The Brettish Empire


by Lisa L. Oldham

The Secrets of Jeremy Brett and Sherlock Holmes

The plaintive sob of a violin echoes across the theatre. The music leaps majestically, then tiptoes softly as a lone man on stage begins to speak. He warmly recalls how he met his best friend.

Suddenly, his soliloquy is interrupted by a withering voice:

"Watson, tell the truth! Or, at least as much of it as your gullible public can digest."

Laughter and applause greet the first words of Jeremy Brett in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.

Programme, London, 1989

It wasn't unusual for a British television series such as Sherlock Holmes to be adapted for the stage (even Are You Being Served? had a stage run). However, almost everything else about the play was unusual.

Jeremy Brett and writer Jeremy Paul had become friends in the 1960's. Paul wrote several episodes of the Holmes series. The two Jeremys spent a lot of time discussing Sherlock Holmes: Where did he come from? What was his childhood like? What motivated him? Paul remembered these discussions in 1987 when he decided something should be done to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Sherlock Holmes story. A play about Holmes, perhaps?

Jeremy Brett was extremely enthusiastic about Paul's idea. So enthusiastic, that he commissioned the play for himself. And, why not? As Jeremy Paul later observed, "Holmes was a poseur, full of theatrical gestures, and I think Jeremy's high style of acting, though not terribly fashionable today, is in keeping with the period. There aren't many actors around now who move around the stage as he does, he's incredibly light on his feet for a big man, almost balletic."

So enthusiastic, that in early 1988 Brett jubilantly told writer David Stuart Davies the play would soon be premiering in Australia.

There was just one problem--the play wasn't even completed yet. The shadow of bipolar disorder had fallen across Jeremy's mind, causing his mental state to seesaw between crippling lows and soaring manic highs. A possibility was no different than a reality to Jeremy when he was in his exuberant "manic" phase.

Although his mind raced ahead of him while discussing the yet-to-be-completed play with Davies, Jeremy was quite serious about the project. As Jeremy was wont to do, he created an elaborate "back story" for Sherlock Holmes. He sat down with a tape recorder and began dictating into it everything he'd learned about Holmes. He drew from his knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes "canon" to piece together Holmes' background. Where the stories were silent on Holmes' early life, Jeremy filled in the blanks with ideas suggested by Holmes' times ("Holmes was tied to his cot, as children were in Victorian days"). And, although Jeremy's own boisterous boyhood was quite different from the bleak, repressive beginnings he imagined for Holmes, he also incorporated bits of his own youth into the detective's --"Holmes loved to sing--probably joined the choir." (Jeremy loved to sing, and had been a member of Eton's boy choir.)

It has been suggested that pouring out his ideas about Holmes' life was cathartic for Jeremy. He was able to express his feelings about Holmes, and in so doing, perhaps express feelings about himself.

For instance, much has been made of Jeremy's describing Holmes' father as "a fat, ex-army toad." (A line not used in the play, incidentally.) The theory goes: Jeremy' father, Colonel "Bill" Huggins, was a distinguished Army man. Huggins pere and Huggins fils had their differences; it's well-known that the Colonel forbade Jeremy to use the family name on the stage, leading Jeremy to lift the name "Brett" from a suit label. Ergo, Jeremy was venting his feelings about his own father when he described Holmes' father in unflattering terms.

But, did Jeremy honestly consider Colonel Huggins a "toad"? Perhaps--or perhaps not. Jeremy's actions later in life suggest that he did not harbor resentment toward Colonel Huggins. As mentioned in Later Stages, Jeremy dedicated his performance as "Willie Tatham" in Aren't We All? to his father's memory and carried the Colonel's medals with him for inspiration. (Jeremy's 1981 television performance in The Good Soldier was also informed by his father's war experiences.) 

