Interview With Maureen Whittaker

G221B : Hello Maureen! We will start with the traditional question: can you introduce yourself and tell us about your Sherlockian Journey?

Maureen Whittaker : I am a retired English and Drama Teacher with a love of literature.  Conan Doyle is a favourite for being the first and the best detective fiction with the best-known revered detective. Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating creature who comes alive in Jeremy’s hands and it is no surprise he has been awarded the title the “definitive Sherlock Holmes”.

G221B : You just published a book entitled Jeremy Brett: Playing a Part. What was your original motivation to begin writing about Brett’s career?

M.W. : When the fans gathered together on Clapham Common in September 2015 to remember Jeremy on his twentieth anniversary we discussed the fact that there was no accurate record of his work in print. A biography was out of reach because the family was not involved but we could have a full career book.  Jeremy was also an inspirational person who deserved to have his story recorded

G221B : How did you conduct your research and how many years did it take you?

M.W : The National Theatre had given our group access to their archives for the week in September so that helped enormously.  I published the first edition in 2017 on Blurb and as my research extended, I published a full edition of everything I had found in 2019.  This edition is an edited, more erudite version of the material especially for his twenty fifth anniversary on 12th September.

G221B : You also advocate in favor of awarding Jeremy Brett a prize he never received during his lifetime. What action are you taking toward this goal, and why do you have your heart set on this?

M.W. : We have been pursuing a blue plaque for Jeremy on his home in Clapham since September 2015.  When English Heritage rejected the application, we tried to have a private plaque installed with the aid of Lambeth Council. The response from the eight residents was not unanimous so that is in abeyance – although we have not entirely given up hope that this might yet be achieved.  I have since applied to Manchester City Council for a commemorative plaque on the newly renovated Bonded Warehouse, now owned by Allied London, to celebrate Jeremy as the Definitive Sherlock Holmes and the Granada Studios production and this was under consideration as lockdown for Covid 19 came into operation.  Hopefully, we can proceed with this soon. Two theatre seats at the Old Vic Theatre where Jeremy appeared between 1967 to 1971 for the National Theatre have been sponsored in his name, one in the Lillian Baylis Circle and the other in the gods. 

G221B : It is said that Jeremy Brett was very generous with his fans. Do you have stories to illustrate this feature?

M.W. : His response to the fans was always positive, often with an unexpected telephone call to thank them personally for their gift. A good number were invited to the Wyndham’s stage door and given a tour of the backstage. Young people could be seen receiving demonstrations of the smoke machine and sound effects.  Jeremy Paul described Jeremy’s dressing room as open house for overseas visitors or specially invited fans to join him in a glass or wine or champagne at the end of a performance.

I have a mountain of mail to cope with, which I do very happily.” One letter, an unforgettable one, came from an 11-year-old girl in Chicago. Jeremy told one reporter the story of how it came about: “A friend of mine, an actor rang me at the theatre I was playing and said, ‘Can you ring tomorrow this number? Little Louise Ann is your greatest fan. She likes you and Bette Midler.’ I love that. So, I don’t know why I did it, but I picked up the phone then – it was about half an hour before the curtain went up – and spoke to her aunt. The girl was asleep, but her aunt promised to tell her of the call. I sent love, and she woke, received my message and died from leukaemia. I then had a letter written about three weeks before she died. And it was a letter of such unbelievable care and cherishment, saying she was concerned about me… she saw a dangerous light around me and was concerned for my wellbeing.

That is part of the amazing side of playing this creature, this man (Holmes). It has unbelievably jettisoned me into a place I wasn’t in before. Because romantic heroes weren’t really in.” (Calgary Herald 5th November 1991)

G221B : Did you ever meet him in person? If so, can you tell us the story?

M.W: Unfortunately, I never met Jeremy personally. I was raising a family and working very hard in the classroom during his time in Manchester. I did use his videos as teaching aids first for Bassanio in Merchant of Venice and then to aid the teaching of Conan Doyle and detective fiction. I am particularly sad that I also missed his appearance in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes at the Manchester Palace Theatre.

