Sherlock Holmes was played according to Doyle by Jeremy Brett
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It was 30 years ago that I first met Sherlock Holmes.
He didn't look like Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of those marvelously modern"Sherlock" mysteries that air on PBS. And he didn't look like Jonny Lee Miller, the star of another contemporary Holmes take, CBS' "Elementary," which began its third season Thursday night on WOIO Channel 19.
He also didn't look like Basil Rathbone, the star of the addictive 1930s and '40s Sherlock Holmes films that regularly showed up on television when I was in school and first discovering the original stories penned by Arthur Conan Doyle. What kind of school? Why, elementary, my dear Watson.
The Sherlock Holmes I met in 1984 looked as if he had just stepped out of one of those Sidney Paget drawings that illustrated many of Doyle's stories when they ran in the British magazine The Strand. He looked like Jeremy Brett, who was starting his 10-year run as the great detective in a British television series that stressed fidelity to the celebrated source material.
No great mystery why Brett has been much on my mind of late. MPI Home Video has released a majestic Blu-ray box set, "Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Granada Television Series."
The 1984-94 Granada series featured 36 episodes and five films. This is the mother lode for anyone who so appreciated Brett playing Holmes according to Doyle: 12 discs and more than 38 hours of sheer Sherlockian joy (suggested retail price is $229.98).
Which brings us back to the summer night I met Sherlock Holmes. PBS was importing the Granada series for its "Mystery!" series in 1984, and, in those days, the "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!" press conferences were served up with a dinner in the grand ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
The "Mystery!" host, Vincent Price, was wandering around, and I was hoping to be placed at his table for dinner. I was looking around for Price when I realized a PBS publicist was standing in front of me. She had a favor to ask.
"Look, we have these two fellows from England, Jeremy Brett and David Burke, who are playing Holmes and Watson in these new mysteries," she said. "They're sitting by themselves. Would you mind sitting at their table?"
Remember, Brett's brilliant interpretation of Holmes was still a mystery to most Americans. And Brett was hardly a household name. Maybe -- maybe -- you would have recognized him as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the 1964 film version of "My Fair Lady."
But it was an intriguing invitation. Somewhere behind that publicist's request was the thrilling cry uttered by the super sleuth (quoting Shakespeare) in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange": "The game is afoot."
Only one other critic accepted the invitation. And that's how I lucked into one of the first Holmes interviews with Brett on American soil.
"The irony is that I've never been a big detective reader," Brett told me. "It's never been a big part of my life. I much prefer history. Everything I've learned has been from reading Doyle."
Gracious, glib and charming, Brett spoke of the immense pressure of getting it right for Sherlock devotees and for those encountering Holmes for the first time -- for children and adults. He had an actor's appreciation for a guiding principle articulated by Holmes.
"The little things are infinitely the most important," Holmes says in "A Case of Identity." "Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details."
Brett's portrayal soon was acclaimed coast to coast, and more adaptations followed. Edward Hardwicke replaced Burke as Watson, and the hope was that the entire Sherlock canon of 56 short stories and four novels would be translated for television.
"God willing, I'll get the canon done," Brett said in the early 1990s. "I mean, I'll probably finish them, getting the walker out. We're going to finish the canon, and that idea is very exciting."
Alas, it was not to be. When Brett died of heart failure, at age 59, in September 1995, 42 of the 60 stories had been adapted (the 36 one-hour episodes and five films, with one film using elements from two stories).
The New York Times said at the time of his death: "More than any other actor since Basil Rathbone, Mr. Brett was regarded as the quintessential Holmes: breathtakingly analytical, given to outrageous disguises and the blackest moods and relentless in his enthusiasm for solving the most intricate crimes."
If you want overwhelming proof of that, it can be found in this handsome box set, which includes such extras as commentaries by director John Madden and an interview with Hardwicke, who also was Brett's Watson for the 1988 London stage production of writer Jeremy Paul's "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes."
My wife and I saw that production, but it was not my last close encounter with the man who would be Holmes. That occurred in Cleveland.
Brett came to town in late 1991 to give a talk and tape promotional spots for WVIZ Channel 25. I was contributing stories to two magazines specializing in the mystery genre, so my friend Tom Feran, The Plain Dealer's TV critic at the time, and I were given two splendid hours to talk Holmes with Brett at a downtown Cleveland hotel.
It wasn't quite 221B Baker Street, but it was the next best thing. So there we sat, playing Holmes and Watson (we'll argue later about which is which), searching for clues to the enduring popularity of Sherlock in general and Brett's Sherlock in particular.
"I didn't want to do it at first," Brett told us. "My response was, 'Oh, everybody has done that. What could I possibly add that hasn't been done before?' "
We soon found out. And it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce the answer.
"The only thing we've really done, and I cannot understand why it has not been done before, is to do the stories as Doyle wrote them," the typically modest Brett said. "It seems simple enough, but no one has done that. Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's daughter, is a great friend of mine. She's quite a lady, quite a force.
"And Dame Jean once said that I was the Sherlock Holmes of her childhood. That's when I felt that I had truly passed the audition. We've talked about how her father was overtaken by his own creation. But all the credit goes back to where it belongs -- to Doyle."
For Brett, Conan Doyle's writing was the rule book. And he kept the rule book close at hand.
"Granada took the most enormous gamble," he said. "They said, 'We want to go back to what Doyle meant with Holmes and Watson. We don't want Watson played as a buffoon, but as Doyle intended -- the best-est friend a man has ever had.' Whenever anyone wanted to take things away from the original, I'd be standing there with my copy of the book, saying, 'Don't you think Doyle is better?' "
Brett, of course, was in great demand as a speaker at meetings of the Baker Street Irregulars, the international organization of Holmes enthusiasts.
"I fully understand that their enthusiasm has nothing to do with me," he said. "They're fans of Sherlock Holmes. I'm just a presentment of Sherlock Holmes. It's not me they've come to see. They've come to see this actor who has the audacity to portray this character they adore. And it's much more than a character to them, of course."
Holmes, who made his first appearance in print in 1887, came to be much more than a character to him, too.
"When I started, I once said that I wouldn't cross the street to meet Sherlock Holmes," Brett said. "Then, a while later, I amended that to, 'He wouldn't cross the street to meet me.' Slowly, though, Holmes has become my buddy. I don't see him as depressing at all, but as a streak of light."