Judge Maurice Cobbs bids a fond farewell to the great detective, appearing here in his final adventures.
"Oh! Rats! Beeswax! Mr. Holmes—You are the very worst tenant in all of London!"—Mrs. Hudson (Rosalie Williams) in "The Dying Detective"
…"…[H]e must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…"—from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Facts of the Case
The final Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. John Watson finds the detective once again hip deep in seemingly impenetrable mysteries—this time, with the occasional hand from Holmes's smarter brother Mycroft (Charles Grey, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Although many fans of the series find the episodes that comprise The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to be the least entertaining, I count some of these episodes among my absolute favorites. I can understand the criticism, however; the enduring appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that they are, after all is said and done, enormously fun to read, and that fun certainly carried over to the television adaptations of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. But as the series progressed, the stories became darker—less adventurous and more introspective. The feel of the show became grittier; the crimes more sinister and gruesome; the scope of the situations that were probed shrank from international incidents (such as "The Naval Treaty") and crime consortiums like Professor Moriarty's to much more intimate and personal transgressions. Where the focus had once been on high adventure and the thrill of the chase, now the focus was on the emotional impact and interpersonal relationships that lurked under the surface of the still very proper Edwardian England. As is fitting for the coming of twilight, gloom had settled by the time of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Certainly, at least part of the reason for this shift can be attributed to Jeremy Brett himself; overwork combined with crushing grief over the untimely death of his wife, Joan Wilson, triggered a bout with bipolar disorder that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Medication helped, but not enough—Brett had always been the victim of severe mood swings, and he was already suffering from a heart condition (as a child, his heart valves were scarred by rheumatic fever). The medication prescribed to treat his bipolar disorder damaged his heart further with the toxic buildup it inadvertently created, and the fact that he was a heavy smoker didn't help, either. Adding to his health problems was the excessive weight gain caused by his medication—quite obvious in more than one episode of Case-Book, but especially so in Memoirs. Also, medication that might have helped his heart condition could not be prescribed, because it would have interfered with the medication for his bipolar disorder.
The second episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes would prove to be a rather grim predictor—the "dying detective" indeed.
Accordingly, Holmes himself seems to have changed. No longer the aloof being of the early shows, for whom reason was religion, Holmes now seems more and more affected by the emotional situations of the people around him. Notice, in the episode "The Three Gables," how Holmes is moved by the tragic story of the aged woman's grandson who was led to his doom by his unrequited love for a designing woman. Consider the empathy Holmes, himself only recently freed from addiction to cocaine, displays when Savage describes her husband's addition to opium in "The Dying Detective." It seems that the weight of the work he does has settled heavily on Holmes's shoulders; indeed, how could it not, when he is faced almost daily with the depths of human depravity, greed, violence, and cruelty? In the words of Fitzgerald, Holmes has lost the old warm world, when each new problem promised challenge and adventure. Now there is little amusement in his work—not even the emotionally challenged Holmes can be glib when faced with a grieving old woman who has lost her only grandson to a slow death, or a devastated young widow who has been thrown out of her home with her two small children, or a man who has been doomed to the gallows because of the spiteful machinations of a spurned lover. Holmes must also face the limits of his power, such as when a young man and his wife must face trial for killing, in obvious self-defense, an odious monster of a man who has hounded them across an ocean. "The law is what we live with," remarks Holmes, seemingly unaffected, "But justice is somewhat harder to achieve." The detective's face as he watches the young couple loaded into a wagon bound for prison, however, betrays his true feeling…
Not that Holmes has reformed too much, mind you. One of the best and funniest moments of the series is presented when Holmes, confronted by a crying and hysterical old woman, recoils in horror. "Watson!" Holmes pleads, throwing up his hands, voice trembling, "Cope!"
Although some fans of the series express dislike for the grimmer direction of the series in its later years, I have to wonder—what did they expect? That Holmes would remain eternally detached, that the emotional impact of the work he does would never take its toll? That Holmes would remain ever in limbo, never progressing as a character, never developing or changing? That sort of approach to characterization is best left to sitcoms, not the kind of work that the Granada team was engaged in. Seeing Holmes progress as a character is engaging, and despite his illness, Jeremy Brett still turns in fine, strong performances, making this season an excellent way to end the show.
• "The Three Gables"
• "The Dying Detective"
• "The Golden Pince-Nez"
• "The Red Circle"
• "The Mazarin Stone"
• "The Cardboard Box"
"What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose or our universe has no meaning, and that is unthinkable. But what purpose? That is humanity's great problem, for which reason so far has no answer."
With those words, Jeremy Brett ended his 10-year run as the best Holmes ever captured on film. Over the course of 36 episodes and five feature-length films, Brett truly established the definitive Holmes—no small task in performing a role that had previously been played by such luminary actors as Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone. The extra dimension that Brett brought to the role was a kind of delightful unpredictability, developing the character to make him as accessible as he was eccentric. With strong support from the supporting players, strong screenplays that remained faithful to the original stories while not being afraid to embellish them, and incredible production design that brought the Edwardian era to life as rarely seen before, Granada has given us a quality television series that everyone can enjoy.
"I've been thinking, if I'm not going to star again, what a way to go out, with Sherlock! I don't think I could have topped Sherlock."—Jeremy Brett, shortly before his death in 1995.
It is a great injustice that more people are not familiar with Brett's amazing Sherlock Holmes—but now, with these excellent DVD sets available, more people will discover and appreciate the outstanding job done by everyone connected with this show. Sherlockians, mystery fans, and lovers of quality television alike will certainly thrill to Holmes's adventures as presented by Granada.
Not guilty. Please stop that harrumphing, Inspector Lestrade.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Screenwriter Jeremy Paul and Holmes Expert David Stuart Davies on "The Red Circle"
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