For the love of Sherlock Holmes



With the circumstantially forced holiday season upon us, thanks to the internet and online streaming (some might also be tempted to revisit their DVD collection), there is enough to watch on TV without stepping out of the house for the rest of our lives.

In the mid-1980s, as a school kid spending my summer holidays at my grandmother’s place, I chanced upon a Marathi translation of a Sherlock Holmes long story (Arthur Conan Doyle, a prolific writer, wrote 56 short stories and four novels about the detective); it was ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and within minutes, I became a Sherlock Holmes fan and it has stayed that way since then.

During the same time, Doordarshan (God bless them for all those wonderful programmes) was showing ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ produced by Granada Television, a UK-based company. That has been the most authentic production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and it is unlikely it will ever be surpassed.

After all, where will they find another Jeremy Brett to play famed detective?

Brett was the quintessential Holmes – there was Basil Rathbone and the like before Brett, and the greatly talented Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr after him. But with the manic energy and intensity that he brought to the role, Brett remains the definitive Holmes.

Sunday mornings back then were reserved for Sherlock Holmes; later, the series was moved to a night slot.  Brett was a part of 41 stories that were filmed over a 10 year period, from 1984 to 1994, which came to an end with the actor’s untimely death in 1995.  

After Doordarshan’s fortunes faded, and cable television took over, the episodes were shown on a satellite channel.

Holmes was an eccentric character with a lot of distinctive traits as created by Doyle. Among other things, he alternated between morphine and cocaine when he didn’t have a case to work upon – the seven percent solution, it was called. (In the tele-series, they consciously did away with the syringe in ‘The Dying Detective’ because there was a young audience watching it).  When Holmes was busy working on a case, he couldn’t think of anything else. In ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone’, his long-suffering housekeeper Mrs Hudson asks: “When will you be pleased to dine, Mr Holmes?” “Seven-thirty, the day after tomorrow,” he replies.  (Given the coronavirus and the grocery store situation in Goa, we might all be saying that soon, but that’s another story)   

Brett not only embodied all the idiosyncrasies sketched by Doyle, he also added another dimension to it. It is like Sachin Tendulkar also being able to play shots like Brian Lara, or Beethoven also having the repertoire of Mozart.

There are countless scenes where Brett elevates something simple into the extraordinary. Take the one in ‘The Speckled Band’ where the hulking Grimesby Roylott threatens Holmes and bends a fire poker with his bare hands. After he leaves, Holmes laughs and then straightens the metal poker, also with his bare hands, followed by the most mischievous smile.  Or the one in ‘The Norwood Builder’ where he sits contemplating the case with his hair in disarray (usually it is impeccably brushed back), and Watson insists on having breakfast. Holmes concedes and, in a rare display of emotion, says: “I feel like I need your company and moral support today”.

The series had two different actors to play Watson – first, it was the more playful David Burke followed by the more serious Edward Hardwicke. 

The late Sir Denis Forman, who lived in Goa after retirement, was the chairman of Granada television when they produced the show. He shared several stories with me, one about how the company almost went bankrupt with the money they spent on the series. It is not surprising because the production values are absolutely top-notch. “Even the pen that Watson carried in his pocket was an authentic 19th century pen; that was the kind of attention that we paid to the details,” he once told me.

In real life, Brett was bipolar and obsessed with his character, and often took method acting to extremes. It also didn’t help that he went into depression after the death of his wife and became difficult to work with on the sets.  I distinctly remember reading a small news item in the Times of India in September 1995, announcing the death of Jeremy Brett. It felt like a personal loss, as if someone very dear had passed away.  

But a quarter of a century after Brett’s death and more than a hundred years after Doyle’s inspired creation of the ‘world’s first consulting detective’, as one revisits the series, you will see that Holmes and Brett both are alive and kicking. And how!