Jeremy Brett

He's Decided to Stick with 'Sherlock Holmes' to the End

Things are looking up once again on Baker Street. A few months ago, Jeremy Brett was telling the British press that he was thinking about giving up his acclaimed portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada Television series based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the great detective. But it seems Brett, who most recent series of Holmes stories runs Nov. 14-Dec. 12 on PBS' "Mystery!", has had a change of heart. In fact, he told ANGLOFILE on an October visit to Atlanta, he may end up filming the entire Holmes canon! Next to be seen in Britain will be "The Master Blackmailer," a two-hour Holmes special based on Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," which Brett finished filming about three weeks before his Atlanta visit. Chris Liaguno talked to Brett for ANGLOFILE; here's the first installment of their wide-ranging conversation...

At one point, you said that this most recent Holmes series would be your last....

Ah, changed. I took a year off, actually got as far as five months, rang up my "angels" [Mobil and Granada Television] and said if they were willing, I was willing, and did I have their blessing and they said yes.... We're selling to 83 countries now, and the last one cleared a bit of ground...Russia. So they're pleased, Mobil's pleased, because it means their Pegasus—you know, their sign—goes to Russia. And my studios are pleased, Granada. They're all pleased.

Anyway, I'm going to finish the calendar. I'm going to do another 20 films.

What changed your mind about doing it?

Well, largely because they're very sweet to me. I mean, money people are usually quite brisk, but mine aren't, and they keep on giving me spaces so that I've been able to go on and do plays and films. I'm going back to make a film with Harrison Ford. I did a play in '85 on Broadway. I did a play in London in '87-'88. So with those little spaces, I can do it.

I thought, why not, I've just got enough steam, and I may have walked away with two sticks and blindfolded, but nevertheless, I'll try and finish it. They're game...and I'm just about game.

So you're going to stick it out till all the series are filmed?

Yeah, I think....Well, it's never been done before, so why not? Let's have a crack at it.

You've also spoken in the past about the "burden" of playing Holmes and of how at one point you suffered a nervous breakdown. How have you come to terms with that?

Well, that was more the death of my wife [Joan Wilson, who produced "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!"]. And, I think, as a matter of fact, Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, You Know Who, possibly helped me.

How so?

Well...it was such a shock. She died in '85 on July the Fourth—quite a day to go, being American...and I was absolutely lost. And I couldn't see the point really in anything, least of all S.H.

And in '86, I had this whopping great collapse...but what put me back on my feet was getting, what we say in England, "back on the bicycle."

Yeah, and so I went off to the studios and made five more and I began to feel a bit better. I took about--I'm still getting over it--about three years, really. So that was really the reason for that.

I think I enjoy playing...I don't think I was really properly cast, because of my part. I play parts like King Arthur, and Henry the V, and heroics and romantics....Robert Browning, Lord Byron...and the classics...Hamlet, in my younger days.

Do you like playing those more so?

Yes. The provocation with Holmes is the fact that he's described by Doyle as a man without a heart--all brain...and that's very difficult to play, or even indicate.

I made a terrible fool of myself...my camera test, way back in '83. I looked like a gargoyle [laughs] 'cause I was so determined to look right. But I had a white line down my nose and velvet under my chin...and my producer said, "Is there going to be anything of Jeremy in this performance at all?"

And I calmed it down a little bit, but it's still quite a... it's not the easiest part to play. Also, it's better read, really, that's the truth of the matter.

Why?

Well, the stories leap from the printed page. I mean, when it says, "Holmes crawls through the bracken looking for a clue like a golden retriever," you can see it with your mind's eye. When you do it [laughs], it's hysterically funny.

And so I've had wonderful Watsons--I've had two who kind of go [groans], "Holmes is doing it again." And, I mean, I've even had people in the studio, when I had suddenly crawled across the floor, say, "Not another of those" [laughs]. And that's the lighter side.

The other thing is, of course, if you go into the canteen for lunch dressed like what I call the "damaged penguin," no one will really sit with you, because you look like death warmed-up [laughs]. When you've got the mask on, and the black hair and the black suit, you really are frightfully cheerful to have lunch opposite.

You have said that you're finding Holmes easier to play. How do you keep it interesting? How do you keep it challenging?

Well, I haven't reached him yet. He's one field ahead of me all the time. That's fascinating. That's fascinating.

