Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Jeremy Brett quarrel

We all have our favorite Sherlocks and our non-favorite Sherlocks. We love connecting with people on the ones we love, and, well, we also love connecting with people on the ones we don't really love. No one wants to be a hater, but sometimes a Sherlock just doesn't do it for you. It happens.

A lot of people have connected over their lack of taste regarding Will Ferrell's Holmes, and I get that. Not everyone can be cool. That's why Fonzie was the breakout character on Happy Days. (For you future generations: Happy Days was this popular show about the 1950s in the 1970s, much like That 70s Show in the 1990s-2000s. Every twenty years, we have to celebrate/mock our past. But I digress.) Yet sometimes, our dislike of a particular Sherlock does not really connect with our peers, and we find ourselves needing to explain matters.

So let's talk Jeremy Brett. Yeah. Jeremy Brett.

Granada Television produced what is undeniably some of the finest adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes Canon ever with their The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Things might have gotten a little strange toward the end of their Case-book and Memoirs runs, but overall, those productions were nothing short of amazing. From the Baker Street sets to the recreations of Sidney Paget drawings, there was so much to love about that series.

But at its center: Jeremy Brett. Yes, I said "but."

I really don't like going here, as I know what a beloved figure he is to so many Sherlockians, but as the matter came up a little while ago on The Final Podblem podcast with much disbelief that a human could find displeasure with Mr. Brett, it seemed like a moment to explain my reaction, and maybe provide a target for folks to release their virus quarantine stress by reacting to same.

In 1984, when Jeremy Brett first donned his top hat and walked into our Sherlockian lives, I was at a high point of Sherlockian enthusiasm. Connecting with the Sherlockian world, writing for journals and newsletters, just in a fever pitch of loving Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. My mental image of Holmes had been influenced by Rathbone, Stephens, and Cushing, but largely came from the Canon, and even when pretty boys like Roger Moore and Christopher Plummer played the role, they knew that Sherlock Holmes was one thing above all others: The coolest cat in the room. A genius, asexual James Bond.

He wasn't twitchy. He didn't have weird little facial tics. And when he said the line "Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay," there were some mother-loving exclamation points in that statement. Jeremy Brett's choices in portraying Holmes were entirely different from my mental image of the character, and set amid an otherwise perfect Baker Street scene, just served as the grit in an otherwise comfortable fit. Were this a less Canonical production, like Elementary, not as big a deal, but to give a Sherlockian at the height of his fanaticism something that is SO close to perfect and then eff it up with some scene-chewing acting that pulled attention where it shouldn't be?

Let's tie it to something that might be more relatable for some: Season four of BBC Sherlock. (And maybe some episodes before that.) Many of those who love Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson were so much more infuriated by those latter episodes because the earlier one were just so very good, and so much what they wanted from the series. They'll hold those grudges for long into their Sherlockian lives, because at a time of fever pitch, they got so very close to that perfect thing they saw in their heads, and their team missed the shot over and over in the final quarter. You just don't get over that stuff, even though it lessens with time. You may even allow that later viewers might not find the issue nearly so awful as it was to you at that time, but it remains with you, as any experience makes you a part of who you are.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The Doublemeat Palace season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jeremy Brett . . . who, okay, might not have been as tragic as those other two, but still . . . moments in time we never get back, that could have just been so . . . well, you know.

As generations pass, kids grow up watching The Phantom Menace without knowing what a disappointment it was for some. Sherlockians come into Holmes with Jeremy Brett as a standard starter place. And that's cool. A lot of folks found him perfectly lovely back in the day. I don't insist upon my view of the matter, as I know it comes from my own path to Sherlock Holmes. We all have our paths to how we come to be who we are.

And how about that Will Ferrell, though? Something about the way he just caught some essence of Holmes while still being a Will Ferrell character . . . chef's kiss!


  1. Those facial tics, twitchiness and scenery chewing are in the Canon. Jeremy Brett brought the queerness and neurodivergence back to Holmes and for some reason that annoys people. One wonders why...

  2. I agree with much of what you said. I always disliked overacting, and when the last of the series became an exercise in directorial self-expression rather than the original effort to simply display the stories as they were, I gave up! -- Esmerelda