The Brettish Empire


FINAL STAGES (Part II)

by Lisa L. Oldham

Sharing the Warmth

At the end of each performance of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, another show began. Jeremy's ebullient curtain call was said to be worth the price of admission. As Michael Billington of the Guardian described it, "Jeremy Brett places one hand on his heart and another on his knee suggesting an Edwardian actor-manager with a touch of arthritis. He then takes the hand off his heart and extends it towards Edward Hardwicke, implying our too-kind applause should be directed towards his sterling colleague. Not since Donald Wolfit used to cling to the curtain, apparently in a state of terminal collapse, has London seen anything quite like it."

Before and after each performance of Secret, Jeremy Brett held court in his dressing room, graciously giving his time to the crush of admirers, interviewers, and photographers who came to call.

A reporter from the Christian Science Monitor described the scene shortly after the play opened at Wyndham's:

"There is something about Jeremy Brett that makes you want to put the word 'darling' at the end of every sentence, darling. I mean really, all those Etonian vowels, the West End dressing room with that darling basket of fruit, the darling bouquet of lillies from all those darlings on opening night.

"'Oh, I mean really. It's the most divine theatre in London, and the show is just a great joy,' says Mr. Brett with a wave to his dresser. 'See you anon, my dear.' 'Right,' says the actor, swiveling to face the interviewer...It is a superlative backstage performance that Brett is giving in his subterranean dressing room at London's Wyndham's Theatre, just a few hours before curtain. The wallpaper is English awful, the air heavy with the perfume of the lillies and the gently decaying fruit. And the contrast between the on-camera Holmes--a reptillian dandy with laquered hair and pursed lips--and the offstage Brett could not be more, well, theatrical."

Writer Daniel Stashower recalled his March 1989 meeting with Jeremy: "Mr. Brett was an animated and quirky interview subject. An actorly superstition holds that it is bad luck to speak of Shakespeare's Macbeth in a theater. Over the course of two evenings Mr. Brett took great delight in trying to coax the offending title out of me: 'That was the year,' he would say, his voice falling to a dark whisper, 'that I toured with...the Scottish play...' I had spent enough time around theater people to know that if I rose to the bait--'You mean Macbeth?'--tradition would require me to run into the hall, turn three times and spit on the floor in order to ward off bad luck. I kept my mouth shut. Later, when I spotted a friend of Mr. Brett's spitting mightily into a fire bucket, I knew the actor had sprung his trap. His laughter echoed through the wings, followed by the peculiar sight of Sherlock Holmes giving Dr. Watson a high-five."

Jeremy Paul later remembered, "During the run of The Secret of the Sherlock Holmes there was one abiding memory. The star's dressing room was always left open. Jeremy called it 'the Green Room'--and at any time you could wander in and find people--the mighty and the lowly--completely at their ease. He had time for everyone--to laugh with, to share a glass of champagne or simply to listen to their troubles over a cup of tea. Writing, as we know, is a solitary business, and one of my great pleasures at that time was to drop in at Wyndham's Theatre and share the warmth. It was always stimulating to be with Jeremy. His interests spread far and wide."

Fan Fare

Performing live after so many years of working on television put Jeremy back in touch with the public, enabling him to meet and chat with fans of all ages from around the globe.

Jeremy was delighted to discover children in the audience of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes. "They were young children...I could just see their little faces over the tops of the seats. And when I talked to some of them after the performances I realized that Holmes was a heroic figure to them. I'd never seen him in that way before...

"I couldn't believe how many children came to see [the play]. From all over the world. One little boy, Sullivan, from Dallas, three years old, was brought by his dad. That moved me."

Jeremy already knew that children loved Sherlock Holmes--and him. In 1991, he movingly told a newspaper reporter in Dallas, Texas, about two special little fans: 

"'A friend of mine, an actor, rang me at a theater I was playing and said, 'Can you ring tomorrow this number? Little Louise Ann is your greatest fan. She likes you and Bette Midler.'  I love that. So I don't know why I did it, but I picked up the phone then -- it was about half an hour before the curtain went up -- and I spoke to her aunt.'

"The girl was asleep, but her aunt promised to tell her of [Jeremy's] call.

"'I sent love, and she woke, received my message and died from leukemia...I then had a letter written about three weeks before she died. And it was a letter of such unbelievable care and cherishment, saying she was concerned about me.'

"'And we must remember this powerful medium, television...for she saw a dangerous light around me and was concerned for my well-being.'

"After the girl's death, he corresponded with a friend of hers. And then, at age 15, the friend was killed in a car accident.

"'I can only tell you that I have two guardian angels. And that's all there is to that.'"

Another large segment of Secret's audience was made up of female fans from around the world. Some of them claimed to have seen the play a hundred times. Jeremy felt many of these ladies were actually coming to see Holmes rather than him: "Women throughout the world identify with what's going on and see me as Holmes. It's all very flattering and frightening at times. I just have to realise I'm in the fantasy business, but I do feel responsible and I get very concerned about the power this character wields."

Jeremy was especially concerned about overly-obsessed female fans he called "The Women in Black." The ardor some of them displayed towards Jeremy suggests Holmes wasn't the only attraction: "They get obsessive, ringing me up, grabbing me. It can be quite disturbing." Jeremy was especially vulnerable to such attention during the run of the play because the theatres couldn't screen out "the more outlandish fans" like Granada Studios could.

However, during the play Jeremy did meet up with one female fan who became his friend and companion. That lady was, of course, Linda Pritchard. She approached Jeremy during the run of Secret in Richmond about sponsoring her as she ran around England to raise money for cancer research. Jeremy threw his support behind Linda's cause, and Linda and Jeremy remained close until the end of Jeremy's life.

American Holmes and Brett fans were tantalized by rumors that Secret would eventually come to Broadway and perhaps even tour the U.S. Sadly, these rumors never became reality. So, many American fans crossed the ocean to see The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.

One U.S. fan who made the journey was TBE reader Steven Smith. Steven attended one of the pre-Wyndham's performances. He remembers, "The highlight of the night came with the play's earliest scenes, involving the meeting of Holmes and Watson. Since those scenes, alas, were never captured in the television series, it was a thrill to hear those first exchanges of the characters performed by arguably their greatest interpreters. After the play, I hovered around the backstage door, hoping to exchange a word with Mr. Brett, armed with the introduction that I was a friend of Patrick Gowers' [composer of the Holmes TV score]. But the crowd was so tremendous--full of jostling elbows and moving bodies in the dark--I gave up and trundled wearily back to my hotel."

Many fans were luckier, though. Evelyn Leeper, another American fan, put an account on the World Wide Web of her visit to Wyndham's and her meeting with Jeremy.

Ms. Leeper wrote that "When Brett finally did come out, he was very apologetic about keeping us waiting. I figure he was probably receiving visitors from some branch or other of the Baker Street Irregulars...Brett was very gracious and asked each person to whom the autograph should be inscribed. When he heard Kate's accent, he asked where in the States she was from, and when she said, 'Massachusetts,' he said he used to live there with his 'dear late wife.'"

Some fans even gave Jeremy gifts (another "TBE" reader gifted Jeremy with a pair of crystal goblets). If Jeremy was unable to acknowledge the gifts in person (sometimes they were relayed to him via a stagehand), he usually mailed his heartfelt thanks to the giver.

One fan got much more than a "thank you" from Jeremy. American Kathy Li was working in England during the run of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes and saw the play three times. After the third viewing, she decided to wait by the stage door to see if she could catch a glimpse of its stars. Kathy managed to meet and chat with Edward Hardwicke. Then, Jeremy Brett emerged from the theatre. At the close of Kathy's conversation with Jeremy, "he swooped down upon me, exclaiming, 'Oh, how sweet!,' and gave me a peck on the cheek." The complete account of Kathy's seeing both the play and Hardwicke & Brett can be found here.

What Might Have Been

All good things must come to an end, and The Secret of Sherlock Holmes was no exception. After running nearly a full year at Wyndham's, the play closed on September 16, 1989. It  toured to 10 other British cities, and then closed for good in late 1989. It was time. Jeremy later said, "We must have done over five hundred performances by the end of the tour, and at times it was a struggle to keep the performances fresh. It was almost a relief to get back to the television studios."

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes should have been filmed, but wasn't. However, a lasting reminder of the play (and Jeremy Brett) can be found in Wyndham's Theatre. A memorial plaque and a photo of Jeremy were placed on the wall of the Circle Bar in 1995.