I think the more I play him the more I realize he's impossible to play. I mean, the great models I had--of course the great Basil Rathbone; Robert Stephens, who did the Billy Wilder film, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes." Robert Stephens is my best friend in England. I met him last June when I went to see him giving a brilliant performance in the theater and he said, "You know what I think? The trouble with you is that you never realized something. Holmes is hollow." He said, "When I tried to do it, I nearly killed myself....I had a breakdown, tried to kill myself, terrible disasters, but you, of course, with your bubbling sparkling essence bit, you just fill it all up with champagne and Perrier water. Your well is so filled to the brim, you've hardly noticed that there's nothing inside [of Holmes]."

The thing is, of course, Robert and I are the same kind of actors. We're both what we call in England, "Becomers"--you become the part you play.

What I do is always build up an interior life: Like I've worked out where Holmes was born; I've decided what his nanny was like; he didn't see his mother until he was 8 years old, probably held the rustle of her skirt. The Victorian nanny didn't do anything except rub him and scrub him, tuck him up in bed and dump him. Didn't meet his father until he was 20, and he was a prided, frightened little man, as indeed was his brother, Mycroft.

There may have been this beautiful girl, that he feel flat for, but she didn't look at him. So that broke his heart and he thought, "Well, I'm not going to be rejected again," so that's why he's the way he is.

So, I've built up this internal life [for Holmes], which has kind of saved my life, really. It's not easy.

You've also said you're not anything like Holmes and ....

Well, hang on, wait a minute, there's something more insidious than that....He creeps in. I have to watch him like a hawk. I have to be very careful....

One of the wonderful things about this glorious holiday trip I'm on is that I'm in public with people. It hasn't been inclined....I don't know--something to do with the death of my wife. It's inclined to make me isolated. And I blame Holmes entirely for that. He encroaches a bit.

How do you handle that usually?

I go out heaps. Don't stay in, go out. But I'm conscious of it. That's probably my own problem, nothing to do with Doyle or You Know Who at all.

One wonders when you're a "becomer." What a "becomer" means is I'm a sponge, right, I'm an actor. You squeeze the liquid out of your own essence, and draw in the liquid of the part that you're playing. Like Stanislavsky in Russia, like the "Method" here, but that's not quite the same thing. And, if you've got a man without a heart, you've only got a hole.

So you basically filled in with your own portrayal of what you thought that would be like?

Yes, and I picked up essences along the way.

Because you're a "becomer," doing that probably helped you and your character.

Well, it does help and also the fact that, unbelievably, we've never seen Doyle before. Now, don't ask me why that is, I don't understand. All these years, no one has done his stories. They've done derivatives. They've taken the names of Holmes and Watson, but they've never done his stories. I cannot think why. At least that gave me something to do.

Also, the fact he [Holmes] only wore the deerstalker hat in the country...that he never smoked a calabash pipe--that was brought in by [actor] William Gillette in New York, at the turn of the century...that he smoked a long, thin, cherry-wood in his disputatious moods, and a grey pipe in his meditative moods--that's the beginning of "The Copper Beeches."

So, all these things you can get from Doyle, and when other actors who play Holmes and just pop on the deerstalker, and his cape and the pipe and walk straight through it, puff...puff...puff--and get on with the next thing--that's probably the safer way to train [laughs]--but it's not exactly being true to Doyle. It's just an image, like a cliche, which is not real.

Children love him.

Why?

I'm not quite sure. [Pulls out a crumpled note from a child with drawings on it.] From Michael McClure II, age 8. [Looking at the note still] Holmes is riding on a dragon...I think he's killing the dragon.

So this is a role model for them.

I think for the kids, they think he's a hero. I rang [the child's] mother this morning because I wrote him a letter and I wanted to make sure it arrived. He got it through St. Louis, because it was fairly heavy going in St. Louis, fantasywise....I mean, Sherlockian-wise and fan-wise.

The two-hour story you recently filmed is based on Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" but it's been reported that the title has changed to "The Master Blackmailer." Why that departure from the original?