G221B : Jeremy Brett was dyslexic, had pronunciation difficulties when he was a child, and was born into a family where becoming an actor was not the expectation. How did he find the fierce determination to overcome all these obstacles?

M.W. : Jeremy was part of a loving family with a mother who said they were not to do anything unless they had to do it, or absolutely wanted to. His father may have protested but the four boys were encouraged to seek their heart’s desire. Jeremy wanted to be an actor from an early age and although he recognised the difficulties he had set his mind on it.  He said “Sometimes our hopes and dreams do not go the way we planned, but we must never let despair overcome us. We have to try, and we have to care. We must never give up when we still have something to give. Nothing is really over until the moment we stop trying.” 

G221B : Who were his mentors, professionally or privately, and to what extent did they influence him in the long term?

M.W : His mother was his first influence as Jeremy thought she had wanted one of her boys to be an actor.  It was she who persuaded his brother Michael to loan him his jacket so he would appear older for his first audition with Tyrone Guthrie in 1950 who was casting for Tamburlaine the Great. When she died in 1959 in an accident in the Welsh hills he was devastated. Elizabeth Huggins was a great influence on Jeremy. “My mother had this extraordinary way of making us flowerShe had open doors and windows in her soul – that’s the only way I can put it… She was like a light of great warmth.” 

His other mentor was Laurence Olivier whom he called “My great god.”  Jeremy had cycled across Balsall Common to the newly opened Cameo cinema four times a week and fallen in love with the movies especially those starring Olivier: Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Henry V and he decided he wanted to be an actor too. “After seeing him on horseback in Henry V, I felt I might be qualified to follow his example, because I could ride too.

G221B : Many of us don’t know much about his career before Sherlock Holmes. What was it like?

M.W : Jeremy said that playing Sherlock Holmes had made his career.  Principally, his career was classical, and he loved Shakespeare; he said he loved the words and the rhythm of the poetry, finding it much easier to learn than Conan Doyle. His appearance in Shakespeare’s most famous play at the young age of 26 was widely acclaimed as “a noble and poetic Hamlet” in Oxford and in London and the playbill was one of the few pieces of ephemera he kept on display in his apartment. “The Hamlet of Jeremy Brett came like a fresh cooling draught… youthful, princely, embittered, passionate in his vengeance seeking… a man who in voice and mien suggested a royal personage. Mr. Brett’s speaking of the language had a consistently fine and expressive musicality…”  Classical roles for television would feature throughout his career as his looks, his cultured voice and his elegance would fit him to the parts. He appeared in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray twice, once as the beautiful young man of the title winning the Best Actor award and secondly, fifteen years later as the artist.

Jeremy was very aware he was becoming typecast as his parts were firmly set in the classical era and he tried to come into the twentieth century at least in film. In the early 60s he made several films appearing as a very edgy sex maniac who attacked Anne Heywood and made her lose her unborn child in The Very Edge and as Jordan Barker, the boyfriend and suspect in a murder enquiry in The Girl in the Headlines. Perhaps it is Jeremy’s career in Musical Theatre which is most surprising.

The beautiful soprano voice of his youth had filled him with an enormous, lasting love of music. As chief chorister in the Eton choir he sang the solo parts in many of the major cathedrals of England and even made a record. After a brief appearance in a couple of productions in the West End he was persuaded to concentrate on acting, not as a singing actor but as an actor’s actor. The performance as Count Danilo in the operetta The Merry Widow the Christmas production for the BBC in 1968 is much loved and many regret that Jeremy made that decision.

G221B :  Tell us how Jeremy was cast for the part of Sherlock Holmes? Was he a Sherlockian before he had the part? Do you think he had a lot in common with Holmes?

M.W : Michael Cox chose Jeremy for the role of Sherlock Holmes because he wanted a man with the voice, the bearing and the stage presence of a classically trained actor; someone who could jump over sofas or pursue a clue like a bloodhound, often on his hands and knees. In Jeremy he found all this and much more.  Jeremy’s performance as Edward Ashburnham in The Good Soldier for Granada (submitted for the Drama category for International Emmy Awards in 1981) had persuaded Michael that he could create the iceberg character with nine tenths hidden from the audience, only revealing it as the onion skin was gradually peeled away. 