In 1989, Jeremy and two of his brothers revisited their hometown of Berkswell to pay tribute to Colonel Huggins at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Colonel's 120th Regiment. (Jeremy spoke one of the readings at the chapel service.) Holmes producer Michael Cox once wrote that Jeremy "was not a lover of German music; it reminded him too much of his father's suffering as a soldier of war." (Colonel Huggins was reportedly sprayed with deadly mustard gas during WWI.) Perhaps most telling of all, the Reverend John Huggins, speaking at his youngest brother's memorial service in November 1995, revealed that Jeremy had taken on the responsibility of caring for their father as the old soldier faded away in 1965.

And, while Colonel Huggins disapproved of Jeremy's career choice, he did watch Jeremy act. In fact, after he saw his son play Hamlet, the Colonel told Jeremy he could use the family name. (Of course, by then it was a little late--Jeremy wasn't about to change his marquee-perfect moniker.)

As illustrated earlier, Jeremy Brett often used his vivid imagination to craft detailed "back stories" for the characters he played. This creative talent was inherited by his son, David Huggins, who, in 1996, published a favorably reviewed novel called The Big Kiss. Perhaps David echoed his father when he told an interviewer, "For me, the thing is creating characters--not simply writing one's own life story and pretending to call yourself 'Ivan'."

So, while some scraps of Jeremy's background (such as his singing) were patched intact into his Holmesian quilt, others (such as his uneven relationship with his father) were obviously embroidered to create a richly textured history for his Holmes.

Jeremy Paul used many of Brett's ideas when he wrote the play which was to become The Secret of Sherlock Holmes. The initial version was a bit outré, to say the least. Rehearsed for six weeks at Granada Studios, it featured Holmes (Brett), Watson (Sebastian Stride, subbing for Edward Hardwicke) and an illusionary Moriarty--Paul himself (who also served as narrator). Jeremy Brett advised Paul not to wear shoes while performing: "They'll clatter too much and spoil the illusion." At one point in the proceedings, Paul chugged around the stage trying to evoke a Victorian locomotive!

This version of the play was presented to a private audience of family and friends at the Mayfair Theatre. It was merely intended as a one-time salute to Holmes' birthday. However, theatrical impresario Duncan C. Weldon was in the audience and saw potential (not to mention dollar signs) in the play. The wheels were set in motion for a full-scale run.

First, though, Jeremy Brett had to finish filming another series of Holmes TV episodes. His enthusiasm for the play wavered. Doing the play meant that Jeremy would once more don the mantle of "that black-eyed loner," "my damaged penguin," "S.H."--Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy had played Holmes since 1983. His weariness with the demanding role was apparent. He seemed to declare annually that "this" was his last year of playing Holmes. If Jeremy was going to do a play, why not tackle a different role to remind audiences that he was capable of portraying more than just the legendary detective?

Jeremy wasn't even sure if he could still withstand the rigors of an "eight-a-week" play. Nearly 35 years had passed since he'd begun his acting career at Manchester's Library Theatre, and it had been 15 years since he'd set foot on a British stage.

Jeremy Paul was also concerned about Jeremy Brett's participation in the play, but for a different reason. The plot suggested that Moriarty was a manifestation of Sherlock Holmes' troubled psyche, which seemed to parallel Brett's own struggle against bipolar disorder. Would reenacting Holmes' mental battle night after night hit too close to home for Jeremy?

Before Paul showed the final script to Jeremy, he thoughtfully added a gentle stage direction following a difficult scene: "And here there are genuine tears."

Jeremy Brett wasn't worried, though. He later told interviewer Daniel Stashower, "My author [Paul], this angel-man, gave me a chance to exorcise Holmes on a nightly basis. The character has taken me all my strength to surmount, but that was yesterday. Now I'm growing rather comfy."

In the end, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes was an offer Jeremy Brett couldn't refuse. However, Jeremy later admitted, "I thought it might run six weeks in London...But it just took off and we had full houses for a year."

