TV: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and films


Granada Television

Starring:  Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, Rosalie Williams, Colin Jeavons

Like I said last time: here we are.  We’ve gotten to the good stuff.  As far as I’m concerned, Brett’s portrayal is the definitive Holmes.  I think Cumberbatch is excellent in Sherlock (and I’ll get to that next time), but Brett was the actor who defined the nuanced Holmes.

holmesSherlock Holmes, ladies and gents.

Where to start, where to start?  The writing is excellent.  Occasionally the screenwriters make changes to the story, usually in the interest of fitting the cases into the 50 min. time frame and to follow the crescendo narrative format.  Which is fine–the original stories do not always fit into a good pattern for TV.  The changes work pretty well and are not outlandish.  Sometimes the scripts redistribute the dialogue from the original, which again makes sense for TV–can’t have Watson standing around like a stump the whole time.

The costuming and scenery are likewise excellent.  They present such a complete, historically accurate world that you forget you’re watching a representation.  The detail with which they flesh out their sitting room at 221b, the houses and locations they visit…the detailed, well fitted, well designed costumes that even the extras wear…it’s wonderful.  Likewise the music is very good and really fits the action on-screen.

room221b Baker St.

All of this sets the perfect stage for the actors.  There was (and still is) a huge pool of great UK-based actors from which to cast the characters that appear in the cases.  It’s fun to watch and recognize actors that you know from other British TV productions.

witchThe Witchsmeller Pursuivant!

A particularly good bit of casting is Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes.  He does a good job of illustrating the differences and similarities between the two brothers, tailored to Brett’s Holmes.  Gray makes you want more Mycroft.  Colin Jeavons’ Lestrade is pretty lovable, and the show portrays Holmes’ soft spot for him, rather than just out-right contempt.  Another highlight: Rosalie Williams as an adorable, caring, and not at all irritating Mrs. Hudson.

mycroftMycroft Holmes.

It is Jeremy Brett, though, that makes this Doyle adaptation really shine.  His Holmes is so vibrant–he’s got the dramatic flair, the tenacity, the attitude, the gravitas, even the odd moment of sentimentality that a lot of other adaptations miss.  Indeed, according to David Burke, Brett carried a volume of collected  Sherlock Holmes everywhere on set, and made sure everyone around him was dressed correctly and remained as true to the text as they could (in the nicest way possible, said Burke).

fightKicking the ass of an uncouth ruffian.

When you watch the entire series, you’ll notice a marked change in his appearance–if you want the tale of Jeremy Brett’s untimely death, you’re welcome to look it up, but I shall not relate such a sad story here. His Holmes, though, never changed.  Brett was just as superb in the first episode as in the last.

costumeIn costume–totally fooled Watson.

Amongst fans of the show there is an on-going “Watson: Burke v. Hardwicke” debate.  Actor David Burke played Dr. Watson for the first series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  When that proved to be very popular, Granada decided to produce another series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes.  However, Burke wasn’t available to reprise his role, so actor Edward Hardwicke stepped in.

watsonsBurke or Hardwicke?

I come down firmly on the Hardwicke side.  I like David Burke’s Watson fine, and it’s streets away from most other Watsons, but he’s still played as being a bit confused.  Kind of too childishly eager at times. Edward Hardwicke, though, plays Watson as I’d always imagined him.  He’s amazed and impressed by Holmes without seeming lost or dim–remember, Watson is an army officer and accomplished doctor (another reason why Nigel Bruce’s idiotic Watson makes no sense–would you want him operating on you in the middle of a battlefield?  He’d probably cut off the wrong leg).

(Note from the future:  The more adaptations I watch, the more I appreciate Burke’s Watson.  I still prefer Hardwicke, but I don’t think I gave Burke enough credit when I originally wrote this.  Burke brought a clean dignity to the role and he does a great wide-eyed expression when Holmes drops a bomb on him.  Also, his mustache is excellent.)

Hardwicke’s Watson is a warm and caring friend to Holmes.  He is also authoritative and insistent and does well when he’s on his own, off on some mission to scope out a case.  And thanks to good scripts, neither Burke nor Hardwicke have to idiotically bungle things up or bemusedly “harumph-harumph” whilst smoking a pipe.

hudsonMrs. Hudson is glad for good scripts too.

Brett and Hardwicke also made five feature length films.  These are kind of a mixed bag.  The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles are good, but the other three are just ok.  The editors got kind of 80’s-cute with some transitions and visual effects, which really takes you out of the the story.  They’re still worth watching, though.  There are some good villains in the films–love it when Robert Hardy gets his comeuppance in The Master Blackmailer.

coverShiny box set.

I can highly recommend the big, beautiful complete box set.  A little pricey, but totally worth it.


The Bottom Line:  As close to Doyle’s Holmes as one can get.  Have I adequately expressed how much I love this series?

Next time:  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman!

3 responses

  1. An excellent review! I can’t quite agree with you on your assessment of the movies (I love the Sign of Four but I’m…not so fond of the Hound), but I do agree that Brett’s portrayal of Holmes was the most thought-out and nuanced one that we have.

    I wanted to ask – are you going to consider the TV Russia Holmes in your series of reviews? Because that’s the only one that can stand right up there with Granada as a thoughtful, well-rounded portrayal of Holmes and his world. Just my .02.


    • Thanks for your $0.02. I will definitely have to watch this Russian Holmes of whom you speak. Always appreciate recommendations! I’ll be doing this next year for the month of May as well, and plan to delve a little deeper–Ronald Howard, Murder By Decree, Russian Holmes, that sort of thing.


      • The one of which I speak is the Russian series made by LenFilm starting in 1979, not the new series which still hasn’t been released. It is superb, apart from the inevitable little weirdnesses that come with making films about a foreign country. (Amazing how much Dartmoor looks like…someplace in Russia.) Vasily Livanov is everything a Holmes should be and Vasily Solomin just might be the best Watson ever.
        Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford are simply adorable together, but, oof.; most of the stories are pretty awful. However, that’s another series definitely worth a watch.
        I’ll be interested to see your comments when you publish them.


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