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Spotlight on: Jeremy Brett in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes DVD Cover Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. I remember my father and uncle introducing me to theirs at an early age. Basil Rathbone embodied the practical side of Holmes: unafraid of physical work and with a booming voice that didn't suffer fools gladly -- and, oh, that profile! That is the one aspect required of an actor playing Holmes: an aquiline profile with a hawk nose. (One can assume that the previous generation would have recognized William Gillette as their Holmes; the renowned actor and playwright is credited with adding "Elementary, my dear Watson" to the lexicon in his popular play, Sherlock Holmes.)

But Jeremy Brett is the Sherlock Holmes of the modern generation (at least until the next icon comes along to take his place). With that beak nose and those piercing blue eyes brimming with barely-restrained mania, he is the closest to the troubled detective as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- the man who, when not on a case, was so starved for mental stimulation that he had to inject it intravenously.

Similarly, Edward Hardwicke is closer to the canonical Watson than the bumbling doctor played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films and radio series. Hardwicke gives off a certain level of intelligence through his eyes that not only makes him believable as a doctor, but also lets on that he's often both amused and frustrated by his friend's erratic behavior. This gives the audience its focus of identification as well as adding another layer to the relationship. The two have amazing chemistry onscreen, which belies the great difference in their personalities (as displayed in an interview with the two actors included in the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes DVD set).

In addition to being quite entertaining, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes has the unfortunate bonus of tracing the decline of Brett's health, episode by episode. Filming of the series was such an on-the-spot decision (having made three feature-length productions since the completion of Casebook, it was thought that they would continue in that fashion) that, when they were ready to start filming of the first episode, "The Golden Pince-Nez," Hardwicke was not available to fill the vital role of Watson. (He was in the midst of playing C.S. Lewis's brother in Shadowlands.)

Enter Charles Gray (well known to fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and James Bond films You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever) as Sherlock's larger, smarter brother, Mycroft, to fill the supporting role (and, of course, take most of the credit). The murder of a controversial theologist's secretary uncovers a number of suspects, but the solution doesn't play fair with the facts given, pulling the killer nearly out of thin air. Gray's performance is fun, however, as always (he also appeared as Mycroft in previous entries "The Greek Interpreter" and "The Bruce-Partington Plans," as well as Nicholas Meyer's earlier film of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), and British comedy fans may (just barely) recognize an appearance by Neil from The Young Ones. Nigel Planer portrays the clueless-but-defensive Inspector Hopkins.

That episode and "The Red Circle" both show Brett at the best he would be in Memoirs; the latter, a complicated plot crossing international boundaries and focusing on the steadfast power of love, is the best offering of this set. Additional credit for this is due to scripter Jeremy Paul, who took a good deal of license in bringing this story to the screen, including the creation of an entirely new character and the dramatization of important characters' backstories in order to give the audience some focus for their sympathies. Paul's "Red Circle" commentary (as guided yet again by Holmes expert David Stuart Davies) goes into this process -- as well as his experiences with other installments, including Casebook's "Problem of Thor Bridge" -- in good detail, making me wish more commentaries of this sort were included.

Filming of the third broadcast, "The Three Gables," was interrupted because Brett fell ill. (His bipolar disorder required medication that bloated him -- note his preference for slimming black throughout the series -- and put more strain on his already weak heart. The resulting cardiomyopathy would end his life in just another two years.) The episode suffers as a result. The acting, in this tale of a widow who is offered a large sum of money to leave her home entirely intact, is particularly bad; even Brett tends toward melodramatic readings of his lines. Admittedly, the original story isn't one of the best, but this is definitely the least of the Memoirs episodes.

It is hard to avoid the tragic irony of Brett's subsequent collapse upon the completion of an episode called "The Dying Detective." Nevertheless, it shines over its predecessor, though there is still a marked tendency towards melodrama. When a man dies of a rare tropical disease, the local expert on said disease becomes the prime suspect -- especially since that expert, the man's cousin, inherits his estate. Jonathan Hyde gives a compelling performance as the amateur disease expert Culverton Smith. Brett's skills are also put to the test as he very believably plays Holmes suffering with a bout of that same affliction.

Brett's illness precluded him from contributing much at all to the making of "The Mazarin Stone" -- but how can you have a Holmes story without Sherlock? Brother Mycroft again fills in admirably, although the myriad closeups do nothing to enhance Charles Gray's screen charisma. Widely considered one of the weakest stories in the canon, this jewel theft tale is enhanced by the weaving of "The Three Garridebs" into it almost seamlessly. How the theft of the famous diamond is tied into the story of a man who offers a fortune to a newly-discovered relative, on the stipulation that he find a third to share it, shows very clever work on the part of scripter Gary Hopkins and leads to a much more satisfying experience than could have been achieved with the two stories separately. (When Brett returned, he filmed a couple of scenes to make an appearance, including one that is unexpectedly moving.)

You couldn't ask for a much better conclusion to The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes than "The Cardboard Box." It's engrossing, surprising, emotional, clever, and, even though he was only filming every other day by this time, Brett is at the top of his game. It's Christmastime and Susan and Sarah Cushing's sister, Mary Browner has disappeared, leaving her husband, apparently, for another man. As the truth develops, a level of cunning and manipulation (not to mention, a rather disturbing parcel) are uncovered that give this episode a very modern feel -- like something off of CSI, hardly appropriate Edwardian reading. But then again, Sir Arthur was always ahead of his time.

As with Casebook, they've used the original negatives to produce bright, clean picture and sound. Minimal extras again, but this set, in addition to the "Red Circle" commentary, includes an interview with Adrian Conan Doyle that must have been filmed in the late 1960s and sheds some light on his father's home life (as well as all the ways his father _was_ ahead of his time). All of which add up to a solid The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes DVD set from MPI.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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