Jeremy Brett's 36 Sherlock Holmes episodes are split into four series and six transmission blocks.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes = April-June 1984, Aug-Sept 1985
- The Return of Sherlock Holmes = July-Aug 1986, April 1988
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes = Feb-March 1991
- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes = March-April 1994
The additional five TV movies, for what it's worth, are in 1987-88 and 1992-93. To get the preliminaries out of the way, Sherlock Holmes is the best detective of all time, Jeremy Brett's is the best interpretation I've seen of the role and here he's with the best Watson. David Burke is why Adventures is the best of the four series. After this he'd bow out and be replaced by Edward Hardwicke.
Burke's wonderful, he really is. As hard as Brett's working, Burke's contributing just as much. If there's the slightest potential for drama or comedy in a scene, Burke will find it. The two leads' scenes together are a joy, like watching a tennis match between two aces at the top of their game. I like Andre Morell in 1959, but he's not close. What makes Burke's work particularly impressive is that Watson isn't a flashy role. Sherlock Holmes gets all the dramatic moments and outrageous lines, whereas Watson is the solid chap plodding along behind. A lot of Watsons are that and no more. Burke takes the few crumbs on offer and turns them into something special.
About Jeremy Brett I hardly even need to talk, do I? It's a shock to watch him after seeing other supposedly definitive Sherlocks like Basil Rathbone. Even when they're excellent, he's on another planet. Rathbone and Cushing are basically playing themselves with a light sprinkling of Conan Doyle. Jeremy Brett on the other hand has constructed his Sherlock Holmes from first principles, putting foundations right down to the bedrock. I'd heard he was good, but I hadn't been expecting him to be this brave. He's really pushing the boat out, constructing a character so extreme as to be practically a high-functioning autistic and treating the script as merely a starting point for his portrayal. It's theatrical, with lots of huge but clean transitions and gestures. It's striking work and a real testament to the potential of adaptation.
This season introduces three big names: Moriarty, Mycroft and Irene Adler. You know, the Woman. "I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex." Taking those in reverse order, Gayle Hunnicut is forgettable and a bit too old as Irene Adler. Admittedly she's given little to do, but even so I wasn't impressed. She's not even memorably good-looking, although I'm sure she was a knockout as a fashion model in the sixties. The previous screen Irene Adler had been Charlotte Rampling in 1976, which sounds much more like it.
Mycroft is Charles Gray, who'd played him before in 1976. Obviously he's an icon, but I was oddly disappointed. I thought he gave a messy performance, buried under its own mannerisms, and I didn't like the voice he'd chosen to use. Nevertheless despite this he still manages enough Charles Gray awesomeness to keep me happy anyway. I love his vampire smile when holding a gun to someone's head, for instance. Furthermore this is probably his best episode, since he's less important in The Bruce-Partington Plans and uncomfortably shoehorned into The Golden Pince-Nez and The Mazarin Stone as a stand-in for Hardwicke and Brett respectively. Neither of those really work. Incidentally, despite him looking old enough to be Brett's father, there were only five years between the two actors' ages whereas for their characters it's seven!
Moriarty is easily the best of these three legends. Eric Porter = evil old bastard. He's better than any of Rathbone's three Moriarties by a gulf as great as that between Brett and Rathbone himself.
As for the episodes, they're packed with top-notch actors and so lavishly produced that you'll forget they weren't made yesterday. The only danger sign when it comes to the acting is when someone's meant to be American. I particularly like the way in which the guest actors were clearly being told to build a character even for the tiniest roles. Meanwhile the production team is obsessively faithful to the original stories, frequently keeping whole scenes with the dialogue verbatim and sometimes even mimicking the original Paget illustrations. This is good because Conan Doyle's stories are superb. What I particularly like about them is their variety. They're not just the usual Agatha Christie formula, but zigzag across all sorts of different genres and plot devices. These episodes will almost invariably be better than looser adaptations of the same source material.
