Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies

You guys. This book.

 You think it is about the making of the Granada SherlockHolmes. More still, the making of Jeremy Brett as the definitive Sherlock Holmes (many Holmesians believe this, including myself, though he is now closely rivaled by Benedict Cumberbatch). What it truly is, at its center, is an exposition of Jeremy’s strong battle with manic depression and his bravery and courage in trying to eradicate the stigma involved as a sort of involuntary advocate. Because the book is largely couched in incidents involving the Granada series: its conception and its development and subsequent airing, it is not a biography of Jeremy Brett the actor; rather an exploration of how Jeremy Brett the manic-depressive actor was able to use the slight eccentricities synonymous with his illness to craft a brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

For those fans of the Granada series, like myself, who have sat with the Canon open on your lap while you compare it to the action on the screen, the “behind the scenes” information given here is delightful.  One of my favourite parts of this facet of the book was the exploration of the relationship between Jeremy Brett and his first “Watson”, David Burke, then, secondly his second “Watson”, Edward Hardwicke.  The latter became more Watson-like than ever in his support of his ill friend who, often under the influence of drugs (lithium to quell the manic-depression) was in ill-health and high and low spirits.  

The author, whose own work was optioned for presentation by Granada when the Conan Doyle stories were wearing thin and they were exploring the realm of pastiche, has a remarkable passion for the material ( both the source material and its adaptation) and a wealth of conversational transcripts from all involved in the making of the series: including Jeremy Brett, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke.   I especially enjoyed the moments surrounding a play mounted starring Brett and Hardwicke which strained their relationship and Brett’s health while he tried to dig deeper still into the canyons of his fictional obsession.

You cannot really call this book a biography because it does not give a thorough account of Jeremy’s life and, though it is centered on his years as Holmes, speaks more to his portrayal and how is illness influenced this portrayal for better or worse.  It’s more an homage to a great idea excavated and enacted by a  brilliant man who was at times tortured by the creation he assimilated to and at other times soared on the wings of the narcissistic and manic creativity of Conan Doyle’s icon. 

Sherlockians will love the information provided on the careful re-tellings of the works by Granada and its producers.  For example, Brett and his colleagues worked painstakingly to create a sort of “bible” of canonical references: everything that Sherlock and Watson were referenced to be eating, wearing, thinking and doing within the 56 short stories and 4 novels.  This, and other careful attentions to historical detail, are largely why the series is so highly regarded by Sherlockians and academics alike. 

What struck me most about this story, however, was ( as mentioned) the true nature of manic depression and the absolutely horrific symptoms torturing its sufferers.  Many are well aware of how Jeremy Brett experienced hefty weight gain during the filming of some of the Sherlock installments.  This was a result of the lithium side-effect of water retention and often he (this is sounding crass) had to be drained of the excess fluid while still not getting down to his normal size.  For a vain actor playing a sinewy and lanky icon, this was more than disparaging. At points in the series, Brett’s heart had swelled to twice its size, again a ramification of the medication he was on. He was so unwell that he had to sit in a wheelchair between scenes.  But, more severe than the physical symptoms was the mental repression and depression.  Davies recounts numerous conversations where Jeremy was obviously experiencing an episode of illness and how is acute mental faculties (not unlike those of the character he famously played) were plagued and distilled and frenzied by his mental incapacities.   Further still, that it so wholly tortured a man who was but 61 upon his death.

 Mental illness is a trying and horrible and isolating thing.  It is made more so here as it ravages the talent of someone so well-suited to play an iconic literary hero. It saddens me that someone who, to my knowledge, understood Sherlock Holmes in a way few of us do was so wrought with tragedy during his portrayal of him.   To say Jeremy Brett is a brilliant actor is an understatement when you, like me, grew up seeing him absolutely embody the role and encompass all that made Holmes so unique.  What is interesting further and what Davies explores in a winning and intellectual (and often funny and touching way) is how Jeremy Brett’s illness provided an almost ironic edge to his ability to play Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, to many, is one who suffers from some kind of illness: Cumberbatch’s Holmes is mentioned as being a “high-functioning sociopath” where other critics have mentioned Asperger’s when studying him, to say nothing of the universal belief that he was plagued with some sort of social compulsion or disorder. Having a mentally-tortured soul whose illness caused him to see-saw from great moods of high-energy and mental exultation to low, lethargic moments of depression and drug-abuse ( in Brett’s case, the abuse was prescribed by medical professionals and caused numerous allergic reactions) play a character who exemplifies the same mental traits is a good, if sorrowful match.  Those who have immersed themselves in the canon for lengths of time know how difficult it is to be engulfed by Holmes and his remarkable mood swings.  He will be high and happy and floating on air, his brain capacity filled with deductive reasoning and logic; only to be brought down, inflated, to the ground: surrounded by pillows, drawing long breaths on his pipe, the cocaine syringe not far from his reach: ostracizing Watson and the world around him.

There is a true marriage of geniuses here plagued by mental instability. 

As a sufferer of mental illness ( I speak to my anxiety disorder and OCD on the blog here sometimes), I am always moved and challenged by the plights of fellow sufferers who, though not perhaps diagnosed with same illness, are plagued by some of the over-arching and over-lapping symptoms and consequences.   I was loaned a book called A First-Rate Madness which delves into the links between mental illness, leadership and art.  Indeed, artists and leaders and gloriously eccentric personages are more likely to be sufferers (diagnosed or not) of some facet of mental illness.  I think we can safely assume that Holmes was one of these sufferers, if fictional, whereas Jeremy Brett certainly was.

Later, when I can handle revisiting this book, which moved me far more than expected and cast a bit of a shadow over the past few days: so distressed was I at reading of such suffering on a fellow human (egads! Jeremy Brett or not, this is to try the water works, friends!), I will have a post just involving my favourite quotes of the book.  There are great conversations and quotes herein and wonderful anecdotes.  I found myself highlighting something every few pages!  While the general populous will be bored out of their tree, my fellow Sherlockians will clap and gasp and “ooo!” and “ahhh!”

For a long while, Bending the Willow was incredibly hard to find and the Amazon used marketplace sellers listed it at over 1000.00.  Now, it is available on kindle. 


Charity said...

I knew Brett was ill, but had no idea the extent of it. I'm afraid I couldn't warm up to him in later seasons because he ceased looking and sounding like I wanted to imagine Holmes -- as a result of his illness. It's a shame, otherwise I might have enjoyed the later productions more.

Gina said...

It sounds like a splendid book, though so sad.