In 1984 Jeremy Brett hit the small screen with the first series of what would become, in my opinion, the definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
The series was notable in the beginning for its adherence to the source material and over the next 10 years viewers were treated to some television magic as many of the 56 short stories and four novels were presented.
Just for fun, I have compiled a countdown from my least favourite to favourite of the 41 shows produced.
Note that I am writing about one of the greatest TV shows ever and as such, when I pose some criticism of a particular episode, it is relative to the series as a whole and just my opinion, so feel free to disagree.
NUMBER 41: The Mazarin Stone (1994)
Probably the most ridiculous of all the series, with Brett indisposed they had to bring in Charles Gray (not for the first time) to portray Mycroft Holmes in a completely out-of-character trudge through one of the poorer stories in the canon… unnecessarily mixed up with The Three Garridebs (which could have been good on its own).
NUMBER 40: The Eligible Bachelor (1993)
Uninspired and unnecessarily drawn-out version of a more forgettable Conan Doyle template. Not one I revisit much, if indeed, ever.
NUMBER 39: The Cardboard Box (1994)
Closing the series on a note of horror, this is the one about the severed ear in the post. Not that great to be honest and seldom revisited by me. Overall, an unfortunate ending for a series which, at its peak, was by far the best thing on television. Failing health took the wonderful Jeremy Brett from us far too soon and I have no doubt that the whole of the last season would have worked superbly had he not fallen so ill.
NUMBER 38: The Last Vampyre (1993)
Another overly-long presentation with very little going for it except the ever-constant dynamite Brett-Hardwicke duo in the lead roles.
NUMBER 37: The Three Gables (1994)
The final series, now called The Memoirs, is the poorest of the lot. This opener is borderline absurd in many ways, with little to rescue it. Brett can still inspire as Holmes, though his health problems are visibly slowing him down and would prove to be overwhelming to the point of writing him out of much of the last few episodes. It is a testament to the love the viewers had for this series overall that these final few, below-par episodes were commissioned.
NUMBER 36: The Golden Pince-Nez (1994)
Not the greatest adaptation of a fairly average mystery. Mycroft is added in as Brett’s health was declining. This jars with any Holmes fan as we all know Mycroft wasn’t interested in actively using his powers for investigation.
NUMBER 35: The Master Blackmailer (1992)
They’d have done better to simply give us an hour-long version of the short story Charles Augustus Milverton. This presentation is just too long and not exciting enough, with too many embellishments and liberties being taken with the source material. Sure, Brett and Hardwicke are great, as they always are and Robert Hardy is a wonderful villain. It’s just the story that isn’t up to it. The show’s previous strength of adhering to the original material and occasionally veering away for dramatic effect has now been abandoned and the overall tone seems to have shifted into much more downbeat territory, similar to the way the later adaptations of Poirot would with David Suchet in the role. Neither of these anomalies are to its credit. That goes for Poirot too. Even the title is invented and uninspired.
NUMBER 34: The Dying Detective (1994)
A good later story from Conan Doyle, but not particularly memorable here. None of the six episodes from the final season are up to much, though this is probably one of the better ones.
NUMBER 33: The Red Circle (1994)
Atmospheric rendering of a decent story, arguably the best of a mixed bunch in The Memoirs. This could have been great if circumstances had been more favourable.
NUMBER 32: The Greek Interpreter (1985)
Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes is just about enough to keep this one buoyant, though I confess it has never been one of my favourite stories… it’s just such a downer – but, Brett and Gray work well together despite the (relatively) unengaging plot.
NUMBER 31: The Illustrious Client (1991)
Not my favourite story to be honest, but rendered well by Brett and co. Anthony Valentine is a deliciously unpleasant antagonist, but that’s about all there is to say about this episode.
NUMBER 30: The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
For me, this is where the series, great as it is, begins to go into terminal decline. This isn’t a bad story and Brett still has the magic. The actor’s health problems are starting to show but his performance is so compelling that the viewer can overlook these purely cosmetic issues for the most part. Some lovely location filming here too.
NUMBER 29: Shoscombe Old Place (1991)
A decent yarn, with some real moments of high drama, provided by the always watchable Martin Jarvis, overall this is pretty much Sherlock-by-numbers and not one I return too that often.
NUMBER 28: The Creeping Man (1991)
It takes a leading team as strong as Brett and Hardwicke to carry a premise as silly as this… monkey glands turning a respectable man into a monster. Not the best story but, as I say, the team present it in a watchable way.
NUMBER 27: The Abbey Grange (1986)
Possibly the weakest of The Return and not because of anything the cast or production does badly. The story is just a bit pedestrian by Conan Doyle’s standards. When the game is afoot there are some nice ‘deductive’ moments.
NUMBER 26: The Final Problem (1985)
Holmes’ famous tussle with nemesis Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls provides a genuine emotional climax for The Adventures, accompanied by Patrick Gowers’ incomparable score and some lovely location filming AND a stunt fall. This would prove to be David Burke’s final appearance in the series, which is a shame since he had achieved so much in redefining the character of Watson. Fortunately for us, this was not the end of Holmes, Burke would be replaced with the superb Edward Hardwicke and the best was still yet to come…
NUMBER 25: The Problem Of Thor Bridge (1991)
A highlight from this series, now called The Case-Book… It’s a good story and Brett’s energy keeps you entertained right up to the fascinating conclusion. They’re clearly rehashing old music cues, which on one level is fine, since the cues are excellent, but on another is indicative of a touch of repetition creeping in.
NUMBER 24: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The real highlight of the later seasons, Peter Vaughn brings an air of menace to the ultimately sympathetic ‘baddie’ here. It’s a great story with some lovely deduction from Holmes… “where did Mr Square-Toes go?” and probably the last really great instalment in this landmark show.
NUMBER 23: A Scandal In Bohemia (1984)
Jeremy Brett’s first outing as Holmes also happens to be the first short story in the Conan Doyle canon and as such is a worthy place to start. Brett demonstrates immediately that he is going to be a very watchable Sherlock, while David Burke handles the Dr Watson part with refreshing capability – the character is not, shock horror, a buffoon after all. Gayle Hunnicut turns in an intelligent portrayal of Holmes’ famous foil, Irene Adler, while the presentation is faithful to the story and the whole thing looks very promising indeed. We are also introduced to the wonderful music for the first time here (of course). My personal issue with A Scandal In Bohemia is that I always found it to be one of the less riveting stories in the collection, hence its mid-table placement.
NUMBER 22: The Crooked Man (1984)
An atmospheric take on another of Conan Doyle’s intriguingly titled mysteries, The Crooked Man delivers chills, pathos and a healthy helping of Sherlockian deduction. A solid entry… elementary, you might say.
NUMBER 21: The Copper Beeches (1985)
One of the more chilling tales in the series, this unsettling story benefits from the casting of Joss Ackland in the antagonist role and he makes the most of it.
NUMBER 20: The Resident Patient (1985)
Here we have one of the darkest instalments in the whole series, featuring Patrick Newell in an uncharacteristically serious role. An unusual choice for an adaptation so early on given its relatively less famous status in the canon, the presentation is borderline horror in places, from the scary opening to the grisly conclusion. Nicholas Clay is in it too, providing a strong screen presence for Brett to bounce off during the client narrative scenes.
NUMBER 19: The Speckled Band (1984)
No self-respecting Sherlock Holmes series would be worth it’s salt without this story in the bag. One of the most famous and one of Conan Doyle’s personal favourites, this production gives us images faithful to the Paget illustrations in bucketloads and provides glorious moments from Brett such as the stand-off with Roylott near the start and the sinister and moody climax.
