Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett and “A Scandal In Bohemia”

Jeremy Brett

From David Stuart Davies’ excellent book “Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes” on the very start of the first broadcasted episode:

Viewers in Great Britain saw the first episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on a mild spring evening in 1984. The story featured was the first to be published in The Strand: ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. However, it was not the first to be filmed. Michael Cox considered this story a very important one: not only does it present the viewing public with their first glimpse of the new Sherlock Holmes, but it also deals with his strange, ambivalent relationship with the American adventuress Irene Adler, whom Holmes regarded as ‘The Woman’. Holmes’s relationship with Irene Adler, such as it is, has suggestive undertones of repressed sexuality. She is the only woman in the whole canon to whom Holmes expresses a personal warmth that goes beyond mere pleasantry. Michael Cox wanted to make sure that both Brett and Burke were feeling reasonably comfortable with their rôles, especially Brett, before he embarked on the filming of ‘Scandal’. In fact it was the third show to be shot. The delay was worth it: the result was special.

Alexander Baron’s dramatisation of ‘Scandal’ was masterly, in the sense that it was very close to the original text: perhaps too close for Jeremy’s taste, for he liked a little danger in the presentations. His penchant for bending the willow just that little bit further was always in evidence. Perhaps it was this scrupulous fidelity that caused him to observe in 1995 that the early shows were ‘somewhat tame’. I believe he was wrong in this estimation. What he read for tameness was a writer following the narrative rhythm of Arthur Conan Doyle without serious deviation because the structure was just right for the story and for the television adaptation.

And, by Jove, Jeremy Brett was just right for Sherlock Holmes. In this first episode we see all the elements that make Holmes a fascinating character: his sometime reliance on drugs, his enigmatic charm, his mastery at disguise and deduction, and his fond but brittle relationship with Watson.

The opening sequence shows Watson returning to Baker Street and his friend Sherlock Holmes following a trip into the country. Watson is ‘filled with apprehension’ as to his companion’s mood. Cunningly, we are immediately alerted to the uncertain nature of the relationship that exists between the two men. It has all the uncharted domestic connotations of a marriage. Watson suspects further drug abuse, especially when he observes an open drawer which reveals an empty hypodermic syringe. He is wrong. Holmes has tricked his friend into reaching this erroneous conclusion. In exasperation, Watson addresses his friend forcefully on the dangers of using drugs: ‘. . . it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change, and may at last leave a permanent weakness.’ As previously noted, this sequence is drawn from the second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four. It works well here, for it helps to establish both the relationship between the two men and the significance of their individual identities.

While Watson is cajoling his companion, all we see of Holmes is the back of his head. It is rather like the technique which the director James Whale used in the seminal horror film Frankenstein (1931). In this movie Whale first introduces the monster by presenting us with a back view of him. The moment is suspenseful—the audience is desperate to see his face. Then the grotesque creature slowly turns around to face the camera. With Holmes we are not dealing with a monster but an equally magnetic and fascinating character, and the director of ‘Scandal’, Paul Annett, does the same in his opening scene. We, the viewers, are dying to glimpse the new Sherlock Holmes, but Annett delays the moment and then, slowly, he is revealed. My God, it is a live Paget drawing! For the next few minutes, the camera remains close on Brett’s beautifully chiselled features as he talks to Watson and justifies his position as the only ‘private consulting detective in the world’. This magnificent speech follows:

‘My mind rebels against stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’

Actors playing Holmes usually declaim these sentiments, bawling them histrionically at Watson. It was Peter Cushing in the BBC’s 1968 production of The Sign of Four who first treated this speech as a quiet, impassioned plea. Brett takes the same tack (great actors think alike), but it has to be said that Brett’s version is sharper, sadder, more tortured, and therefore more moving. That first scene in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ establishes many things, not the least of which is that here we have a great Sherlock Holmes.

I cannot say more; Jeremy Brett is, to me, the quintessential Sherlock Holmes, radiant and excellent.

He was plagued by bipolar disorder; during his last years, he discussed the illness candidly, encouraging people to recognise its symptoms and seek help. He seems to always have been ebullient.

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