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My Contemporary British TV Detectives

The Adventure of the Detective’s Dressing Gown

The Adventure of the Detective’s Dressing Gown
Credit: Fr. Douglas McGuire

Here is the robe I want.

Minute three, second 15, Jeremy Brett playing Sherlock Holmes. Smoking at the table, he wears a coat of taupe draping that looks heavy enough to be worn outdoors in the snow, but so soft (is it merino? Boiled wool?) it’s appropriate at 4 p.m. for a late breakfast of soft eggs, or at 2 a.m. for a pre-nap vodka.

 
I realize I sound like a J. Peterman catalog for pseudo-Prousts. The truth is, I’ll never own this robe. Mostly I don’t have the balls. But here it is again, nine seconds in, and then again, with length, at 03:17:
 
 

Oh man, I know it’s lame. But right now, watching these videos, I can feel it hanging on my shoulder. At one point I had a seamstress picked out. I had put aside the Sherlock DVDs with scenes and times noted to demonstrate cut, crimp, and heft. In college, I once saw a picture in a museum catalog of Gustav Klimt standing in his garden in Vienna, wearing not much more than a robe similar to Brett’s, and I thought, Someday me, please. You know: artist entitled to get away with shit like that.

Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes in four series for Granada TV, beginning in 1984 and finishing 10 years later, a year before Brett himself died. He made the character into many things: a somber thinker; a weary oaf; an icepick; a dancer; a flirt. The headline for his obituary in the New York Times read: “Jeremy Brett, an Unnerving Holmes, Is Dead at 59.” More precisely, Brett gave us a Sherlock who pounces—on ideas and clues—and one who lolls, just like he does in the stories. What’s a plain “Ha!” on the page became a bark from Brett’s mouth, and suddenly a new way of seeing and hearing Sherlock was defined. True, he didn’t do the fight scenes very well. And in the fatter years, his stride became too much of a strut. But Brett’s performance had 10 times more nuance than Basil Rathbone’s, 10 times more depth than Robert Downey, Jr’s. Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch will catch up, but he’ll need time, support, development. Actors talk about playing the Dane. Brett made it worth saying he’d played the Detective.

Sherlock is all over the news right now—new movies, new adaptations, new books. He’s being kept green. I mean, even Holmes scholarship is in the news. For those of us who find this entertaining, I recommend subscribing to the Baker Street Journal. Among other things, it’s a treasury for papers that play the game of pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real, and then trying to explain away all the inconsistencies of Conan Doyle’s stories—incorrect train schedules, wounds described in one place on a page that move elsewhere only a few paragraphs later. It’s serious fun, even from the sidelines, and that’s you get from watching Brett’s performance: intense joy.

My grandfather introduced me to Sherlock. I still have the illustrated volume of stories he gave me as a kid sitting in my living room bookcase. My grandfather, an accountant by day, poet by night, had only a few things published in his lifetime. One of his best was an article that ran in a business review. It was a hoax, a mishmash of jargon that he slipped past the editors, poking fun at the governance of management-speak; and he signed it Professor James Moriarty. So I think my grandfather would have enjoyed Jeremy Brett. Brett portrayed Sherlock with vigor, wit, and truculence—a man of a robe worth wearing.