The beauty of Jeremy Brett

Why any self-respecting heterosexual male needs a man-crush

Artillery Row

There aren’t many men whom I would describe as a gorgeous and sublime individual: the actor Jeremy Brett is one of them. Best known for giving the definitive Sherlock Holmes performance, between 1984 and 1994, Brett appeared in 41 episodes of Granada Television’s stupendous The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—at one stage there was talk of covering Arthur Conan Doyle’s entire canon of 60 stories—before his death from heart failure in 1995 aged 59.

Ever since I first encountered Brett immersed in the role of Sherlock Holmes, tall and dark, with a hawk-like profile and piercing, laconic eyes, I’ve been smitten. It’s a combination of the stunning acting (he got so into it, he gave himself a nervous breakdown) and the wonderful language that mines Conan Doyle’s originals – Brett reportedly was a stickler about any deviations between the scripts he was given and Conan Doyle’s originals – and how Brett just looks so damn good and polished in the role. Here the stars aligned in perfection: Brett was made for the part. “A finer Sherlock Holmes has never, and will never exist,” remarked Sally Head, Granada’s controller of drama.

Brett brought great passion to the role, infusing his version of Holmes with the likes of eccentric hand gestures, barking out a short violent laugh, and a habit of suddenly throwing his napkin on the breakfast table before the meal has even commenced and rushing out the room, leaving a stricken- and hungry-looking Watson in his wake, or plunging to the ground as if about to do a set of press-ups to get a better look at a footprint, somersaulting over furniture in the middle of a genteel room to make an urgent inspection, or jumping onto the parapet of a bridge to get a better understanding of where the villain might have flung a murderous weapon.

During filming, Terry Manners notes in his book The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes: The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett, while other actors disappeared to the canteen at lunchtime, Brett would remain on set sitting alone reading the script, analysing every nuance. One of Brett’s prize possessions during filming, according to Manners, was his 77-page “Baker Street File,” which covered everything from Holmes’ mannerisms to his eating and drinking habits. From such obsessiveness resulted heavenly acting.

Over the years, I’ve often gone to Brett—re-watching his Sherlock Holmes performances—as a source of morale-raising entertainment and inspiration, even for a type of spiritual nourishment. The fact I haven’t done so—yet—during the Covid-19 lockdown is largely because I fear that if I dared lift the lid, I would become enthralled again, for goodness knows what time, and perhaps more powerfully than ever given current circumstances compelling the lust for escapism, thereby becoming hopelessly hooked on those 41 episodes and when I really should be using my lockdown time for something more constructive than once again rehashing my Jeremy Brett man-crush.

In light of all the news about the amount of lockdown time being spent on porn sites, and the numbers of men paying for titillation on the likes of OnlyFans, it strikes me how the calibre of Brett’s performance, and of the man himself, represents a type of beauty sorely needed by all these individuals heading online in search of the aesthetically pleasing that might plug that hole in their lives/souls.

The type of beauty embodied by Brett as Sherlock Holmes points us toward that classic ideal of virtue upheld by the likes of Aristotle. Encounters of this type are to be encouraged, for they inspire all but the most unsensitive to strive to be a better person; if not by getting one to contemplate those higher planes laid out by Greek philosophers and subsequent theologians, then by the simple force of example that motivates you to raise your own game in response. Good luck getting that sort of direction from porn and online arousal.

Brett isn’t the only man-crush I have. There is also Jeremy Irons as an exquisite Charles Ryder in the 1981 Brideshead Revisited television series (again made by Granada: there was clearly some creative and productive genius bouncing around those studios).

“I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion,” a very moody-looking Irons says in the first episode. “We had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom.” You and me both, Charles/Jeremy, you and me both.

Sydney Carton, the flawed but mesmerising protagonist of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, has always loomed large in my consciousness. The fact Carton is so heavily flawed like the rest of us—he is an antisocial alcoholic—makes him instantly relatable, while the coexistence of such flaws with his genius—as a brilliant barrister—crowns his attractiveness as the archetypal anti-hero you can’t help but desire. And that’s all before the denouement that sees his aloof selfishness replaced by courageous selflessness when he goes to the French guillotine in place of another man with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. It’s easy to mock the romanticism and muscular Christianity of it all, but its appeal remains because Carton personifies what each of us know, deep down, we should, and can, be: a good and brave man.

