A Holmes Series? Brett Is on the Case : Television: A British production company plans to re-create the entire series of Sherlock Holmes stories, with Jeremy Brett as the sleuth.


Jeremy Brett doesn’t do mantelpieces.

The foremost expositor of the mind and mannerisms of Sherlock Holmes in particular does not pose for photographs standing at mantelpieces laden with the coy and overworked ephemera of the Holmes canon, like a calabash pipe.

Even to be asked to do so brings a quiver to his raptor’s nose, that wonderful antennae of detection and sensibility.

Brett is too polite not to explain his refusal, too good an actor not to make something of it: “I have a duty, I think, to Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Doyle’s daughter. She’s had to endure quite a lot of the pastiche and the cliche . I take it quite seriously not to let the standards slip.”

Standards. There you have it.

Jeremy Brett’s superb and severe evocation of Holmes in PBS’ “Mystery!” series has earned him an actor’s two-edged accolade: a performer inseparable from the performance.


The British production company Granada, which has already starred Brett in more than a score of the Holmes stories (including five that will come to PBS beginning next month), has announced that for the first time, all 60 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures will be realized, and by the same actor. Brett, 55, has thus undertaken a tour of the United States, where Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of England are both accorded a reverence that has mystified Britons who accept their native son and daughter with more nonchalance.

Brett’s tour, underwritten by “Mystery!'s” sponsor, Mobil, and various public-television stations, has to it something of both a royal progress and the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” In New York, the slightly claustrophobic Brett was descended upon by ardent Sherlockians in capes and caps, scores of them, like funhouse multiples. Here, he dined with KCET’s most lavish donors, appeared in a puff of smoke at a Magic Castle luncheon for its almost-as-generous donors, and taped pledge-break messages for the rest. And from the shady veranda of a Victorian mansion in Pasadena--the same one with the shunned mantelpiece--he signed books, playbills, etchings and all manner of Sherlockiana for admirers.

For a century, the character has proven easy to parody but almost too elusive to fix. Basil Rathbone played Holmes with granite nobility; Brett is Doyle’s dream made sinewy flesh: supple and languid, with chiaroscuro moodiness and mercurial instants of something approaching sweetness, a man both detached and ardent, mocking courtliness and casual arrogance. This Holmes gets as many as 5,000 letters a week, many from children; for some of them, Brett is Sherlock Holmes.

Until he began channeling for Holmes, Brett had played Dracula and Hamlet, Freddie in “My Fair Lady” and Natasha’s brother in “War and Peace,” Noel Coward and Shakespeare, Broadway and the West End, musicals and a miniseries.

He had, as well, played Watson to Charlton Heston’s Holmes.

“I adored playing Watson.” He unrolled arpeggio bursts of laughter. “I played him like Winnie the Pooh.”

When he undertook Holmes, the prospect terrified. “I was very nervous when I was offered the part because I was so miscast. I’d played so many romantic heroes. I’m just grateful that it’s acceptable. I suppose the ultimate accolade has been from the Sherlock Holmes societies and the Doylian societies. If I’d failed with them it would have been a total disaster.”

He hopes, he says with amused deference, that Doyle will thus forgive him for infusing romance into his heartless creation. But Brett is doing Doyle quite a good turn, defending the integrity of the stories. In fact, “I am a crashing bore” on the subject.

“What happens is that we arrive at our first meeting (to film) and I bring out The Book and I can hear them saying ‘Oh, my God, Jeremy’s brought the book out again.’ and we go through and I say, ‘Don’t you think the book is better?’ I fight for Doyle because every adapter wants to do his little bit. Then I have to say, ‘I love what you’ve done but can we please go back to Doyle?’ ”

Brett doesn’t want to name any names--well, let’s name names: “Let’s mention Gene Wilder. Let’s mention Joanne Woodward as Watson. Let’s mention Nicol Williamson. Let’s mention Christopher Plummer--all the people who have taken the names and done their own thing.”

Even played forthrightly, Holmes “has probably been the destruction of many actors who played him. Peter Cushing is now walking around England like a damaged butterfly.”

So what of his own theory and practice of Holmes? It was, he says, something he only really became aware of this year. At dinner one night, a friend, actor Robert Stephens, who played Holmes in a Billy Wilder movie, said of Holmes: “He’s hollow. It’s brilliant trim, all the brilliant trim in the world . . . but he’s hollow. You, being so completely miscast, filled him with all your romantic, heroic essences . . . champagne and Perrier water and dance.”

The mix was a heady froth for Holmes/Brett fans who had come from as far as San Francisco to meet him at his Los Angeles appearances. White-haired Kay Main of Torrance has been fond of Brett’s work since “War and Peace” in 1956. In 1984, when her son died in a traffic accident, she watched Brett’s “Rebecca” again and again, and wrote to thank him for the comfort it gave her.

Brett wrote back, and they have corresponded. His wife, Joan Wilson, an American and the executive producer and driving force behind “Mystery!” and “Masterpiece Theatre,” died in 1985.

Main has assembled his life’s work in a leatherette photo album. “Story of Jeremy Brett” is laid out in gold letters on its cover. To their first meeting last weekend, she brought a small white teddy bear, red roses and a green vase. “How lovely!” Brett cried, and drew her aside for a chat.

Those who stood in line for a word or an autograph became restive. “We’ve been waiting in line too long and it’s too hot,” said a woman in purple.

“But he’s not leaving?” her companion asked anxiously.

“We’ll hold him down if he does,” the woman in purple said grimly.

And, quick, Watson, the smelling salts: There is perhaps one heresy the actor will acknowledge about Holmes.

“I must be truthful. I find him better read. . . . I’d rather read him than see him.”