Book Review - Jeremy Brett, Playing A Part - not just Sherlock

Posted by Steve Emecz on

Review by: Wendy Heyman-Marsaw, author of Memoirs from Mrs. Hudson’s Kitchen

Ms. Whittaker has a remarkable achievement in Jeremy Brett Playing a Part. She goes far beyond a simple chronology of all his performances by documenting them with excellent primary sources, hundreds of photographs (many of them heretofore unpublished), anecdotes and a unique insight into Jeremy Brett as a humble man and a generous and brilliant actor. There is a charming and intimate forward by David Burke - Brett’s first Watson.  The section devoted to Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is a tour de force. Ms. Whittaker clearly knows the Canon and provides an astute and scholarly insight into Brett’s contributions to each of the 41 television episodes. Ms. Whittaker includes a quote from Stephen Fry that perhaps best sums up Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes:

I have no doubt that few performances in the history of television drama were as perfect, as passionate, exquisitely realized and definitively delivered as that of Jeremy Brett’s extraordinary Sherlock Holmes.”

Although the book is over 400 pages long, I found myself looking forward to what subsequent pages would reveal.

It is clearly evident that Ms. Whittaker conducted exhaustive, impeccable research into each role Jeremy Brett played. As a classically trained actor, mentored by the great Lord Laurence Olivier, he moved seamlessly among a breadth of genres including the Shakespearean Canon, comedy, musicals and drama. He was highly regarded by British audiences and critically acclaimed in the UK for his appearances on stage, in films and television. Ms. Whittaker provides a rich contextual backdrop for every part he played including Hamlet, Macbeth, D’Artagnan, Lord Byron, Dorian Gray, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Dracula, Doctor Watson and particularly his 10 years as Granada TV’s Sherlock Holmes. There is a profound analysis into each production, revealing plot summaries, challenges, critical reaction and anecdotes relative to Brett’s and other actor’s contributions. We also learn, for example, that Mr. Brett was seriously considered for the role of James Bond, but ironically he was concerned with being typecast.

Only strictly relevant biographical information is provided in this book - there is no gossip or speculation. Brett’s own words, those of his fellow actors, writers and critics describe and reflect his character and performances. Here is a typical Brett enthusiastic and delightful response:

It’s utterly thrilling! I mean that it is wonderful. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. I’m thrilled to bits. Who would have thought that Jeremy Huggins of Warwickshire, the son of a soldier, would win such an accolade. It’s absolutely bizarre!”

His study of the Sherlockian Canon is reflected in Brett’s own annotated copy which was never far from his side. Interestingly, he was the only actor to consult with Dame Jean Conan Doyle, for which she was very grateful. Ms. Whittaker’s in-depth episode analysis carefully documents where the story diverts from the original text – something that Brett was quick to identify as well.  He found Holmes to be “frightfully difficult to play” and said it was “more complex than Macbeth”. In his own words he compares himself to Holmes:

He was a tremendous realist, I’m a romantic. He was immensely serious, I’m rather a jolly chap. It’s difficult to say what I have given Holmes. Faithful to Conan Doyle’s text, certainly. Also I’ve tried to bring out the emotion that there is in Holmes. On the surface he seems a cold sometimes dark, rather off-putting figure. But deeper down, I think he is a man of feeling.” 

The series continued for 10 years (1984-1994) and aired in 70 countries.  Brett finally achieved the international recognition he so greatly deserved, however, he never received a BAFTA or Emmy award.

During a hiatus in filming, Edward Hardwicke and Jeremy Brett appeared in a 2-man play which ran for 300 performances, “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”. Ms. Whittaker notes that Brett frequently ad-libbed lines which kept Hardwicke on his toes and the production fresh. Brett also kept his dressing room door open and received his fans graciously.


Ms. Whittaker includes this quote:

Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes”.

Jeremy Brett Playing a Part is available in three formats - B&W and colour paperbacks and Hardcase Colour.

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