Where are those sorts of men now? They haven’t always just been characters on a page or on the screen. Take Robert Kennedy, for example, my biggest man-crush in the pantheon of American politics. It is said that John F. Kennedy had the charm that propelled him to the presidency, but Bobby had the natural brilliance that would have done the same and a lot more, some suggest, had it not been for the bullets of Sirhan Sirhan. That archetypal little fuckwit—excuse the language, but it’s a designated category among the male spectrum that we should be more candid and transparent about such as those men on social media who respond to women they disagree with abusing their physical appearance or worse while staying behind an avatar name—clearly needed a man crush of his own (once known as a mentor) to turn his sad train of thoughts in a more constructive direction.

It is not a great time for the reputation of mankind of the literal sense. The exasperation and anger that coalesced into the #Me Too movement now seems to be pretty established across the board, with even BBC Radio 4’s fantastic Woman’s Hour sounding increasingly and militantly anti-male. There are of course plenty of reasons for feeling anti-male, which isn’t helped by how hard you have to sometimes search for evidence to the contrary.

Even during the Covid-19 outbreak, while there are clearly many men doing heroic work, watching the news it’s been impossible not to be struck by the fact that when it comes to sheer numbers, a sizeable proportion of those toiling away in the likes of hospitals and care homes or doing social care jobs appear to be unassuming and middle-aged women, a demographic that doesn’t tend to capture the attention of the mainstream media or Hollywood but who have always been there soldiering on while receiving next to no recognition or recompense—certainly not in terms of decent wages—for their efforts and sacrifices.

Men are being told to get a grip … Women are told to simply live their best lives, embrace every one of their whims

But, at the same time, much of the animus against men is misplaced. For one, it misses the fact that when it comes to the historical wrongs and evils perpetrated by men, the responsible individuals represent a tiny minority of the male species, while the terrible consequences of the actions of those few men have ruined or destroyed as many ordinary men as women. Furthermore, the drums beaten about toxic masculinity too often drown out the fact that the majority of men are doing the best they can. In terms of data to back me up, I only have the humble empirical evidence I have encountered over the decades, though increasingly I suspect that has just as much validity as the opprobrium and self-righteous certitude fuelling a Guardian opinion column. For many, it comprises selflessly sacrificing for their families and children and wives. But that fact just doesn’t make for a very catchy headline, newspaper column or absorbing radio section, so you don’t tend hear about it.

There also seems an increasing and worrying divergence in the gender-specific narratives that society tells itself. Men are being told—rightfully—to get a grip and sort themselves out, along the lines of Jordan Peterson’s constructive admonishment in his book Twelve Rules for Life. Women – especially younger generations – are increasingly told to simply live their best lives, embrace every one of their whims and idiosyncrasies and to hell with whatever anyone else might tell them that isn’t to their convenience. The concern with this arc, the patriarchal injustices that do indeed need pushing back against notwithstanding, is that if women end up rushing headlong toward embracing all the vicissitudes that are out there, and which include the multitude of ills that have normally been the purview of the male of the species, it might not be too long before we are also wondering about where the good women have gone too.

I am all for gender equality—or should it be neutrality that we are meant to say now? It is increasingly confusing when it comes to virtues and vices. Both men and women need embrace the virtues while needing to be equally wary of the vices. So, bring on into the macho, peacocking male realm that beauty personified by Jeremy Brett, we need more of its leavening qualities. But at the same time we may need to also start discussing more about how it’s not just us flawed men folk who need to take a longer look at ourselves. Perhaps that is one for Woman’s Hour to consider adding to the docket.

“Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” Brett intones beautifully, quoting Shakespeare to Watson after the successful solving of another mystery—just before the credits roll.

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan with the British Army and is finishing a book about his army experiences and adjusting to a strange new civilian world. Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and Instagram: james_rfj

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover