We all know how Jeremy Brett's life ended. Now, here's how it began:
By Lisa Oldham
Jeremy Brett told interviewers that in order to play "the mind without a heart", Sherlock Holmes, he had to invent an "inner life" for the character.
"I know what his nanny looked like, for example," he told National Public Radio's Liane Hansen in 1991. "She was covered in starch. She probably scrubbed him but never kissed him. I don't think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight."
When NPR repeated this interview shortly after Jeremy's death in September 1995, some Brett observers speculated that his bleak notion of Holmes' childhood must have sprung from his own upper-class British upbringing. However, photographs from Jeremy's early life reveal quite a different story.
A photo taken of toddler Jeremy Huggins dressed in his "jammies" shows a sweet-faced little boy with blonde hair standing beside his lovely, dark-haired mother, Elizabeth. Jeremy's older brother, Michael, stands behind Jeremy. Behind the Huggins boys and their "mum" stands the household staff, including Ellen Clifford, Jeremy's beloved nanny, who was with the Huggins family for 53 years. Although the stout, bespectacled "Nanny Clifford" does look "covered in starch" in this particular photo, other photos show her smiling while wheeling little Jeremy in his pram and enjoying lemonade and tea with her young charge.
Even as a toddler, Jeremy Brett radiated "presence". While having tea in the garden one day, wee Jeremy flashed a charming grin for the photographer. The camera loved him even then. And, it's plain to see that the other people in the photo (including Nanny Clifford) loved him, too.
Several articles written about Jeremy Brett describe Col. Huggins as "hot-tempered", but he was well-liked and respected by the men under his command. He was the kind of commander who never asked his men to do anything he would not do himself. A 1989 article in "The Berkswell Miscellany" (a publication of The Berkswell Local History Research Group) stated that on at least one occasion Col. Huggins charged up treacherous mountain terrain on a motorcycle and told his men, "There you are--if I can do it, you can."
Returning to England after World War I, Col. Huggins joined his family's business, becoming Managing Director of Tube Products.
In 1923, Col. Huggins married Elizabeth Edith Cadbury Butler of Birmingham. Elizabeth was a half-Irish Quaker. She and the Colonel met at a Quaker Meeting House in Birmingham when she was 19 and he was 28.
Jeremy told interviewer Kenneth Passingham in 1973, "[My mother] was a young girl of 19 with a Victorian upbringing. They courted with notes under bedroom doors. I'm told that when they drove away from the wedding, my father said, 'Where shall we go now?' And my mother said: 'I've always dreamed of Paris.' So, off they went to Paris, and he got chicken pox."
Their three oldest sons--John, Michael and Patrick--were born at the Huggins' first home, Holly Lodge. In 1929, the family moved to Berkswell Grange, the spacious 17th-century manor where youngest son Peter Jeremy William was born in 1933.
In 1990, Jeremy told inteviewer Marilyn Willison, "I walked about a quarter inch off the ground for most of my childhood. I moved like a frisky ariel through life, spoilt rotten of course, the youngest of a family of four [sons]. We had gardens, horses, archery, swimming, squash and tennis courts, freedom, everything that anyone could possibly want growing up."
Both the Colonel and Mrs. Huggins were very civic-minded and were involved in worthy causes such as the Red Cross. They shared an interest in archery. The Colonel (and later his four sons) belonged to the Woodmen of Arden, an archery club established in 1758. Jeremy Brett's "Who's Who" entry noted his membership in this club, and he demonstrated his prowess with a bow and arrow in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" episode of "Sherlock Holmes" (bullseye!).
Another of Colonel Huggins' interests was riding, an enthusiasm also embraced by Jeremy. As a child, Jeremy had a pony named "Babs" whom he trained to climb stairs. Jeremy actually rode Babs into the Grange, which didn't sit well with Nanny Clifford, especially when it came to the inevitable by-products of Jeremy's four-legged, unhousebroken guest. (Nanny wasn't too pleased when Jeremy rode a donkey up into his room, either--the donkey had no trouble going upstairs, but balked on the way down.) Jeremy took riding lessons and competed in gymkhanas (equestrian field days consisting of exhibitions of horsemanship and pageantry). Although Jeremy decided at an early age that he wanted to become an actor, he once said that he wished he could have been a jockey, too. (He probably enjoyed filming the Holmes story "Silver Blaze".)
Mrs. Huggins was renowned in the village of Berkswell for her kindness to those in need. For example, when a man and his family who had been displaced by the Coventry blitz came seeking shelter, Mrs. Huggins took them in. Eventually, 42 members of this family ended up lodging at the Grange!
Mrs. Huggins was especially kind to Gypsies and hoboes who came to the Grange, providing them with food, clothing, and a place to clean up. Hoboes left secret symbols on the grounds of the Grange for other hoboes, signaling that it was a "friendly" house. Flash forward--many years later, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes disguised himself as a "gentleman of the road" and revealed the secret hobo signs which helped him solve the mystery of "The Norwood Builder". Surely these scenes must have held a special significance for Jeremy.
After the original Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by bombs during World War II, a lovely floral tribute was discovered on the altar in the smoking ruins. Mrs. Huggins placed the flowers there, although this wasn't learned until years after her death. Yet another example of this gentle lady's kindness, a virtue passed down to Jeremy, who, even as a child, was known for his own acts of charity. After performing in one of the Nativity plays presented in Berkswell each Christmas, young Jeremy (having no money with him) gave his best cap as an offering to baby Jesus.
Jeremy Brett's childhood was filled with happy times. However, his early life was not without its obstacles.
PART II of "Berkswell Boy"
Originally published as TBE Vol.II, #3, February 10, 1996 (revised July 19, 2004)