great deal to do with his success.

He wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes, of course. He did lots of other stuff. He was one of Eliza Doolittle’s gentleman suitors in My Fair Lady; he was D’artagnan; and often he was a villain.

There was even that one time Brett went up against the Hulk.

But his Holmes eclipsed everything else, and justifiably so. It was his finest hour. I have enjoyed the recent revival of interest in Sherlock that came with Cumberbatch and Downey and McKellen… but for me, Brett’s will always be the version. Here’s one more interview…

Here, also, just for the hell of it, is one of my favorite Watsons, Edward Hardwicke, who has some interesting anecdotes about working with Brett.

Happy birthday, Jeremy Brett. Wherever your spirit resides, know that you are still appreciated… and still missed.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. I agree Brett is the best, even though I grew up with Rathbone (and rewatching those films recently, I find I like them even more than I used to). But here’s a question, who do you think is the worst?
    I think my personal worst is Douglas Wilmer who did some 1960s Holmes TV adaptations in England. He’s lacking in any sort of energy and nerve; in fact, his plummy upper-crust accent makes him come across pompous and stuffy, which is totally un-Holmes.

    1. Worst? That’s a tough one. More often it’s the fault of the script than the actor. Christopher Lee was a pretty fair Holmes but Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace is an excruciatingly bad movie.

      I think I’d probably go with Roger Moore in Sherlock Holmes in New York, though Charlton Heston in Crucifer of Blood is a close runner-up.

        1. And the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore Hound of the Baskervilles was also pretty horrible. Perhaps I should rephrase my question as “worst Sherlock where the production aspired to some level of competence.”
          I agree about the script often being a problem. I gave up on the Rupert Everett Holmes when it starts with him smoking opium.

      1. I agree, Moore and Heston were both pretty bad. I don’t think I could even finish the Heston TV-movie version of Crucifer of Blood. And I’m sure you know that Brett played Dr. Watson to Heston’s Holmes when it was done as a play.

        The 2002 TV-movie Sherlock: Case of Evil is also horrendous. That version was so clueless that it had a young Sherlock Holmes having a threesome with two groupies. (I wish to God I was making that up, but I am not.)

  2. Jeremy Brett was great, as was both David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. I have enjoyed watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock a great deal, but for that feeling of absolute authenticity, there’s no way who ever outpaced Jeremy Brett.

    Of course, there are lots of versions I have never seen, but one of my least favorite is Brent Spiner as Data as Sherlock Holmes on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seems like, if Data is to be trusted, that the 24th century impression of Holmes is a collection of all the worst cliches about the character.

  3. Alaric

    Brett’s my favorite Holmes, too. I like Cumberbatch, but his take on the character has always struck me as too blatantly eccentric (I know that the begining of A Study in Scarlet is all about how eccentric Holmes seemed to Watson at first, but that was all stuff Watson noticed while living with Holmes, not stuff that would stand out while Holmes was just walking down the street). Rathbone was always great in everything he did, but his Holmes still wasn’t quite right- or rather, he comes across as a sort of shorthand version of the character.

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