A fresh new Sherlock Holmes makes his debut
Manchester, England — ''The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.'' Thus opined Dr. Watson on his friend Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle's perpetually popular detective has, over the years, found many a fine actor to play him with relish, on stage, in films - and on television. The latest to add his name to the distinguished line is Jeremy Brett. With his hair plastered back, ''aquiline face'' suitably endowed with a ''dead-white tinge'' (as described on one occasion by the chronicling doctor), Mr. Brett seems quite prepared for the part.
Brett's portrayal, which may have one or two fresh facets, is for Granada Television's new series of 13 one-hour Holmes films, now being made. Already in the can are ''The Solitary Cyclist,'' ''The Speckled Band,'' and ''The Naval Treaty.'' ''The Scandal in Bohemia'' is under way.
The series, directed by Michael Cox, is to be seen in Britain starting next spring and in the United States (as part of the ''Mystery'' series on PBS) in 1985.
Cox says: ''We are determined to make the best and most authentic film version of the stories which has yet been seen.'' For a start, that laudable aim has involved the construction of a 60-yard stretch of ''Baker Street'' in the 1890s. (It was at No. 221B that Holmes and Watson shared lodgings.)
This impressive outdoor set is certainly authentic enough. You have to keep reminding yourself it isn't real - even when it is milling with technicians and cameramen and a hundred or so extras variously costumed as costermongers and shopkeepers, housemaids and coachmen, policemen and ragamuffins, landladies and newspaper vendors, and booksellers and perambulator-pushing nannies and grannies . . . all waiting around with patient resignation for a directorial call to action. Horse-drawn broughams and landaus and tradesmen's vehicles only add to the illusion of being carried back a century.
The Baker Street lodgings, as Holmes fans know, are the center from which ''Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent'' and his indispensable ''intimate friend and associate'' range in pursuit of sinister villains, or bent on the rescue of a lady cyclist ''in very deep waters.''
But this Baker Street re-creation is not in London N.W.1. at all. It is in the middle of Manchester, just at the back of a recently restored Victorian bonded warehouse, now a modern TV facility for Granada. Inside the warehouse, an equally convincing (and unexpectedly small) interior of Holmes's rooms at 221B has been built and furnished.
All the filming for the series is taking place in the northwest of England, in or around Manchester, and in Liverpool and Cheshire - although in fact most of the Holmes stories are set in London or in the ''home counties'' near the capital.
From here they issue forth determined to expose bizarre deceptions perpetrated upon a pawnbroker with blazing red hair, or on a Norfolk squire with a petrified wife, or on an overpaid governess required by her employer to impersonate his imprisoned, unmarried daughter . . . then back to this bachelor base the two return, with Holmes invariably triumphant, to await (sometimes in a state of extreme ennui) the next case of ''singular interest'' or another ''little problem'' that will once again enable them to ''escape from the commonplaces of existence.''
The Baker Street lodgings, both for the protagonists and readers of the stories, represent the quiet normality of home. You lounge by your sitting-room fireside while Watson takes you off on another exploit. You identify with Holmes as he looks over a new client in his sitting room (''with his lids drooping and his finger-tips together''), or more sympathetically with Watson as he struggles in baffled admiration to make sense of a conundrum you and he know can only be explained by that inscrutable and infallible (well, almost infallible) hero with the ''thin, hawklike nose.''
Jeremy Brett certainly looks as though he has it in him to make a severe and knowing Holmes. ''I spent the first two weeks of rehearsal scared to death,'' he remarked recently when introduced to a group of British reporters. Speaking with swift, low precision, he added, ''What could I bring that was new to a part that has been played by so many people? I tried a funny voice. I tried a funny walk. . . .''
But in the end the director suggested that he would have to play Holmes as a character closer to Brett himself. This apparently did the trick. Brett started to find he quite liked a man he had previously thought merely cold and arrogant. He is still playing him as a ''marble figure,'' but the marble has some ''slight cracks'' in it.
For one thing, he feels that Holmes has more humor than is often recognized. At one point, for instance, he remarks that ''Holmes suddenly falls on his knees with a lantern and a magnifying glass and starts inspecting the cracks between some stones. That is funny. On another occasion he rushes through a shrubbery 'like a golden retriever on a scent,' as one Holmes story has it. When you actually do that, it looks very funny. (Also), he often teases Watson.''
Both Brett and David Burke, who plays the amiable Watson, are making their characters younger than they are sometimes played. They maintain that Conan Doyle wrote them as being in their late 30s or early 40s. And Watson is not to be the ''buffoon'' he is sometimes thought to be.
David Burke looks as though he will be perfectly capable of holding his own as Watson. One suspects Burke as Watson will humor Holmes with an indulgent smile when he becomes impetuous, or when he impatiently cries: ''Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay.''
He will not, however, have to put up with Holmes's patronizing ''Good old Watson, you are the one fixed point in a changing age'' - unless it has been lifted from ''The Last Bow'' and incorporated in one of the stories included in the series. But he will be left, at the end, disconsolately convinced that his friend has perished, along with arch-enemy Moriarty, by plunging into the tremendous abyss at the Falls of Reichenbach.
Visually this series should be exceptional - and fresh. A study has been made of the illustrations drawn by Sidney Paget for the Holmes adventures when they first appeared in the Strand Magazine in the 1890s. Brett has modeled certain striking attitudes and gestures (not forgetting, perhaps, that Holmes is described once as ''Bohemian'') on these illustrations. A number of cliches will be downgraded: The deerstalker and the Inverness cape will not be much in evidence.
And of course Holmes never actually says, ''Elementary, my dear Watson.''
The actual exchange, according to Brett, goes as follows:
Holmes: ''Elementary. It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.''
One is inclined to believe him. Brett's Holmes has an air of undeniable authority. All the same, I'm still trying to find which of the stories describes the famous detective as sniffing his way through a thicket of rhododendrons like a golden retriever.