Jeremy Brett: Interview
In 1988 Jeremy Brett, then at the height of his fame as TV’s ideal Holmes, decided to take the Victorian detective from the small screen and on to the stage. He appeared, with his second TV Watson, Edward Hardwicke, in the two-hander ‘The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.’ It was during the London run of this play that I interviewed Brett in his dressing room in the Wyndham Theatre. The interview was subsequently published – heavily truncated and sanitised.
After moving house several times and spring cleaning regularly over the intervening years, I thought the taped interview lost. However, recently I found a copy of the tape that I had used in the transcription process. So here, after nearly twenty years, is the ebullient Mr Brett expressing his uncensored views on the character that dominated the last years of his career, his different approach to acting for the stage and the camera, his feelings about critics and fans, even why he changed his hairstyle while playing the great detective. His mood during the conversation moved from garrulous to defencive, and from expansive to reflective.
We first discussed the difference between playing Holmes on TV and on stage. Although, Brett said he enjoyed stage work he told me he found it easier to portray the character through the medium of television.
“The thing about working on the stage that makes it harder is that film is so instantly near it can see right into the person’s soul. With someone so unbelievably isolated and closed, as Holmes is, it’s sometimes easier to get the internal workings of the private man across on camera. He is such a private creature… and with the camera you can slide in and see the flicker of things across his face. You can see little things that sometimes at the back of the theatre you can’t see. Little disappointments, little angers, little changes of mind. Of course, the other things you can get across on camera are his brilliant deductions and observations, but also his amazing intuition. And that’s easier to do on film.”
Brett explained that he hadn’t radically altered his characterisation for the transition from screen to stage, as he believed the techniques required were roughly similar.
“I call the camera lens the winking moose’s eye. A big brown moose eye that you look into and act toward. It’s also the shape of a rectangle and, therefore, you are aiming to fill that particular frame. So, if you are standing facing the camera that is the point of the triangle which you are aiming toward. Now in the theatre you just reverse the triangle and you are aiming outwards, in two different directions, so it’s wider.”
Brett found the relationship between Holmes and the theatre audience difficult at first. He said, he saw Holmes as, “a man of isolation… a very private man.” So he strove in his performance to bring out the inner workings of the character. He told me he tried to show the audience Holmes’ “shyness… his sense of detachment,” personality traits he believed would have been amplified by the character’s “constant pursuance of his special subject,” But he did not let them see these aspects of the character from the start. To convey the feeling of lonely introspection he let them in gradually.
“I try not to look at them for the first fifteen minutes… I don’t even look at Watson very much either… I kind of gradually open up to them. That was the hard part of moving into the theatre. But my director [Patrick Garland] helped me with that. He said, ‘put a pane of glass down between you and the audience and don’t look at them, ignore them, and then after about fifteen minutes warm-through let them in.’”
I asked him how he approached playing a character like Sherlock Holmes.
“When I have been playing Holmes… and what I prefer to do is sink myself into the character and leave myself behind. I always take the image of a sponge – which is me. And I squeeze out the liquid of myself out and draw in the liquid of the character I am playing.
“To bring it off the printed page for myself, I invented little stories about him. About the loneliness of his university days, of his brilliance at sports, and his total removal from any kind of social activity… Which are little images I have had for the last six years of what it might have been like. To throw any more light one can possibly think of on to what might have made him and Mycroft so… typically Victorian I hasten to add… Probably he didn’t actually see his father till he was twelve, and his mother was just a lady moving through a passageway, because they were taken care of by a starch-crisp nurse… So, everything to bring a bit more illumination.”
Brett’s musings were incorporated into the play and added to the interest of the piece. The actor, who worked closely with the author in this regard, praised the handling of both the familiar and unfamiliar elements of the play’s text.
“I’ve got this marvellous author, Jeremy Paul, and we’ve done four together of the original short stories [on TV]. He did ‘The Speckled Band,’ ‘The Naval Treaty,’ ‘The Wisteria Lodge,’ and ‘The Musgrave Ritual.’ So I have known him over the last five, nearly six, years.
“I sent him eight hours of tape. I just rattled off my ideas, and so when it comes to moments of leaving the canon – like when [Holmes] talks of his childhood – Jeremy [Paul] has taken them directly from the tapes.
“The thing I love about the play is that it gives Watson much more to say than the canon does, because naturally it was in the first person. I remember David Burke [the first Watson], when we finished ‘The Speckled Band,’ saying, ‘I had only thirty-six words to say in the entire film!’ And this play does give Watson a platform to speak. Which I think is vital.”
He referred several times to the ‘canon’, the original stories as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which he believed should be the touch stone for every actor playing Holmes. He, also, believed that it was important to have a good Watson, to give reality to Holmes, as he thought of them as two halves of a duality.
“Watson and Holmes are two halves of the same person. They are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a brilliant creation their friendship, and it needs both, you can’t have the one without the other, it’s impossible.
“The play is about friendship, which I think, is terribly important, because, it’s a bygone thing. It’s a Victorian thing, it’s a Greek thing. But in the eighties it has lost its way through the rise of feminism – nothing wrong in that… But, men have lost all dignity in their personal friendships. And therefore, I think it’s quite foreign to the young, and, obviously, to the middle-aged as well… I mean two gentlemen sharing. It’s immediately suspect, or the ‘odd couple.’ So, that’s really what the play is about… it’s about love actually. I am so glad that several of the critics have managed to tune into that… not in a jaundiced sense… That’s what we were aiming for, to show these two remarkable men.”
Brett hoped the play would, “persuade people to see that Doyle is the literary giant that he is. Because he wrote thrillers he has been dismissed really, and he is up there with Dickens. He has not yet been put historically, I think, into the right place. So, I am hoping this play will help.”
The play contained some of the best of Doyle’s writing. Passages usually cut out when the stories are dramatised. Brett cited two example, calling them, “beautiful pieces of prose.”
“The speech about flying through windows… and the speech about what a lovely thing a rose is, which is directly taken from ‘The Naval Treaty.’ In the play they are lifted verbatim from the page.
“When we move into the coup de theatre of the second half, I think it’s a divertissement of some density. But I don’t think it matters too much, and Dame Jean Conan Doyle has been very gracious about it, and has indeed have the Sherlock Holmes Society, who have given it their blessing, because we come back full circle to them together in Baker Street, and maybe you have had a little tiny extra glimpse of these two remarkable men, that which you may not have seen before.”
The play also displayed the wit inherent in the original stories. With most of the humorous touches coming directly from Doyle’s originals.
“Yes they’re there. It’s extraordinary… But you see, when you are reading a thriller you don’t laugh… If I’ve done anything I’ve brought in a little humour, which, I believe, people are grateful for.”
The play brought Brett into contact with people who admired his TV portrayal. He admitted he found this, “slightly overwhelming.”
”First of all it’s thrilling. I’ve had people at the stage door, which I’ve not had for the last six years – because I have been filming and going back to the hotel. So I’ve had people asking for my autograph from Alaska, from Japan, from New Mexico, from Australia, from East Germany, New Zealand, from all over, all round the world.”
“One reads that we’ve sold the films to over seventy counties now. And, of course, it’s exciting that it’s being shown in China, as they’ve never heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so they’re reading the books.
“I think that’s one of the pleasing things, about the films particularly, that it’s taken people back to the books. So many children are coming to the show, and they’re carrying the canon! They’re into Doyle, that’s very exciting, television taking people back to literature, it’s incredible! Lovely”
During the course of filming the Sherlock Holmes TV series Brett changed the character’s hairstyle, from the traditional swept back look to a more radical, shorter, brushed forward cut. I asked him why the style had been changed.
“It’s so trivial it’s hardly worth mentioning… But, the thing is when you wear your hair as I was, and am wearing it again now, I have to gel my hair. Now gel is a very nasty thing to wear on a daily basis especialy when it’s as severe as it has to be. And sometimes when I have been filming I’ve had to gel twice in one day. And you really feel like a… It sets like cement, and it’s very uncomfortable. And I thought if I could get the same effect with short hair – and, I think, to a large degree I did – then I wouldn’t have to gel… gung my hair. So that’s why I did it and I think it worked. I think it made a nice change.”
Brett told me he had drawn inspiration for the style from one of Sydney Paget’s original ‘Strand Magazine’ illustrations of Holmes, “the one where [he] is drawing up his knees up under his chin. He is smoking the small clay pipe he uses when in one of his meditative moods.” The portrait, from ‘The Red-Headed League,’ shows the great detective in profile, and does resemble the hairstyle Brett had in later episodes of TV’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes.’
“I have gone back to the old one, because the terribly dangerous thing about the short one was that it could also look modern. I remember when I first had it done, I walked down the street and saw someone walking toward me with almost exactly the same haircut, and I thought, oh god!