Some changes were made before the play was offered for mass consumption. Jeremy Paul's onstage antics were derailed, leaving just Brett and now Edward Hardwicke as Holmes and Watson--no narrator, no shoeless Moriarty impersonating a choo-choo. The play would be titled A Case For Sherlock Holmes and be billed (at Duncan Weldon's insistence) as a "mystery thriller."

This description was quite misleading, though. While the play explored a mysterious, thrilling inner landscape--the mind of Sherlock Holmes--it was basically a character study. A playgoer who expected to see Holmes crack a case would be disappointed to discover Holmes and Watson sitting around, talking. Therefore, after the play's premiere in Guildford the title was changed to the somewhat more truthful The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.

After a brief run in Richmond, Surrey, Secret settled into London's historic Wyndham's Theatre on September 22, 1988. Wyndham's, located on Charing Cross Road across from Leicester Square, was founded in 1899 by Charles Wyndham, an actor who, during a life of varied careers, had been trained as a doctor in Dublin and served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Nearly a hundred years later, Wyndham's still possessed the ornate Victorian charm which made it the perfect venue for The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.

On With the Show

While basically drawn from Doyle, the final version of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes contains some situations not found in either the original or the Granada versions of the stories. The play isn't based on just a single Holmes story; it's actually a sampling of vignettes from various stories, strung together to form a surprisingly moving narrative which charts the singular friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The action is centered mainly at 221-B Baker Street; locales such as Switzerland are suggested by swirling dry ice clouds and sound effects.

The play begins with Watson warmly reminiscing about his first meeting with Holmes as Holmes kibitzes with memories of his own. Watson, an impoverished war veteran, agrees to share Baker Street lodgings with Holmes, who liked to beat up corpses in his spare time (in the name of science, of course!) Holmes becomes a detective; Watson becomes his chronicler. Watson takes a bride; Holmes takes to the needle. Holmes confronts "the Napoleon of crime," Professor Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls, intending to put an end to his evil empire. Unfortunately, Moriarty intends to put an end to Holmes, and away they go over the Falls. Since neither man is seen again, Watson assumes they met a watery demise.

Au contraire! Holmes reappears three years later at Baker Street and poor Watson faints dead away.

After nearly scaring his friend to death at the end of Act One, Holmes then thoughtfully explains in Act Two where he was all that time.

No, he wasn't attempting to break the underwater endurance record beneath Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was trying to find peace of mind in Tibet.

The detective gets a shock of his own when Watson tells him he already knew that. (The good doctor has been in contact with Holmes' brother, Mycroft.)

But, what of the nefarious Professor Moriarty, who took the Reichenbach plunge along with Holmes?

Holmes vividly reveals the truth to an incredulous Watson. Needing a nemesis to challenge his brain during a "black fit" of depression, Holmes invented Moriarty. Moriarty was the brilliant detective's evil equal, the flipside of his genius. But, when this imaginary persona threatened to take over the sleuth's mind, Holmes realized it was time to kill Moriarty off. Thus, the elaborate ruse at Reichenbach Falls and Holmes' "hiatus."

However, the lama Holmes consulted with in Tibet told the detective he needed Moriarty to survive, just as he needed Watson to help keep his excesses in check. Without Watson and Moriarty, there would be no Holmes.

And, that was the secret of Sherlock Holmes. A rather lightweight conceit, perhaps, as some critics were quick to point out. For instance, Kenneth Hurren of the Mail on Sunday sniffed, "Jeremy Paul's The Secret of Sherlock Holmes produces another fanciful theory of what 'really' happened at the Reichenbach Falls. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke as a plausible Holmes and Watson are the entire cast of this undramatic miniature, which will chiefly interest the oddball aficionados who talk of these characters as if they are real people." (!)

Jim Hiley of The Listener sneered, "...Holmes shoots up a few times, succumbs to an attack of dry ice at the Reichenbach Falls, then returns miraculously to prattle and shoot up some more."

However, the strength of this play was not in its plot, but rather in its characters. In the masterful hands of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, Holmes and Watson were far more than just a brainy detective and his befuddled "Boswell."