He said he didn’t think he was right for the character as he had nothing in common with “the cool, dismissive, internal creature” of Holmes. He told one reviewer, “He was a tremendous realist, I’m a romantic. He was an introvert, I’m an extrovert. He was immensely serious, I’m rather a jolly chap.” (Jeremy to Terry Wogan BBC)

G221B : He really immersed himself in the part. What were his methods for doing this?

M.W : He read the complete Canon, and then read it again highlighting and underlining key passages. He next read about the Victorian era, the government, the social status of the country to provide the background for his character. He invented a background for Holmes as Laurence Olivier had demanded of his actors. His home life, parents, nanny and how he was treated. He invented his university experiences too.

“I was talking about becoming. What I mean by that is an inner life. Watson describes you-know-who as a mind without a heart; that’s hard to play, hard to become. So, what I did was to invent an inner life. I mean, I know what his nanny looked like; for example, she was covered in starch. She probably scrubbed him, but never kissed him. I don’t think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight… (she) was just of her dress. Probably he didn’t actually see his father until he was twelve. I guess college days were fairly complicated because he was quite isolated. He probably saw a girl across the quadrangle and fell in love, but she never looked at him… so he closed that door. And he became a brilliant fencer… and a master at boxing…

and many more tiny little details which I have to kind of make-up to fill this kind of well… that Doyle so brilliantly left out. To bring it off the printed page for myself, I invented little stories about… the loneliness of his university days, of his brilliance at sports, and his total removal from any kind of social activity… everything to bring a bit more illumination.” ( & NPR Interview 1991)

G221B :What did he bring to the show that another actor might not have done?

M.W. :His words in the Granada Centenary publication for Conan Doyle best sum it up: “It’s difficult for me to say what I may have given to the image of Holmes. Faithful to Conan Doyle’s text, certainly. Also, I’ve tried to bring out the emotion that is there in Holmes. On the surface he seems a cold, sometimes dark rather off-putting figure. But deeper down, I think, he’s a man of feeling.”

G221B : What were his relationships like with his two Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke?

M.W. Both David and Edward stated how much they relied on Jeremy for friendship and support as well as comradeship on set. Jeremy and Edward had enormous fun developing the relationship in front of the camera using the moments when they could communicate and coordinate their responses for example, the giggling and then uproarious laughter at the story of Jabez Wilson in The Red Headed League. The blackboard scene in The Dancing Men was very much developed by them. Michael Cox suggests it was their idea that Watson was reading a secret monograph on cyphers and Jeremy’s energetic demonstration of the end of word flags was clearly another instance of his interpretation. 

Jeremy was also responsible for developing a happy family atmosphere amongst the whole team at Granada. He had used a small instamatic camera and snapped the crew members, displaying them on the walls for all to see. He knew every personal detail about them and wanted to know, the names of their children, whose car was broken into and whose baby was ill. Jeremy bought a new puppy for Tony Eyres’s son when he lost his dog. As a dog lover he would have known how upset the boy was and wanted to do something to help.

G221B : He often stated that Holmes was a difficult part to play. Did he suffer physically during filming?

M.W : I am quite sure he didn’t suffer physically from playing the part until the final series. The third episode to be filmed, The Three Gables had a nighttime shoot at Lyme Park and an unseasonal frost had caused Jeremy to catch pneumonia and he just escaped being hospitalised.  “I thought I was a goner. I should have known better than to stay out there. I was very ill when I was young, and I’ve never fully got over it.” Rosalie Williams explained how when the Bipolar took hold, “he switched between great gaiety and moods of depression – but never on set. This was the extraordinary thing. When he was working, he was bubbling with joy and enthusiasm and drive.”

G221B :  Which episodes are your favorites? And why?

