Some actors fear if they play Sherlock Holmes for a very long run the character will steal their soul, leave no corner for the original inhabitant.

Jeremy Brett

See how it glints and sparkles! Every good stone
is a nucleus of crime, every facet a bloody deed.

Oh yes, the hither-thither razor zips from crown
to culet! Quite so. But what may be said of the bullet,

which has struck the windowframe, just here?
What of the extra glass, and the shorn-off fire iron?

The facts, now, just the facts. We have a body,
and a murderer. Who, then, was our third drinker?

Who is our guest, who smokes without a holder,
who paces as he waits, and rubs his hands together?

Whose is the greatcoat, whose the bloody print
on the newel post? Whose the multi-tool knife

that nicked the bellrope? Who is this black streak,
this jackal, this jewel thief? And who, who is it

who coughs in the attic room? Let us fall back
on the old axiom. But tell me, my dear Watson,

who is this lean thing in the sanatorium,
with the door fastened from the inner side?

Tell me the truth now. Do you not think it
a most singular and whimsical conundrum?

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Vol. 39 No. 13 · 29 June 2017

Abigail Parry begins her delightful poem with a quote from the actor Jeremy Brett, who described how ‘some actors’ were afraid that if they played Sherlock Holmes for too long he would ‘steal their soul, leave no room for the original inhabitant’ (LRB, 1 June). He was talking about himself. Brett played Holmes in the Granada series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes between 1984 and 1994, and it destroyed him. He was determined to be the best Holmes there had been and obsessed over the sleuth’s mannerisms, documenting them in a 77-page manual that he kept with him on set. But he found Holmes increasingly difficult to let go of, and was tortured by nightmares about him, becoming so spooked that he began to refer to Holmes as ‘You Know Who’ – the title of Parry’s poem – rather than mention his name. From 1986 his mental health began to decline noticeably. He was diagnosed with manic depression and prescribed lithium, which caused fluid retention, making him rapidly gain weight. He started having problems with his heart. In the last couple of Holmes instalments, produced shortly before his death in 1995, he is haggard and vague, his performance underpowered.

The difficulty with playing Holmes – one of them, at least – is that Holmes himself is such a good actor. He is a master of disguise, a convincing ostler in the morning, a clergyman in the afternoon, who keeps extensive notes, just as Brett did, on people’s habits of dress, speech and manner. ‘The stage lost a fine actor,’ Watson says in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, when Holmes ‘became a specialist in crime’. But Holmes lacks a core. We get very little insight into his inner life, beyond the process of deduction, and he rarely shows emotion. He can be everyone but himself. ‘Watson describes You Know Who as a mind without a heart,’ Brett once said, ‘which is hard to play.’

Xavier Leduc

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