NUMBER 18: The Dancing Men (1984)
A masterful performance from Brett as the first series gets into full swing with an adaptation of one of Conan Doyle’s most famous stories. The titular ‘Dancing Men’ is in fact a mysterious set of hieroglyphics used as a code by Chicago gangsters and this is one of those tales which I always thought came to quite a harsh ending in terms of what happens to largely sympathetic characters (CD does this a lot as Holmes fans will know). This story also features one of my favourite villain names in the whole series – the exquisite “Abe Slaney”. The adaptation is strong and of course, the music is wonderful.
NUMBER 17: Wisteria Lodge (1988)
A dark entry this one – including one of the most despicable antagonists of the whole show. The Tiger of San Pedro really is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work and Holmes does not shy away from showing his utter contempt for the man in a rare moment of disdain when he lashes out at the train compartment window with his cane. It’s moody. It’s unsettling. It’s terrific drama.
NUMBER 16: The Solitary Cyclist (1984)
Hard to go wrong with this as the source material is so good and Brett and co turn in a very memorable instalment. There are so many ‘classic’ moments here, from the “straight left against the slogging ruffian” in the hostelry to the “odious red moustache” of roaring Jack Woodley. This is essential Sherlock Holmes and no mistake.
NUMBER 15: The Second Stain (1986)
Atmospherically a great adaptation of one of those stories which famously comes down to a ‘trifle’ as Holmes would put it, but upon which hangs the whole fate of the nation. Patricia Hodge turns in a powerful performance of a hopelessly outdated character by today’s standards, but she is so strong on-screen that we are engaged by the mystery as well as being outraged by the sexism of the politics of the day.
NUMBER 14: The Man With The Twisted Lip (1986)
An instalment filled with dark comedy and dream-like sequences which build to a wistful almost poignant conclusion. The presence of the very watchable Dennis Lill as Inspector Bradstreet bumps this up the list. Solid stuff, some might consider it a bit ‘tropey’ by today’s standards.
NUMBER 13: The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1988)
Conan Doyle’s most famous story is rendered here in pretty much straight fashion. Some of the more garish horror aspects played up in the movies are thankfully left alone and the tale just tells itself. Sure, there are scary moments, it’s a scary story. Watson and Sir Henry on the moor at night when the hound is heard still sends shivers. Brett is great as Holmes, my only problem is that he isn’t in it enough. Overall though it remains my favourite rendering of this, most well-known of Holmes tales.
NUMBER 12: The Empty House (1986)
Edward Hardwicke is Dr Watson and the transition from David Burke is seamless. His portrayal would prove to be pretty much as definitive as Brett’s Holmes and the show was about to enter its golden period. The Empty House is, as all fans know, really just a contrivance to bring Holmes back from the dead but, the chemistry between the two leads is immediately obvious and the stage is set for some subsequent fun in the series now unsurprisingly called The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
NUMBER 11: The Six Napoleons (1986)
A cracking mystery (no pun intended) presented here with some nice interplay between Holmes, Watson and Colin Jeavons’ Lestrade. Holmes is always one step ahead here of course and Jeremy Brett gives us what appears like (though probably wasn’t) a seemingly effortless performance as the sleuth at the height of his powers. Even Eric Sykes’ appearance doesn’t push the tone too far into the comedic – it’s a great testament to the actors on this show that the comedy element never goes too far. A highlight.
NUMBER 10: The Norwood Builder (1985)
Another example of the quality of arguably a more obscure story – this one is a strong tale featuring a trademark tour de force of subtlety from Brett – ‘building’ if you will, to a highly enjoyable conclusion. It also features one of the weirder lines from the defeated antagonist to Holmes: “I’ll see you hang for this!” followed up by one of Holmes’ coldest replies: “That pleasure must surely be mine?” The music is sublime.
NUMBER 9: The Blue Carbuncle (1984)
A joyous presentation all the way, this episode successfully blends elements of drama, mystery and comedy, resulting in one of the most “re-watchable” of the entire series. The festive setting makes it a favourite for Christmas viewing, without sacrificing any of the quality the show was fast becoming known for. Brett has fun with the pub and Covent Garden scenes, while the music once again lifts the whole thing to another level. An early highlight.