Anyway. Going through all thirteen in order...
1. A Scandal in Bohemia - April 24 1984
Basically a strong episode, but dragged down by Hunnicut's Adler. There's also an amusing bit where three carriages supposedly go careening hell-for-leather through the streets of London, yet the production team had clearly had no intention of taking any risks with their hired horse and carriage. Sherlock would have got there faster if he'd got out and walked.
2. The Dancing Men - May 1 1984
Of the Americans, Betsy Brantley is passable but Eugene Lipinski has an obviously fake moustache and can't even do the accent. Chicago? I think not. However that aside, I loved the episode. It's shocking, late in the day taking a brutal turn I hadn't expected, and a delicious showcase for Sherlock. He's brilliant! I loved his evil glee in ensnaring his enemies and his message-writing to the bad man.
3. The Naval Treaty - May 8 1984
A fine example of how to expand Conan Doyle's whippet-thin stories. I thought the actress playing Miss Phelps played a particularly important role, building characterisation out of nothing and creating a woman Holmes can trust on sight. This is important. Holmes trusts her with something that could have wrecked the case and made him look like an idiot if he'd been wrong. There's also an extraordinary shadow action scene. Overall, another strong episode with an unusual kind of plot, raising diplomatic issues rather than the usual criminal investigation.
Holmes's bizarre soliliquy on his rose is from the original story, by the way.
4. The Solitary Cyclist - May 15 1984
Yet another unpredictable story and in this case a clear improvement on Conan Doyle's version. Letting us see the gun at the beginning is clever, immediately raising the stakes higher than in the lackadaisical original. I also loved its dodgy South Africans, while it's a particularly good episode for Holmes and Watson even by this series's high standards. I do admire David Burke. Note his bit of business behind the woodpile, for instance.
The only oddity is that not for the last time in the series, they make a supposedly attractive women seem less so. Cleavage isn't enough. However in fairness it's important for Holmes's deductions that this be a robust country girl with a complexion that speaks of regular exercise, so they couldn't have cast some random model.
5. The Crooked Man - May 22 1984
One of Brett's more extreme performances, which is saying a lot. Maybe he'd decided Holmes doesn't like the army? Note his reading of "please give me the facts" and his rudeness and borderline hostility throughout. It's brave, even for him. I liked how Burke used the distinction between Holmes the civilian and Watson the old soldier, though.
Unfortunately the episode has flashes of stupidity. Even Holmes gets a low IQ moment! Why did he have to ask Watson how he knew he'd looked up the Biblical reference? I'm surprised that Fiona Shaw's character can get dressed without help, while Watson looks silly with "there must have been a third person!" It's unfortunate since this is an otherwise excellent adaptation full of juicy scenes in which the actors can chew the scenery. I particularly liked the crooked man himself, who's as bitter, painful and seething as anyone could want.
Mind you, they might have been a bit ambitious in trying to do Indian flashbacks. At one point I saw an actor's breath! Isn't India supposed to be hot? However I will give them credit for finding good lookalikes for playing old and young versions of the same characters.
6. The Speckled Band - May 29 1984
The original story is one of my favourites, although it wouldn't have worked with modern medicine. I loved the mad doctor with his pet leopard and that glorious confrontation at 221B Baker Street. Wonderful. I rewound and watched it again. In case that wasn't enough, later in the story we even see Holmes scared! This story had me in the palm of its hand right until the end, when one ill-judged shot popped the bubble and had me laughing aloud at the television. Maybe it's just me. I used to keep snakes. I wouldn't handle a grass snake like that, let alone an example of what's supposedly the deadliest serpent in India, wrapped around the neck of its latest victim.
Until then though, I was enthralled. "Are you part of the conspiracy against me too?"
One of the best things I've ever seen. Should be watched every Christmas by everyone. Reviewed separately.