Jeremy Brett never made another stage appearance. Ah, but what might have been. Brett approached Jeremy Paul about writing a sequel to Secret, but this project went nowhere. Another intriguing "might have been" was a play which Brett reportedly wrote about a psychiatrist in Iceland who heals his patient but ends up having a nervous breakdown himself. In 1991, Jeremy said that he had completed a first draft. Apparently, a final draft was never written. Jeremy was reportedly offered the role of "Hector" in Shaw's Heartbreak House that year, but didn't take the part. Jeremy also considered doing an Alan Ayckbourn comedy in 1991, but ultimately dismissed it as being too "roboty."

Jeremy made his final television appearance as Sherlock Holmes in early 1994. Now he could think about giving those long-deferred performances in Chekhov, Ibsen, or Shakespeare. In fact, the National Theatre sought Jeremy for the role of Scrooge; a season at Chichester and a musical turn as Henry Higgins were also under consideration. But, actor Ian Richardson (who himself played Sherlock Holmes on British television in the early 1980s) told a Strand Magazine interviewer in 2003 that Jeremy feared more acting roles weren't coming his way because he was still branded as Holmes:

Richardson revealed, "And I remember Jeremy Brett...saying, 'Oh what am I to do, everybody thinks of me only as Sherlock Holmes and I'm not getting the work.' He was [nearly] the same age as I am--he would be [almost] the same age as I am had he lived--and I said, 'Let that dye grow out of your hair. I'm sure your hair underneath all that dye is just as white as mine.' And I said, 'You'll find out that when you've got your own coloured hair up there instead of dyed hair, people won't remember you--they'll treasure your Sherlock Holmes, but they won't make a connection when they think about you for something else.'"

Jeremy took Richardson's advice and stopped dyeing his hair. Sadly, though, his ever-weakening heart made it impossible for Jeremy to accept any more stage roles.

"And dear love, [Jeremy] did let his hair grow out--his hair was a beautiful silvery-white--but already he was very ill and he died shortly thereafter," Richardson said.

Jeremy Brett's final curtain fell on September 12, 1995. Those fortunate enough to have seen him shine on the stages of the world will never forget his brilliance. The less-fortunate fan must be content with the photos, newspaper clippings, and playbills which testify of a now-vanished era.

But--if one is creative, one can envision Jeremy Brett on stage, still playing great roles, in the theatre of imagination. Don Quixote...King Arthur...King Lear...the possibilities are limitless.

Bravo, Mr. Brett. Take a bow...

*****************************

From YouTube, a fan's audio recording of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, illustrated with production photos from the play (unfortunately, this play was never professionally recorded and the audio quality varies--headphones are recommended): 


 

References

  1. Amole, Gene. "Jeremy Brett Will Always Be Holmes." Rocky Mountain News, 9/19/95.
  2. Billington, Michael. Review of "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes." The Manchester Guardian, 9/24/88.
  3. Davies, David Stuart. "A Tribute and Fond Farewell to Jeremy of the Brett." Sherlock Holmes Gazette, Issue 13, 1995.
  4. Davies, David Stuart. Bending the Willow--Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Calabash Press, 1996.
  5. DeVries, Hilary. "The Debonair New Resident of 221B Baker Street." The Christian Science Monitor, 10/25/88.
  6. Doyle, Steven T. and Gagen, Mark. "The SHR Interview." The Sherlock Holmes Review, Vol. III, #4, 1991.
  7. Gulli, Andrew F. "Interview--Ian Richardson". The Strand Magazine, Issue X 2003.
  8. Haining, Peter. The Television Sherlock Holmes, Virgin Press, 1994.
  9. Liaguno, Chris. "Jeremy Brett--He's Decided to Stick With Sherlock Holmes to the End." Anglofile, Issue #20, 1991.
  10. Scarlet Street #22, 1996.
  11. Spencer, Kathryn. "Sherlock Returns But Can't Solve the Riddle of Romance." Today, 2/21/91.
  12. Stashower, Daniel. "And Here There Are Genuine Tears." Armchair Detective, Winter 1996.
  13. Sumner, Jane. "It's Elementary--He Loves Doing Sherlock Holmes". Press News Services, 11/10/91.

Originally published (as TBE Vol. III # 5): May 2, 1997.
Last updated: December 9, 2012.


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