NUMBER 8: The Naval Treaty (1984)
A superb presentation of arguably one of the less widely-known Sherlock mysteries – this is a delight from beginning to end and one of the strongest of the early adaptations. It features Brett on scintillating form as our hero, delivering the “what a lovely thing a rose is” monologue with total conviction and laying the foundations for his reputation as the definitive Holmes.
NUMBER 7: Silver Blaze (1988)
Another superlative outing for Brett and co in one of the best short stories of the whole collection. The two leads are on great form and the source material is delivered wonderfully with some scenic filming and of course the classic “dog that did nothing in the night-time” moment which every fan loves. “Horse and man… turned.”
NUMBER 6: The Sign Of Four (1987)
The first ‘feature length’ instalment does not disappoint. It is actually my favourite of the longer shows and just edges Baskervilles on account of the fact that Holmes is in it more. The colonial aspects of the plot and attitudes reflected are outdated now but the basic revenge story will always resonate and John Thaw brings his A-game to the screen as the antagonist, giving Brett some great moments to work with. The poisoned dart routine at the Sholto estate is one of Sherlock Holmes’ best showcase deduction scenes and needless-to-say, Brett handles it wonderfully. The river chase scene is genuinely gripping and the music is outstanding.
NUMBER 5: The Musgrave Ritual (1986)
Another bullseye here and, staggeringly, another story not faithful to the source. At this point in the series liberties taken with the stories are forgivable – sadly this is not the case for later adaptations. Here we are treated to top-class Holmesian mystery, with Brett completely embodying the character with an almost frightening intensity. Patrick Gowers is on top form here too. A joy all said.
NUMBER 4: The Red-Headed League (1985)
Simply a great adaptation. I would argue this is probably the high watermark in the Burke Watson era of the show. Curious then that the liberties taken with the source material aren’t actually a problem for me – I quite like the inclusion of Moriarty in the background. Tim McInnerny also fares well as the criminal with delusions of grandeur, proving that actors known for comedy can be taken seriously, given the right material. This is top-notch, highly recommendable Sherlock Holmes… a character which Jeremy Brett has, by now, not only mastered on screen, but made his own.
NUMBER 3: The Priory School (1986)
A series highlight sees Holmes and Watson travel up the country for some “invigorating northern air”. Brett is firing on all cylinders here, while Hardwicke’s Watson is charming in the lighter moments which give us some enjoyable comedic interplay between the two leads, very often hinted at in the books and all too frequently overdone to ghastly effect in other productions. Here it is perfectly presented alongside another great story, which although tampered with a little for dramatic effect, is a wonderful watch. Christopher Benjamin and Alan Howard also add a touch of class while the music is hauntingly beautiful. One of my favourites of the entire collection.
NUMBER 2: The Devil’s Foot (1988)
A brilliant presentation… virtually flawless in fact, with Jeremy Brett in spellbinding form as Holmes, as he is in all four short stories in this part of The Return… (the others being Silver Blaze, Wisteria Lodge and The Bruce-Partington Plans). The original story is a great yarn and the Cornwall setting gives it added atmosphere. Denis Quilley’s sympathetic antagonist provides added ambiguity and the whole thing is a masterpiece in television drama. It also includes the wonderful moment when Holmes addresses Watson by his first name after the doctor rescues him from the toxic effect of the Devil’s foot. Brett’s new haircut fits in well with the ‘trippy’ nature of the story.
NUMBER 1: The Bruce-Partington Plans (1988)
I had to put something at the top and this is my choice. The adaptation is largely faithful to the source. The atmosphere of foggy London is the stuff of classic Holmes. The mystery is one of Conan Doyle’s finest. The supporting cast are superb. Gray is back as Mycroft in his best performance in the role. Hardwicke is wonderful as Watson and Dennis Lill returns as the convincing Inspector Bradstreet. It’s Brett’s show though and this is his absolute peak as Holmes for me… a true classic presented beautifully and augmented, yet again, by Patrick Gowers’ brilliant music. Sherlock Holmes on screen doesn’t get any better than this.