(Cross-posted at NewCritics)
It was with a hearty whinny of joy that I stumbled quite by accident recently upon a rebroadcast on The Biography Channel of "The Adventure of the Empty House," one of the Sherlock Holmes series made by Granada Television between 1984 and 1994. The prospect of spending even the merest hour with Jeremy Brett's unspeakably wonderful portrayal of the great detective was a delicious one, and when, through the magic of TiVo, I discovered that the whole series was being rebroadcast, I mashed the "Season Pass" button, poured myself a glass of medicinal brandy (the Seven-Percent Solution being no longer an avenue of pleasure open to me), lit a fire in the grate and prepared to bask in the glow of Brett's portrayal -- an unalloyed pleasure I had missed for a decade.
The intervening years had done nothing to dim Brett's light. He is magnificent.
When, as a stripling of twelve summers, I first came across the Sherlock Holmes stories, my first impression of Holmes was this was one hurting mamma-jamma. Those miraculous feats of near-psychic deduction near the beginning of many of the stories, where Holmes divines a visitor's profession, marital status, and military service within three minutes of his entry in the room, seemed to me to speak of a rather tortured soul -- who would ever want to be cursed with such acute powers, if they came attended by such heartache?
Brett's Holmes is a marvelously twitchy bundle of neuroses, a clearly tormented man. The episode I happened upon is (as any fule kno) the triumphant return of Holmes to London after the absence occasioned by his encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls; Watson (played with consummate aplomb by Edward Hardwicke) has believed Holmes to be dead for three years. What struck one about their reunion was both the tenderness of the affection between the two men -- evinced by Brett with brilliantly acted fleeting moments of warmth breaking through his otherwise austere face -- but also a deep sadness at Holmes' imprisonment inside his genius, which leaves him strangely immune to ordinary human happiness.
It's perhaps difficult to see through the filter of 100 years, but Holmes would have been seen by his contemporary audience as a profoundly eccentric man. Brett understands this to the core of his actor's soul, and imbues Holmes' every movement with revealing quirks. When interested by a new development, he doesn't merely sit in a chair, he leaps into it with feline quickness, folds his legs under himself, and glares with attention. When a sofa blocks his path to Watson, he flings himself onto his knees on the cushions, leans over the back, and continues talking -- a caprice perhaps forgivable in a child, but terribly gauche in a Victorian gentleman.
Yet in other ways, he is urbanity itself. He wears the proper clothes for the occasion and location (the archetypal deerstalker cap and Inverness cape being ridiculous on a gentleman in the city). His diction is perfect. His manners are, if brusque, never misdirected. He gives an ineluctable impression of a man steeped in, yet immune to, the infinite variety of human evil. Tiny movements of the muscles of his face betray compassion, empathy, identity with the plight of his supplicants, the blameless victims of fortune (except, of course, when they're not). He often tests Watson's patience by withholding information, but it's a measure of both Watson's trust and Holmes' gentlemanliness that the relationship survives without recrimination.
I detested the Basil Rathbone Holmes films. Rathbone himself was not to blame; his Holmes was as good as the script could allow. What I hated was the fact that the filmmakers didn't trust their audience to follow Conan Doyle's plots or his dialog, and revised both to the point of complete unrecognizability. It was a point of some pride in my youth that I could (admittedly, with some difficulty) track with Doyle's late-Victorian prose; the howling 1940's anachronisms that would emit from Rathbone's mouth made me cringe. Holmes fighting Nazis, for all love!
Of course, editing the Holmes canon down to a one-hour television format necessitates some telescoping and elisions, but the job done by director John Hawkesworth and his team of writers is skilled and sympathetic. At no time have I been irritated by the redactions to Doyle's immortal stories. I now keep my well-worn copy of the Complete Stories on the coffee table in the den, and amuse myself by following along in the text as the show plays. I'm fascinated by the differences between the two, the decisions the writers made in trying to keep faith with Doyle's blueprints. I followed with great interest during "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"; a speech by Holmes that begins, "There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," marks, as far as I remember, the only time that Holmes ever seriously discusses God except in passing, or ever conflates mystery with Mystery. Doyle's version of the dialog fizzles a bit -- it opens a parenthesis in the story that has no real corresponding closing parenthesis. The Hawkesworth passage ends with a bang, leaving no doubt as to the subtext under discussion; Brett's Holmes replaces the rose that has sparked his reverie in its vase and pronounces with great import, "...and I am no magician!" It is, by God, an improvement, and I'll fight anyone who says it ain't.
It's a monumental shame that Brett died in 1994, before the whole Holmes canon could be completed. But Brett's Holmes will forever be the definitive one in my mind. He is precisely the character that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, the man who enslaved this twelve-year-old boy forever.