8. The Copper Beeches - August 25 1985
This is one sinister story, building up to horror if you don't know what's going on. In addition it has one of the series's standout performances in Joss Ackland's Jephro Rucastle. He's creepy, jovial and magnificent, with the most amazing voice. Afterwards I went so far as to look up his other roles and found that he's acted in Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring Douglas Wilmer (1965) and Christopher Lee (1992). Overall another glorious adaption, faithful to the letter of the original but completely different in tone.
Oh, and I fell about laughing at Proud Literary Watson.
9. The Greek Interpreter - September 1 1985
Mycroft's episode. I've already discussed Charles Gray, who gets a role so meaty that I was convinced they'd been taking liberties. Not at all. Almost everything's from the original story, the only exceptions being the last-act scenes on the train, although that's enough to make this the loosest adaptation of this first series. I still like Gray despite my various niggles, so I suppose my only real problem with the episode would be some unclear handling of exposition.
That aside, this has villains so menacing that it becomes a 19th century gangster flick. These are scary customers, as in for instance how they treat their captive. He's a walking dead man! It's like going up against the mob! I also loved their happy smiling ringleader, who I thought was playing against his lines until I realised he's meant to be like that. There's also a flamboyant death scene. They're always fun.
Note incidentally that the episode ends on Holmes criticising someone's feelings towards her brother.
10. The Norwood Builder - September 8 1985
Holmes is particularly funny here, greeting people as might a hungry snake and openly gleeful at other people's interesting misfortunes. "We can do better than that." I found this one of their more guessable mysteries, but I think the producers were half-expecting me to have done so.
11. The Resident Patient - September 15 1985
A slightly less satisfying story, since everything happens without Holmes and his only story role is to deduce what happened afterwards. The bad guys get away. In addition Holmes's client looks like a gay porn star. He's a hunk of beefcake with immaculate clothes, beautifully mannered lines and no idea about how to deliver them. Admittedly this could be justified in-story since the character had come up a long way in the world, but even so I'd never seen an actor so uncomfortable with 19th century dialogue.
More trivially, the opening scene of Holmes reading Watson's thoughts has been replaced with one reminiscent of a parody written by Conan Doyle himself, called How Watson Learned the Trick. Obviously since it stars Brett and Burke, it's wonderful.
12. The Red-Headed League - September 22 1985
Stars Tim McInnery, doing well yet again as a man you yearn to kick. See how he's deliberately getting the accent subtly wrong. Meanwhile John Woodnutt looks so much like Richard Wilson that it confused me. I think it's the hair. Again the exposition gets undersold, while there's a terrible glass shot of St Paul's. However it's still a decent episode, with one big change. They've written in Moriarty. I'm not wild about lessening the status of John Clay as a villain, but I have to approve of introducing the Napoleon of Crime at some point before his famous climactic appearance. That always seemed odd to me in Conan Doyle's original stories. If he's supposedly the mastermind at the centre of everything, why had we never seen him masterminding?
13. The Final Problem - September 29 1985
The big one. They bolt an entire subplot on to the beginning based on a throwaway line, in which Holmes foils Moriarty's schemes for the Mona Lisa. Yet again I loved this episode. They've really pumped up the danger level. The original begins rather gently, whereas this is terrifying. By the time we reach the famous confrontation in 221B Baker Street, we're salivating for it. Needless to say, it's astonishing. Conan Doyle's dialogue, simply given verbatim to two theatrical actors at the height of their powers. Then for the Reichenbach Falls they really went abroad for the filming, with results even more gorgeous than you'd expect. A wonderful, emotional ending to a stunning series.
Admittedly you can see the ropes on which stuntmen "fall" into the waterfall, after which dummies hit the bottom, but that's only surprising because the production values are so stunning that you'll have forgotten they couldn't just paint that out with CGI. Earlier there had also been a naked woman in an artist's studio and we got a glimpse of side-nipple.
So there you have it - the best series of the best Sherlock Holmes yet made. I've written a lot of words, but it's a terrific series. It deserves them.