So, it’s Jeremy Brett’s birthday, and I don’t have any nice graphics or anything made to celebrate his memory. Just words.
A lot of people follow my blog, a lot of different people. Some for Doctor Who, some for Star Wars, some maybe for the hodgepodge of other things I reblog. My point is, a lot of my followers are not Sherlock Holmes fans, and probably have no idea who Jeremy Brett is.
So today, on what should have been his eighty-third birthday, I’d like to tell you about him.
Jeremy Brett was born Peter Jeremy William Huggins on this date in 1933. He was born into privilege, so when he decided to become an actor and his daddy didn’t approve, he changed his name (dorkily taking a new surname from his clothes). He was born with a speech impediment to his tongue, one that was surgically removed when he was 17, and he had to take speech classes before he could start acting. For the rest of his life, there was a leftover, however, in that impediment in the way that he trilled his r’s.
There’s a lot that I could tell you about Jeremy’s life, including the fact that he was bisexual and in an apparently happy relationship with another man for a few years, but this isn’t meant to be an autobiography. I’m skipping about thirty years to get to Granada.
Or what we call “Granada.” See, “Granada” is actually the ITV company that produced several “series” of Sherlock Holmes episodes, with four separate titles. Thus, it’s easier for Sherlockians just to call it “the Granada series.”
From the start, the fifty-year-old Jeremy Brett was well-received as Sherlock Holmes. The creators of the show had wanted to produce a faithful adaptation of the original stories with a handsome, elegant actor to star, and they hit the jackpot. Jeremy brought the Great Detective to life in a way that is still being lauded today as the “definitive Sherlock Holmes.” For that alone, he will always have a special place in the heart of many Sherlock Holmes fans. Whatever fandom you’re in, you know the magic of that one actor or actress that just makes the whole thing for you. For lots of us, that magic is Jeremy Brett.
But that isn’t where it ends. After filming the second season of Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy lost his beloved second wife (the director of PBS Masterpiece then, Joan Wilson) to cancer, and about a year later, he himself suffered a sort of breakdown in mental health. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the story goes that his adult son was so scared to see him in the hospital that Jeremy vowed to really fight this thing for his sake.
But starting from the fourth season of the show on, you can watch the deterioration in Jeremy’s physical health. The medication he was put on for manic depression made him retain water, so from the fourth to tenth and final year of the show, you can see the abnormal weight gain. To make things worse, he was a chain smoker, and his second Watson, Edward Hardwicke, recalled him smoking something like 5 packs of cigarettes a day.
But Jeremy did his level best not to let his sickness bring him down. One thing that many of his fans love him for is that, by all accounts, he was one of the sweetest men ever to walk the earth. Any one of the cast members who has ever talked about working with him has related fond memories; Martina Sirtis of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame has actually tweeted that working with him was one of the highlights of her career. For the record, she never even shared a scene with him when she guest-starred in a Sherlock Holmes episode, but she enjoyed it, anyway. More than one cast member has talked about the way that Jeremy would even break into song between takes and on lunch breaks.
What a treat. We don’t even have his voice singing his character’s songs in My Fair Lady.
But all good things have to come to an end, and we’re coming to the end of this story. After ten years in the saddle, Jeremy Brett and Granada seemed to mutually decide to end the show, despite Jeremy’s previous ambition to film all 60 original stories (they filmed 42, instead, still the longest-held record for a film adaptation). It was time. Jeremy had not been physically able to star in all seven final episodes as he once would have done, and on the last, wore an oxygen mask between takes and actually collapsed during one take.
“But, darlings, the show must go on!”
That’s what he told the crew. The Sherlockian fandom is making sure those words are immortalized.
In 1995, a year after the show had ended, Jeremy Brett passed away in his sleep, taken too soon from us at the age of 61.
When you see me or other Sherlockians going crazy over Jeremy Brett, we are, of course, adoring how lovely and perfect he is, either in or out of character; but more than that: we know about the pain he suffered, his perseverance, his sweetness and his kindness, his “grace under pressure,” and we honor him for it.
Maybe Jeremy Brett isn’t actually objectively “the best” Sherlock Holmes. Maybe there’s actually no such thing.
But it’s certain that there’s never been another actor who gave it his all like Jeremy did, and there probably never will be. (And for their own sakes, I hope not, and Jeremy probably would, too.)
So today, we honor his memory, and we find inspiration to not give up on ourselves, to forge ahead as he did. As he was so fond of saying, “Upwards and onwards!”