‘It’s very rare I’ve been able to get into the twentieth century. When I turn from 1899 to 1900 I jump for joy. I did in Rebecca, I got into the 30s then. I have done some modern stuff but I’m so thrilled I over-act like crazy. I’ve got pockets! I’m so used to wearing tights all the time that when I put my hands in my pockets I nearly fall over. I’m so unused to playing a modern guy.’ Born Peter William Jeremy Huggins in the Warwickshire village of Berkswell on 3rd November 1933, Jeremy Brett as he would be known professionally (he changed his name upon his father’s request, choosing ‘Brett’ from a label in one of his suits) spent the majority of his career performing in period pieces, a path he naturally found himself following, owing to his quintessentially English good looks and upper-class demeanour.
The youngest of four brothers, Brett was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Henry William Huggins and his wife, Elizabeth Edith Cadbury (a member of the famous family of chocolate-makers). After an idyllic childhood, in which he developed a lifelong love of horse-riding and archery, Brett was sent to Eton, where he was a self-confessed ‘academic disaster’ and struggled with a speech impediment which affected how he pronounced the letters ‘R’ and ‘S.’ A surgical procedure, which he underwent in his late teens, coupled with daily vocal exercises, gave Brett the resplendent voice for which he would become renowned.
Interested in acting from an early age, after leaving Eton, Brett studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, making his stage debut at the Library Theatre in Manchester in 1954. Brett remembered how his father had initially been disparaging about his chosen career, as he had believed that ‘any respectable middle-class boy shouldn’t do a thing like that. He thought it was all drinking champagne out of slippers.’
Two years later, he appeared in Troilus and Cressida at the Old Vic and also landed a role in the film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Numerous stage and television appearances ensued and in 1961, he took the part of Hamlet at the Oxford Playhouse and the Strand Theatre in London. Brett confessed to feeling that his relative inexperience had slightly hampered his portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic Danish prince, stating that ‘I never understood fully a scene like the Ghost scene, which is why I would dearly like to play the part again.’ The death of Brett’s mother in a car accident in 1959 also affected his performance, as he revealed in an interview, ‘I was very angry about that because my son when she was killed was only 3 months old. There was anger…in me and I think that came through. I felt cheated; I felt my mother was cheated. The rage of that I think came through.’
In May 1958, Brett had married the actress Anna Massey, the daughter of the Canadian-American actor Raymond Massey and their son David arrived in 1959. However, the marriage was far from harmonious and Massey would claim in her autobiography that Brett’s affair with another man was the reason for their divorce in 1962. Brett never personally addressed any of the rumours or questions about his sexuality, nor did he hide the fact that he experienced several same-sex romances, notably with fellow actors Gary Bond and Paul Shenar.
The high point of Brett’s film career came in 1964, when he was cast as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the musical Mr Fair Lady, alongside Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Brett received overwhelmingly positive reviews for his depiction of Eliza Doolitte’s lovesick young suitor, yet despite having an excellent singing voice, On The Street Where You Live, his character’s big number, was dubbed for the film by the American singer Bill Shirley, a move that greatly disappointed Brett.
Above: On The Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady (1964)
My Fair Lady earned Brett a legion of new fans, but further film success seemed to elude him; although he was a regular feature on British television screens throughout the 1960s and 1970s, starring in series such as The Three Musketeers (1966), A Picture of Katherine Mansfield (1973), Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (1974) and Rebecca (1979), in which he was Maxim de Winter, with his former wife Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers. The two apparently fell out on set, refusing to speak to one another after Brett had bought their son a motorcycle for his birthday. Brett continued to appear on stage, playing Dr Watson to Charlton Heston’s Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles from 5th December 1980 to 17th January 1981.
Above: Jeremy Brett as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1979)
During the early 1980s, Granada television made the ambitious decision to film all 56 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, with Brett as the great Victorian detective. A Scandal in Bohemia was broadcast in April 1984 and regardless of his assertion that ‘the definitive Sherlock Holmes is really in everyone’s head. No actor can fit into that category because every reader has his own ideal,’ Brett marvelled audiences with the most authentic representation of the legendary sleuth to date, for not only did he convey how Holmes could be ‘rude, impatient,’ and often ‘abrupt’ he simultaneously displayed ‘the cracks in Holmes’ marble.’ As filming began on The Final Problem, in which Holmes confronts his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Brett was devastated by the death of his second wife, Joan Wilson, whom he had married in 1976.
Consequently, Brett’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and of concern to his family. A breakdown and subsequent hospital treatment led to him being diagnosed as bi-polar and the medication he was prescribed impacted upon his health and appearance. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, has spoken of how Brett’s Holmes influenced his own portrayal of the fictional investigator, ‘Even when I was younger I was still struck by this extraordinary hawk-like, magisterial, cold disconnect.’ At the same time, Cumberbatch has also noted how Brett’s mental health issues ‘shaped the performance – which was extraordinary – but at such a cost to the man.’
Similarly, the horror writer, Peter Haining, who had observed Brett as Holmes first-hand stated that ‘He literally took that show on his shoulders – it was extraordinary watching him work. To say that it ultimately killed him is probably too strong a judgement, but it certainly took an enormous toll out of him. He is, undoubtedly, the definitive Holmes, and I think it will be very difficult for anybody to top him.’
Nevertheless, Haining stressed that once Brett had ‘relaxed in the evening, he was a wonderfully sociable man. I recorded a two-and-a-half hour interview with him at this Manchester hotel, and he was full of fun and hilarity, chatting to the waiters and enjoying himself immensely. He was a gregarious man, but so focused when he got onto the set and began to work. You could see him changing as he took the character on, in a way I’d never seen happen with anybody before.’ As Brett admitted, ‘When I have been playing Holmes… and what I prefer to do is sink myself into the character and leave myself behind. I always take the image of a sponge – which is me. And I squeeze out the liquid of myself out and draw in the liquid of the character I am playing.’
Above: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia (1984)
A heavy smoker, Brett began to suffer from heart problems, combined with the side-effects of the his bi-polar medication and the fact that his heart had already been damaged by rheumatic fever when he was a child, in early 1995, as he was filming The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Brett was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and faced the possibility of a heart transplant, something doctors eventually decided against, and which Brett himself exclaimed would be ‘far too dramatic, even for me!’
On 12th September 1995, Brett died in his sleep at his home in Clapham and was cremated shortly afterwards. A memorial service was held in November 1995, at which Brett’s brother John, a minister, paid tribute to him, as did Edward Hardwicke, who had replaced David Burke as Dr Watson and had become Brett’s dearest friend. Brett had once said that ‘To make people laugh is the greatest gift of all,’ and Hardwicke was keen to emphasise this, as he recalled, ‘When I think of Jeremy, I think of his laughing…that will always be my lasting memory of him. I cannot pay him a greater compliment.’