M.W. : That is a difficult question as the standard of excellence runs throughout the 41 recordings and each one stands out for some reason.  I love The Sign of Four and The Master Blackmailer for the way Granada has developed the original text, classy and faithful to the stories, and at the same time providing more time to show Holmes and Watson on a complete case. Other minor characters are given time to develop, for instance, Aggie in Blackmailer. Jeremy is superb in both these outings. The episodes of The Final Problem and The Empty House are so emotional to watch and a tour de force for the whole company, especially for Jeremy and Eric at Reichenbach risking their lives on a specially built slippery ledge above the 400-foot waterfall.

G221B : It is said that in the last years, due to his psychological issues, the lines were blurred between his and Holmes’ personality. Do you think these changes improved his interpretation?

M.W. : I agree with Dame Jean that the new Holmes benefits from the injection of Jeremy’s own personality. She is here commenting on The Casebook, “Jeremy Brett’s been appearing as Holmes in films for the television for a long time now, but his performance has changed beyond measure. I didn’t really like him in the early series. He was far too arrogant and too mannered, too highly strung altogether, whereas Holmes was a very cool character. It has been wonderful to see the change in him. In the last series instead of being a rather unpleasant man he became an endearing man in spite of his conceit: in spite of this, that and the other, he’s somebody who you really care about. I think it is an absolutely great performance; he really holds you…. Edward Hardwicke is a splendid Watson just the sort of Watson my father would have envisaged unlike Nigel Bruce… Holmes would never have shared digs with a fool.” (Interview with John Tibbetts)

G221B : At the end of the day, it’s difficult to sum up Jeremy Brett’s life. After the extensive work you did for this biography, what is your final view?

M.W. : It is difficult to sum up someone else’s life when you don’t know them personally, but I can repeat some of what his friends and loved ones said about him.

Jeremy Brett With Dame Jean Conan Doyle

“He was charming. He was the only actor who played Sherlock Holmes who took the trouble to get in touch with me and to come and see me. All along, he would ring me up and ask my opinion. Jeremy was trying to do his very best to be faithful to my father’s stories.” (Dame Jean Conan Doyle)

“He was a great perfectionist. I mean, he carried his book of Sherlock Holmes stories around with him, almost like a Bible, and woe betide anybody who tried to alter the stories, unless it was absolutely necessary for translation from the page into film. Not merely did he keep a close eye on the dialogue remaining faithful, but also, when we were actually filming, he would concern himself, in the nicest possible way, with making sure everybody was dressed correctly and that the action mirrored what it said in the book.” (David Burke to Scarlet Street)

Linda calls him a sensitive, compassionate man who became an inspiration to so many. “Twenty(five) years on and Jeremy still touches and inspires the lives of many. He is and always will be the special being that made us all realise that our dreams and wishes can be accomplished. I still marvel how he overcame heart disease and Bipolar and had an incredible career. Even in his darkest moments of his illness, his strength and character shone through.” His broadcast for the Manic Depression Society, just a few days before he died received a huge response from fellow sufferers.  “I have been flooded with letters from people in similar circumstances to my own, who tell me that hearing about my own recovery has given them the strength to struggle on.

G221B : Just to end up on a lighter note, tell me: are you still able to appreciate other actors playing Sherlock Holmes? Which ones and why? 

M.W : I am sorry to say I cannot appreciate any other version of Holmes. First and foremost, this is because in all the ones I have seen no one uses Doyle’s words, leaving a pastiche or parody of the story. If the events of the story and the process of investigation is lost in modern adaptations, then it is no longer Holmes for me.  I have spent my working life encouraging students to appreciate the written word and have always searched for an accurate presentation of the text with a lively, charismatic cast to bring the characters to life. If it succeeds it is a wonderful thing to behold. When the BBC matched Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth to Jane Austen’s Miss Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice it was an instant hit and has never been bettered. When Granada Studios chose Jeremy Brett to interpret Sherlock Holmes, he created perfection and when the text was faithfully delivered it sent a tingle down the spine. Thus, it remains the definitive interpretation and the one to beat. However, one feels about Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes it is not faithful to Doyle and therefore remains a pale imitation.