There is no getting rid of Sherlock Holmes. In his 98-year career he has been married, parodied, traumatized, modernized, misdirected, drug-addicted and even murdered. His own creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, killed him off in a story titled, "The Final Problem," before mass outrage forced him to bring Holmes back.
Now PBS' "Mystery!" series and Britain's Granada Television have brought Holmes back for seven fog- filled, "two-pipe," coach-clattering cases, adapted from the original Doyle stories. Arguably the most famous fictional detective of all time, the often- exploited master sleuth comes to television without such familiar Hollywood devices as the deerstalker hat, the Inverness cape, the "elementary" quip and, most expendable, a bumbling Dr. Watson.
Actor David Burke sets out to restore Watson's dignity, challenging Nigel Bruce's delightful, indelible, yet misguided film interpretation. Watson has always served as the reader- viewer's window to Sherlock Holmes, appropriately puzzled, amazed, annoyed and astounded by Holmes' escapades. Rather than subvert their character to that of Holmes, however, screen Watsons have frequently indulged in ill- advised theatrics. Burke's no-nonsense, heroic former British Army physician attempts to adhere to Doyle's Watson, a loyal friend to Holmes rather than simple-minded comic relief.
Burke's fidelity to Doyle is augmented by the entire production. Sherlock Holmes' 221-B Baker Street flat, a nonexistent address that still draws London tourists, was meticulously replicated for the series. Victorian dress and customs were extensively researched by executive producer Michael Cox and his staff, who compiled what they refer to as "the Baker Street File."
"We divided al the stories between us and reread them." he explained. "We noted down everything that would help us evoke Victorian life -- the way people dressed, what they ate, where they ate, even what kind of tobacco they smoked. Then we gave our file to the production designer and technical people, who worked marvelously to implement it. I think you'll find this the most authentic Sherlock Holmes yet."
Aware that no amount of authenticity could aid a weak actor, Cox cast one of the best, Jeremy Brett, in the pivotal role of Sherlock Holmes. Called upon to portray the beloved, eccentric and kinetic hero, Brett, a versatile stage and screen veteran (he played Freddie in the film "My Fair Lady"), applied all his energy to the task. One moment aloof and moribund, the next energetic and alert, Sherlock Holmes eludes all typecasting. Athletic and scholarly, cold and detached in nature, he nevertheless did not exclude practical jokes, played usually in some outrageous disguise. He could alternately be found pacing the floor, lost in narcotic reverie, flat on his back shooting bullet holes in his roof, deducing the history of a complete stranger, playing a difficult piece on the violin while dressed in a ghastly red robe fully enveloped in pipe tobacco smoke, or rousing Watson before dawn with the cry, "Quick, Watson, your revolver! The game is afoot!"
How did Brett meet the challenge? In such esteemed company as William Gillette, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Nicol Williamson, Cristopher Plummer, and -- the definitive screen Holmes -- Basil Rathbone, British critics have hailed Brett as "the best Sherlock Holmes ever."
The episodes themselves represent seven of the best and most popular of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, affectionately dubbed "the Canon" by Sherlockians. In Thursday's debut, the lighthearted "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes encounters the only woman he ever admired. A classic, moody Sherlock Holmes chiller, "The Speckled Band," follows next week. Subsequent adaptations include "The Dancing Men," "The Naval Treaty," "The Solitary Cyclist," "The Crooked Man" and Doyle's cheerful Christmas story, "The Blue Carbuncle."
So fasten your windows, light your fireplace and steep some English tea. For 60 atmospheric minutes, forget about screeching tires and being "careful out there." Sherlock Holmes is back.
The game is afoot.