40 Years Later, Jeremy Brett is Still the Best Sherlock Holmes

My father, for all of his gifts, has always been a master of nap media. The man can put on Iowa Public Television and conk out in under a minute. He has dedicated his life to the craft of indenting his body into the couch, slowly sinking to the gentle burble of British voices and the odd string quartet. It is an after-dinner ritual, and there's always room for cello. 

This is how I met Sherlock Holmes: as circumstantial background noise, something to look up at between rounds of Dr. Mario on the Game Boy. By the time my dad snored himself awake, I would be engrossed in a given episode, totally hypnotized by Jeremy Brett. The guy moved like a weird, skinny panther. He clicked his words like a crow. I didn't understand how my dad could sleep through such a thing.

The stories had two prime elements: attention to detail and the pursuit of justice while staying away from normal people. This all clicked for me, as I was an OCD kid riding the first wave of video game addiction and isolation. Among my public television uncles, Holmes was my favorite. He became the moody, gothic asshole who stood out from the gentle uncles who painted happy little trees and had red toy trolleys in their living rooms. This guy slept all day and scattered office shit all over the floor. Sign me up.

Over the years, I've relished any chance to revisit 221B Baker Street, whether it has been in the form of VHS or whatever I can find online. I did a full rewatch of the series over this last winter and found some gems: 

The Norwood Builder (1985): The deft cinematography makes this episode better than it has any right to be. Director Ken Grieve, who got his start as a cameraman, strolls us through gardens in Kent with subtle steadicam and cunning use of a crane. Grieve is the same Scot who directed Destiny of the Daleks for Dr. Who in 1979 and, in the process, befriended Douglas Adams for life. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip (1986): John Hawkesworth, who wrote the lion's share of the series, got his start working on Carol Reed films like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. Twisted Lip is one of his best, careening through opium dens in Victorian London's seedy east end. At face value, the plot deals with hidden identity, but is altogether more prescient in mirroring class struggle in the UK. Makeup artist Glenda Wood is in top form here. 

The Sign of Four (1987): Sure, Hound of the Baskervilles is the better-known road trip, but TSOF is a rollicking, tweed freak show that is just way more fun. It's got the lispy, whispering bad guy from Raiders of the Lost Ark! And a detective dog named Toby! There's a steam boat chase with a peg-legged sailor and a killer Pygmy! TSOF is basically one ripped bodice away from being an outright Hammer horror film.

Shoscombe Old Place (1991): Not only does this episode involve a gender swap twist, but it features a baby-faced Jude Law as a side character nearly two decades before he played the role of Dr. Watson in the Guy Ritchie films. Law's son recently acted in Apple TV's Masters of the Air and the resemblance between them at this age is wild. 

The anchor to the entire run, of course, is Jeremy Brett.

In real life, the actor couldn't have been further from the brooding detective. JB himself was rather quirky, from his upbringing as a descendent of the Cadbury chocolate family to his time cavorting about Hollywood, playing sassy British bad guys on '70s television. That's part of what made Jeremy Brett so boss; he had Shakesperian pedigree, but bore no scruples about appearing in a spinoff of Battlestar Galactica or The Incredible Hulk:

Brett died in 1995 before he could be knighted for his work. BBC fandom has enshrined Tom Baker for playing Dr. Who for seven years, but Brett devoted an entire decade to his version of Holmes. There have been larger, flashier stars who have played the character, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Robert Downey Jr., but Brett's take remains the most universally praised of them all. 

And hey, it no longer makes sense to question snoozing through these shows. Over a million people have clicked on the video "Unintentional ASMR Sherlock Holmes", codifying my dad's theory of nap media. 

The full Granada series turns 40 this month and is now free to watch here on YouTube. Bring a pillow. 

Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.