I've been watching "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," the television program from the eighties starring Jeremy Brett as the titular character. I have a vague memory of Brett, who passed away in nineties, being described as the definitive Holmes, but if I saw the episodes before, it was randomly and in isolation. Today thanks to netflix, I can stream or have them delivered.
I just finished watching the second season, which marks the end of the series. For the technical minded, this series had thirteen episodes - two seasons and a Christmas special. There was a followup series, The Return of Sherlock Holmes. There were a few television movies. Another series, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. And then a final series which was done shortly before Brett died, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Overall, I have to admit that I wasn't overly impressed by the show. In my relatively limited experience, many British produced historical shows tend to be a bit dry. There's a certain stiffness and dryness to the proceedings that one can see in everything from Miss Marple which was made earlier this year to programs dating back decades. I keep wondering about the exact nature of it. Some of it is the editing to be sure, some of it may very well be the direction because many of the actors can be flat. The pacing is often slow. Some of it may be me, I'll admit.
Regardless, what it means is that often the success of the show is defined by the lead actor, and in this case, Brett really is the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is often portrayed as stiff, almost Vulcan in his approach. That was always the way he's been played in older productions. But of course anyone who's read Doyle knows that's not quite right. Alex Ross, in a recent article on Dorian Gray in the New Yorker magazine, observed that there was a bit of Oscar Wilde in Holmes, something that upon reflection I think is very true, and again, this is something one can find in Brett's performance, though not many others.
Brett portrays Holmes as the smartest man in the room, but he's also a man who is often bemused, regularly impatient, sometimes manic and depressive in the same scene. He's a bit of a dandy, his appearance and manner of dress is of the utmost importance, and those moments when Brett loses his composure or is disheveled, one can clearly see in his performance how Holmes regards his exterior appearance a reflection of his interior self. What's most startling though is when Brett laughs, the sheer glee that Holmes can find, rarely laughing at others, but most often, the glee of a case, the sheer brilliance of an idea, the excitement of a solution.
Robert Downey Jr., a fine actor, plays Holmes as he's been written by the scriptwriters, as an incoherent collection of tics, without a center. Benedict Cumberbatch in Steven Moffat's present day set series plays the character in a very valid way, and perhaps the only way suitable for a modern setting. His Holmes is clearly on the Aspergers scale with his gifts at analysis and observation and yet with a decided lack of emotion, both in terms of expressing any and understanding other's emotions. His knowledge of human behavior is something he's learned, not something he truly understands. And the stories while they retain the spirit of the original, they're not reverent, which I appreciate.
In the end, Brett's Holmes can best be described as definitive the way that David Suchet's Poirot is the definitive take on the character. The stories told may be a bit too slow, a little too old fashioned, to the point where I'm often bored when the main characters are not on screen, and yet, the characters are what we remember best and what truly animate the stories. I wish that the joy that animated those performances could have been found in the rest of the production.