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The debonair new resident of 221B Baker Street

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 1988



London

THERE is something about Jeremy Brett that makes you want to put the word ``darling'' at the end of every sentence, darling. I mean really, all those Etonian vowels, the West End dressing room with that darling basket of fruit, the darling bouquet of lilies from all those darlings on opening night. ``Oh, I mean really. It's the most divine theater in London, and the show is just a great joy,'' says Mr. Brett with a wave to his dresser. ``See you anon, my dear.'' ``Right,'' says the actor, swiveling to face the interviewer in question, ``Now, tell me....''

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Brett is the latest - some say greatest - interpreter of Sherlock Holmes. Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle unleashed the fictional detective on the British reading public more than a century ago, the enigmatic Baker Street sleuth has been portrayed in hundreds of films, radio dramas, and stage plays - not to mention a ballet, a musical, and an oratorio - by more than 100 actors, most notably, Basil Rathbone in those early 1940s films.

Then in 1982, along came Brett with a campy portrait of the cerebral detective in Britain's Granada-TV series, ``The Return of Sherlock Holmes'' (seen locally on the Public Broadcasting System's ``Mystery!'') that all but broke the mold. The 25-story series - one of the few faithful adaptations of Conan Doyle's canon - was a critical and commercial success that sold to more than 50 countries, including the Soviet Union and China. (The six latest episodes, beginning with ``The Sign of Four,'' premi`ere Thursday night on PBS.)

In a very crowded field, Brett was suddenly the definitive Sherlock Holmes. For the debonair Englishman, an often out-of-work classical actor who had migrated to Hollywood during the 1970s, surfacing in lesser mini-series and the road tour of ``Dracula,'' it was the definitive dream come true.

``Oh, it's a dream. Don't be fooled when actor says he's afraid of being typecast. That's rubbish. What are you in the business for? If you're not successful, it's disaster.''

Six years and some 26 TV hours later, Brett is attempting to turn his television popularity into something of a return to the theater. ``The Secret of Sherlock Holmes,'' a new play exploring the friendship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, opened in London last month, conceived by and starring Brett, along with his TV sidekick, Edward Hardwicke, as the unflappable Watson. The drama has received decidedly mixed reviews, but Broadway remains a more than hush-hush option. ``No, no darling,'' says Brett, ``we have to wait and see if we're making money. Otherwise we'll just come off and go to Peru or wherever.''

It is a superlative backstage performance that Brett is giving in his subterranean dressing room at London's Wyndham's Theatre, just a few hours before curtain. The wallpaper is English awful, the air heavy with the perfume of the lilies and the gently decaying fruit. And the contrast between the on-camera Holmes - a reptilian dandy with lacquered hair and pursed lips - and the offstage Brett could not be more, well, theatrical.

For one thing, Brett is enormous. He stands more than 6 feet 2 and if not exactly burly, he is at least bulkier than his whippet-esque Holmes. Even his hands, which the actor uses with rapierlike precision in the films, seem soft, meaty. Brett has dressed for the occasion in a sort of dash-it-all dishabille, unbuttoned double-breasted blue blazer, silk paisley scarf, baggy white trousers rolled at the ankles, and a blue T-shirt that doesn't quite cover his surprisingly ample girth. His hair is an errant shock adrift over his forehead. The only vestige of the world's supersleuth? Brett's throaty, cultured voice (he did in fact attend Eton) that charges up and down the sentences in pianissimo runs.

``I think it was in a taxi that someone suggested my name for the series,'' says Brett, settling into the one of the long Holmesian narratives that will constitute the interview. ``I was going to dinner on Charlotte Street and I was taking my son with me. I got into the car, it was pouring with rain, one of those wonderful February nights ... and I said, `I really don't want to do this. It's been done by so many people.' I was frightened, frightened of failing. I mean I haven't got the brain, and my look was all wrong. It would have meant the most extraordinary makeup. So I said yes.''