Therefore, most critics praised the performances of Brett and Hardwicke. Of Hardwicke's performance, Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard observed, "In Edward Hardwicke's interpretation of Watson, there is less of the amiable bumbler and awe-struck sycophant than one is used to and more of an independent spirit ready at times to tell Holmes he is talking through his deerstalker."

Francis King of The Daily Telegraph crowed, "Brett's performance, with its elegance, arrogance, world-weariness and melancholy, is particularly noteworthy. It is time that this superb actor did something--Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare?--fully to extend him on the English stage."

"In many ways Jeremy Brett is an old-fashioned, barnstorming sort of actor who appears to revel in strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage," wrote The Stage and Television Today's Nick Smurthwaite. "Watching him on TV, you sometimes feel he is unhappily constrained by the smallness and intimacy required of screen acting. On stage he is larger than life, pacing around the elegant Victorian set like a caged animal, yet he knows exactly when to tone down the bravura style in order to invest the merest look or line with significance. You may be able to see the cogs turning in Brett's performance, but it's such a marvelous machine you don't really care."

One critic even managed to sum up the very essence of Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes: "Brett was, and still is, a bit of a glamour boy, which originally made him surprise casting as Holmes. But he has captured the fastidious theatricality of the master criminologist and given him a neurotic vulnerability that forever eclipses the memory of Basil Rathbone playing him straight. You care about this lonely Holmes like no other incarnation. And, he makes you laugh frequently at his answer for everything, delivered with wonderfully dry timing. This is a Holmes with humour and unexpected heart." (Maureen Paton, Daily Express)

Life Imitates Art

In The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is deeply concerned about Holmes' cocaine abuse and his obsession with Moriarty. Holmes is acutely aware of how indebted he is to Watson, whose concern keeps him alive, and of how badly he's treated Watson. At one point he says, "A man needs a companion--he cannot sit alone...there never was a better friend, and I treated him abominably."

As the run of the play progressed, life began to imitate art. Jeremy Paul's concern about Jeremy Brett's mental equilibrium wasn't entirely groundless. Brett's manic depression made him irritable and suspicious at times, causing him to act much like the troubled character he was portraying on stage. Not even his dear friend and colleague Edward Hardwicke was spared from the anger which uncharacteristically erupted from the normally gracious actor.

Jeremy's racing thoughts and the need to keep his performance fresh caused him to insert stray bits of dialogue into "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes," such as Orsino's opening speech from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. He might say just the first line: "If music be the food of love, play on..."

Bravo, Mr. Brett. A little spice in the performance. No harm done. But, sometimes, the first line stretched to include the whole speech:

"...Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again!  It had a dying fall;

O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odor!  Enough, no more!

'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,

That notwithstanding thy capacity

Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,

Of what validity and pitch soe'er,

But falls into abatement and low price

Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy

That it alone is high fantastical."

Hearing Jeremy Brett recite this Shakespearean passage off the top of his head must have been a rare pleasure--but not in the middle of a play about Sherlock Holmes. These non-sequiturs confused the audience and enraged Duncan Weldon. 

Edward Hardwicke attempted to steer Jeremy's performance back on track. He tactfully offered some well-meaning suggestions to his co-star. However, Jeremy's mania caused him to misinterpret Hardwicke's concern as criticism. He decided Hardwicke really didn't want to act with him--which, of course, was not true.

A rift opened between the two actors which was only closed when Hardwicke wrote Brett a 20-page letter. After reading just a few pages, Jeremy realized how badly he'd been treating Edward.

Fortunately, Edward Hardwicke was as patient and understanding toward Jeremy as Dr. Watson was toward Holmes. He knew it was Jeremy's illness--and not Jeremy--which was responsible for the misunderstanding.

