Book Review: The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes - The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett, by Terry Manners
Biographies of the living, or those who have died within living memory, can be problematic. With an autobiography, one has a pretty good idea of any agenda the writer may have, but this is not always the case with a biography. Some opt for the "kiss-and-tell" tabloid approach - if the subject has a reputation, then destroy it; others opt for sentiment or toadyism.
Terry Manners' book veers mainly toward sentimentality, though there is a spattering of Brett's sexploits from time to time. Born into privilege (the son of the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire and a daughter of the Cadbury family), Brett's childhood was both idyllic and eccentric. In particular his mother's Quaker principles led to a never-ending stream of "colourful" characters seeking help, and their house was turned into a hostel following the bombing of Coventry in the Second World War. A significant event was a diving contest during his time at Eton, which he won but as a result, contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalised for several months. Despite dyslexia and a speech impediment, he sought a career in the theatre, to the delight of his mother (who would have allowed him to take up any career path he wanted) and the disappointment of his father.
Manners' description of Brett's early career is one of a driven and egotistical, yet gregarious, man. Every success in obtaining a role is matched by disappointment that it was not his "big break" in London, Hollywood, or elsewhere. Critics' reviews were usually favourable to Brett personally, while not always kind to the productions in which he appeared. There is name-dropping aplenty, from Gielgud and Olivier to George Pravda. Brett's problem, it would appear, was his quasi-aristocratic background and manner, increasingly out of favour in the 1950s and 60s when "Angry Young Men" were all the rage. Nevertheless he had a stream of roles in the classical theatrical repertoire, film parts in War and Peace and My Fair Lady among others, and had an unsuccessful screen test for the role of James Bond.
The focus of the book, though, is from the early 1980s onwards, when Brett was approached by Granada TV to portray Sherlock Holmes. The personality of Brett and the personality of Holmes fused together: variously dark and flamboyant, driven and lethargic. The series was a great success thanks to its authenticity and faithfulness to the Conan Doyle stories, as well as the acting, yet it was taking its toll on Brett, who was becoming increasingly eccentric and obsessive.
Finally, around 1986 and following the death of his second wife, Joan Sullivan, Brett had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed as a manic depressive. The later chapters describe his continuous battle with the condition, and the medication that, as a side-effect, brought on the heart condition that would eventually kill him in 1995. Despite this, Granada and Brett continued with the Sherlock Holmes series, throughout other bouts of illness, until 1994. The description of his condition, with its exaggerated mood swings, sleeplessness and eccentric behaviour, is not detailed but nonetheless disturbing. A physical illness, even if not readily visible, has a medical explanation that can usually be appreciated and understood. Medical description of mental illness, on the other hand, seems so vague and unhelpful in comparison - the most you are likely to get is "abnormal activity in the x part of the brain" or "unusual levels of chemical y". Most chilling is that, whilst some behavioural traits may point to a condition in hindsight, they don't seem radically different from the norm at the time, and especially so for an actor.
The book's structure is uneven and at times it doesn't flow all that well, but I think it does catalogue Jeremy Brett's achievements. It would be improved by a chronology; of course, nowadays one can refer to IMDB for the main career points, but there's no summary in the book matching personal and professional life. It's still not clear what Manners' agenda was - scandal or sympathy - which may in fact mean that it was sincerely neither. The book is a useful companion piece, but the true monument of Brett's career is the Granada series.