Well, this is the first time, and the reason is this: We've done 34 films, over nine years. Some of them, and I'm sure Doyle will forgive me for saying so, need a little help. Then comes "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton." And Dame Jean, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's daughter, who is a wonderful, remarkable lady, said that she liked the script. It's adapted by Jeremy Paul, who I think is one of our best adapters. And "Charles Augustus Milverton," as a matter of fact, is a very, very short story, only six pages long. "Blackmail" stretches a bit further than just one blackmailer, one piece of blackmail. So we've got four. And, I must say, I was very nervous about tampering with Doyle, but I do believe it's worked. I've not seen it yet, 'cause we've only just finished it, but the news is good.

I can give you another example. When I was playing Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, long before you were born, on Broadway, opposite Rosemary Harris, the great towering Guthrie said to us, "At this moment in the play, Shakespeare needs a bit of help." Well, of course, we were so excited we could hardly believe it [laughs]. You try and climb, to survive Shakespeare. And that's really what I think now...we've done the best stories. Little bits of help will be needed but I hope they're done subliminally and carefully so that they're Doylian.

The trouble with adapters is, of course, that it's not a natural job. Adapting things means that you really haven't got a creative idea of your own. You're making some money on the side. They consequently, all the time, try and do their own thing. I sit there and read the script and I say, "But don't you think Doyle is better?" That's been the problem all the way through--trying to do Doyle.

Now we've reached the point where Doyle needs a little bit of help, but I'll watch that as best I possibly can. And Dame Jean is very close to me, and she gets all the scripts before we shoot things. So, we'll try not to let Doyle down.

Can you tell us anything about the film and who is in it?

Well, my leading lady is a wonderful actress called Dame Gwen Ffrangeon-Davies, and she's 100 years old. She was a leading lady in the theater--and I'm sure Doyle would have seen her, because he died in 1930. She was John Gielgud's leading lady for 30 years, and she stepped out of retirement to play. At the end of the film, she said, "I've enjoyed this so much, I think I'm going to make one film a year from now on."

She drinks champagne, smokes Camel [cigarettes], and is a Christian Scientist. So I've only got Christian Science to go [laughs]. I'm ready, I'm going for it. She's wonderful.

I've got a brilliant actor playing the blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton. You've probably seen him. Do you have a series here which we love in England called "All Creatures Great and Small"? Do you remember the guy, the older vet...Siegfried? Robert Hardy. He's playing the villain.

Sophie Thompson, Emma Thompson's younger sister, is playing Agatha, who is my girlfriend in the film. Because Holmes has a disguise--I play a plumber. My motto is: We plumb the depths. She takes a shine to him.

It's a fairly horrendous story. I mean, it's all there in Doyle, but when you read: "Lady Diane shoots Milverton in the chest six times and then crushes him in the face with her heel"--that's alright, you can read it. But when you actually manifest it....

How do you do something like that?

Very carefully. Very bloody carefully.

That brings me to this question: When you're doing a part, how much of a say-so do you get in the script? Do you actually do any of the writing, not just in "Holmes," but in other characters as well?

I tell you where I come in. First of all, Granada Studios, which are located in the northwest of England, Manchester, in 1983 they kicked me off with only a week's rehearsal. And I said, "I can't make this. If you want me to last, you have to take care of me. I need two." And bless their hearts, they organized that I got two.

So, the first week is me with the adaptation down, the producer and the director, and we just--I brought Doyle--we go through it. I bring it back to Doyle, but they've done the adaptation and the spacing before.

Then, the second week, the cast comes in and we rehearse so that we got at it with a little rehearsal. Also, it gives the researchers, costume designers all that time.

That's a pure luxury and that's what I'm in--that first week. I try not to be too impertinent before that because I am only employed as an actor, and actors in England have to know their place.

WGBH has scheduled only five parts of the "Casebook" series for "Mystery!" this fall. Do you know what their plans are for "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," which isn't scheduled?

Six parts. There are five now, but they're holding one back for the pledge. They're holding back "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax." The writer, Trevor Bowen, and [director] John Madden, who's a lively lad, went off and they decided they'd do their own Doyle, so it's the least Doylian. We finished all those films December 12 last year. We start shooting again in January and I'm doing six next year. I think one is "Sussex Vampire" and another is "Red Circle." And those will be out probably the end of next year.


Continued in Part 2...


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©1991, The Goody Press. All rights reserved.
This interview was published in Anglofile #19.
It's a single-sheet monthly newsletter for fans of British actors,
published by The Goody Press, P.O. Box 33515, Decatur, GA 30033.