This problem was resolved, but a far more alarming problem loomed. Jeremy Brett was now 55 years old. While he was still relatively young, his illnesses had taken their toll. The medication prescribed to help balance his seesawing emotions had caused his body to retain water, which not only made him look heavier, but which also strained a heart already weakened by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. The stress of doing eight strenuous performances a week was beginning to sap Jeremy's strength. Yet, he gave his all at every performance, as writer Rhoda Koenig reported:

"Joining Edward Hardwicke, his companion on the television series, as Dr. Watson, Brett then swings into his portrayal of the overdeveloped brain who is deficient in human civility. But human frailities abound in this Holmes, and Brett, his voice booming out theatrically, his gestures large, creates a sizable character whom he then cuts down to size, the lines edging out in a halting, dreamy way, the laughter self-mocking. At the end of two hours, the audience applauds and Brett gratefully bows, not a little shaky himself, his face dripping sweat."

After a while, Jeremy lacked the stamina to make the rapid entrances and exits the play demanded, so he would remain onstage as the lights dimmed during scene changes. Toward the end of Secret's run at Wyndham's, Jeremy was warned by his doctor that if he continued working in the play, there might not be any more encores--ever.

Jeremy was interviewed on BBC Radio 2 around the same time. He sounded horribly short of breath. Jeremy typically made light of his condition, telling the interviewer: "[Mr. Holmes] has grabbed my chest. So I'd better go and have that cleaned up. My breathing's gone...[Holmes] smokes and puffs, and I'm trying to stop smoking, and I have to smoke on stage. I have to 'pigeon' my chest because I have to make myself long and thin, and he's got me again. So, naughty boy, Mr. Holmes! I have to nip off and have that cleared up, and get on some antibiotics."

The situation wasn't that simple, however. Jeremy feared he would lose his insurance coverage, so he refused to go to a hospital (as his doctor urged). Instead, Jeremy went to a health farm, where the fluid that his body had retained was drawn off. When he returned to the play two weeks later (the show had closed while he recovered), he was in somewhat better shape.

The run of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes wasn't all Sturm und Drang, of course. There were many happy moments, too, both for Jeremy and for the hordes of fans who came to see him and Edward Hardwicke in the play.




Find out in Final Stages, Pt. II!


  1. BBC2 Interview, 7/18/89.
  2. Christopher, James. "Books," Time Out, 2/28-3/6/96.
  3. Cox, Michael. "And Now...On With the Motley!," The Sherlock Holmes Gazette, Issue 14, 1996.
  4. Davies, David Stuart. Bending the Willow--Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Calabash Press, 1996.
  5. Fell, Connie. "The Colonel's Regiment," Berkswell Miscellany, Volume V, 1989.
  6. Haining, Peter. The Television Sherlock Holmes, Virgin Books, 1994.
  7. Hiley, Jim. Review of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Listener, 10/6/88.
  8. Hurren, Kenneth. Review of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Mail on Sunday, 9/25/88.
  9. Johnson, Roger and Upton, Jean. "A Message From Jeremy For His Friends: The Memorial Service for Jeremy Brett," The Baker Street Journal, March 1996.
  10. King, Francis. Review of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Sunday Telegraph, 9/25/88.
  11. Koenig, Rhoda. "There's No Place Like Holmes," TV Guide, 10/22/88.
  12. Paul, Jeremy. The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Ian Henry Publications, Ltd., 1989.
  13. Paton, Maureen. Review of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Daily Express, 9/23/88.
  14. The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Programme, Proscenium Publications, 1989.
  15. Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, The Folger Library General Reader's Shakespeare, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1960.
  16. Shulman, Milton. Review of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Evening Standard, 9/23/88.
  17. Smurthwaite, Nick. "Investigating the Bionic Brain," The Stage and Television Today, 9/15/88.
  18. Stashower, Daniel. "And Here There Are Genuine Tears." The Armchair Detective, Winter 1996.

Theatre programme cover scanned from L. L. Oldham's personal collection of JB memorabilia.

Originally published (as TBE Vol. III # 4): April 1, 1997.
Last updated: February 23, 2001.

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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.