‘How an English gentleman could behave in such a manner is beyond comprehension.’ – Sherlock Holmes on the traitor and murderer Colonel Walter
Jeremy Brett, David Burke, Rosalie Williams, Charles Gray, Colin Jeavons, Eric Porter
Identikit: The dazzling consulting detective and his trusty lieutenant thwart the most diabolical criminal masterminds of the Victorian age.
Of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories, 42 were adapted by ITV for this fond and faithful series, featuring a quintessential Sherlock from Jeremy Brett. Precise, eccentric, twitchy, hawk-like and with his verbal ejaculations, Brett’s sleuth was a riveting turn. The series was a textbook adaptation with pea-soupers, frock coats and hansom cabs. So faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation was the series that the closing credits of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations for the original Strand Magazine stories. However, some storylines and plots were altered for TV, and a big change saw Holmes cleaning up his cocaine habit in The Devil’s Foot (an update approved by Conan Doyle’s daughter). It was hugely popular, particularly in the US, where it was shown on PBS. One weakness that the contemporary reboots Sherlock and Elementary don’t make is having flimsy, vapid versions of Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson (no fault of the actors, Edward Hardwicke, who replaced David Burke after the first series, and Rosalie Williams). Screenwriter John Hawkesworth (Upstairs, Downstairs) developed it for TV and wrote several episodes, along with the likes of Alexander Baron (A Family at War, Poldark) and Alan Plater (The Beiderbecke Trilogy, A Very British Coup). Granada TV even built a full-scale outdoor replica of Baker Street for the series. But it was undoubtedly Brett, veering between eccentric and depressive (a condition the actor suffered from severely), who galvanised the stories. He sadly died of heart failure in 1995, aged 61, bringing the series to an end, though he had apparently occasionally considered giving up the role owing to his ill health, not helped by his 60-a-day cigarette habit.
Classic episode: In The Red-Handed League (series 2) a prank is played on a red-haired man before we meet a man with long fingernails – the Napoleon of Crime himself. Eric Porter is diabolical (in a good way) as Moriarty, Tim McInnerny and Richard Wilson turn up in the cast, and Holmes thwarts a huge robbery of gold. Bizarre and mysterious as the best Holmes adventures often are.
Watercooler fact: Jude Law appeared in the 1991 episode The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, as the servant who impersonates Lady Beatrice, later going on to play Dr Watson to Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.
• The full Killer 50 so far – including The Bridge, Twin Peaks, True Detective, Inspector Morse and more – can be found here