“The one I have now is also wrong, for me anyway, for it looks too much like Noel Coward. Nancy Banks Smith, who I call the Bag Lady of Fleet Street, was very unkind about ‘Scandal in Bohemia,’ she wrote that when I took my makeup off, as the disguise of the groom, there was Noel Coward underneath. And these little things get under your skin you know, and it really upset me that. So I thought I’d try something else… And anyway f..k her, if you’ll excuse the expression. Now I have gone back to this.”
Nancy Banks Smith, at the time the ‘Guardian’ newspaper’s TV critic, actually praised ‘Scandal in Bohemia.’ She described it as “luxurious, even luscious, way of passing the time.” Her remarks about Brett’s Holmes resembling Noel Coward were obviously light hearted. Brett’s reaction to the review seems to have been uncalled for in the extreme.
Brett told Holmes expert David Stuart Davies that he changed his hair so that, “I can play with [it], run my fingers through it, ruffle it… it’s something else to help me play the character.” His second Watson, Edward Hardwicke, believed he cut his hair because he had begun to hate the character of Holmes. It may have been a combination of the three different reasons Brett gave for the change (and Hardwicke’s conjecture) – the problem with gel, it added to the characterisation and as a reaction to criticism. However, I think the latter had the most weight, as he told me (after first blaming the gel) that his real upset at the criticism was why he thought he’d “try something else.” During the course of the interview he would often return to the subject of his reaction to Bank’s Smith remark. For instance, he quite plainly told me, “It is true that little remarks can get under your skin. I mean little things like that… and that’s why I changed my hairstyle…” His then five year held resentment says less about Bank’s Smith’s review and more about his insecurities and emotional fragility. When I asked him how he reacted to negative criticism of his portrayal of Holmes – particularly from some sections of the American Sherlockian fan community – he changed suddenly from being friendly and open to being tetchy and defensive.
“I have had nothing but praise. I have received twelve plaques from twelve societies for being the best Holmes ever. I haven’t heard any negative criticism [from America]… I was over there in ’85 and I think we had got as far as number seven [in the first TV series] and I was given the plaque for the best Holmes ever then by the Sherlockians and the Doylians.”
Brett, however, did admit that he believed any actor playing Holmes would find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve universal acceptance in the role.
“The trouble is… what you’re actually doing as an actor, if you’re playing a part as famous as this creation of Doyle, is all I’m doing is a brass rubbing. Everyone is Holmes men women and children. Everyone has their own image of Holmes, I have my own image of Sherlock Holmes, we all do. We all have a picture of him when we read the stories, and therefore, you’re just doing a kind of brass rubbing of it. A transparency of it, which one hopes isn’t going to upset the image the other people have of him.
“In New York I saw this six foot four Blackman, walking along with a deerstalker and meerschaum pipe, and I thought, there you are he’s tripping, he’s Sherlock Holmes today.
“Then we had the Sherlock Holmes Society in New York, and they met me to give me this thing, and I walked in, and I was the only one dressed as a civilian. Everyone else was dressed as either Holmes, or Watson, or Moriarty, or Irene Adler, or as Mrs Hudson. But I suddenly thought, of course, what one is doing is only an impression, that’s all actors can do to a monument like this.
“Bennet the chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London came down to see me in Guilford, and was terribly sweet. He showed me a picture of the unveiling of a statue of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. And it was back to the big ears, the hooked nose, and the deerstalker, and meerschaum pipe. But, that is the image, that is the cliché. That’s the way it will be for so many.”
However, Brett said he had one consolation:
“I have this lovely blessing over my head; Dame Jean Conan Doyle says I am the Sherlock Holmes of her childhood. That helps a lot… I don’t have to think of Nancy Banks Smith very often!”
By this point in the interview Jeremy Brett’s good humour had returned to a certain extent. When our conversation was almost drowned out by fire engine sirens from outside, he jokingly said, “I am sorry about this noise I think London’s on fire!”
I ended my original version of the interview with the following observation, which I believe still holds true nearly twenty years on:
‘Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is fundamentally faithful to Doyle’s original. The magnetism of his bravura performance attracts a new generation of admirers to the stories. In the years to come it will be his face they see when they read the books, and it will be his voice they hear when the great detective speaks. A part of the monument, that is the legend of Sherlock Holmes, now has Brett’s name indelibly carved on it.’