A fantastic podcast (more on that later) persuaded me to part with my hard-earned cash and invest in a Blu-ray box set of Granada's Sherlock Holmes series starring the late, great Jeremy Brett. It is inexplicably unavailable in the UK, but a German release provided my first ever opportunity, as a lifelong fan, to experience the show in high-definition. This week, five months after the discs arrived, I completed my viewing of 'The Cardboard Box', the 41st and final episode. My odyssey set off a train of thoughts that I hope fellow aficionados of the series and of the work of Mr Jeremy Brett will appreciate, even where we may disagree.
In no particular order:
The transition between Doctor Watsons is seamless
It has never especially bothered me that Holmes’ closest friend and companion Dr John Watson is played by two different actors in the series. But watching the episodes in broadcast order, I’ve never fully appreciated before just how brilliantly the switch is handled. Edward Hardwicke’s debut in ‘The Empty House’ is at least at the start of a new season, so viewers would have had a break from seeing David Burke’s final episode before being asked to accept a new Dr Watson. Yet Hardwicke is tasked with the emotional drama of facing the literal return of Sherlock Holmes – a friend he believed had perished at the hands of Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. It is testament to the skills of Edward Hardwicke as a performer, and the evident immediate warmth and friendship he had with Brett, that his reactions to Holmes’ dramatic reappearance are entirely credible.
There are, obviously, some differences between the Watsons. Burke is cheekier, and slightly more sardonic. Hardwicke is wiser, warmer, and even steadier. They are both so good it is almost impossible to pick a favourite. But nobody likes a fence-sitter, so my preferred Doctor Watson is [drumroll please…] Edward Hardwicke! I wrote him a fan letter in late 2010, not long before he died, and I expected (at best) a signed photograph in return. Hardwicke did not disappoint on that score, but he also enclosed a hand-written A4 letter, thanking me for writing to him, and commenting on how much he had enjoyed working on Sherlock Holmes and the 1993 film Shadowlands (which always moves me to tears). I felt that he had gone above and beyond, and seemed as lovely and charming in real life as he always did on screen. I still have the letter and the signed photograph (of him in character as Watson). They are framed and I treasure both. That fleeting contact with him made news of his death some six months later, in May 2011, even harder to take.