The Last Words of Sherlock Holmes

Being bombarded with advertising for a new Sherlock Holmes film I thought I’d remind myself of the greatest Holmes of all, Jeremy Brett. I have a complete collection on DVD of all the episodes produced by Granada TV between 1984 and 1994. I chose a couple at random to watch last night and it turned out that the pair included the very last one in the last series, based on the dark and disturbing story The Adventure of the Cardboard Box from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Brett was gravely ill during the filming of the last series, largely owing to side-effects of the medication he had to take to deal with a severe depressive illness which plagued him for most of his life.  It didn’t help that he had become almost obsessive about the character of Holmes, putting all his energy into doing the best possible job. It obviously took a lot out of him. He looks so much older in the last series than in the first, although it was only ten years after he made the first episodes. Jeremy Brett passed away in 1995, just a year after the last episode was filmed, but his Sherlock Holmes will live forever.

The last words spoken by Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes are at the end (from 8.55 onwards) of the  following clip, a piece of film so poignant that I find it almost unbearable to watch.

What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose, or our universe has no meaning, and that  is unthinkable. But what purpose? That  is humanity’s great problem, to which reason so far, has no answer.


13 Responses to “The Last Words of Sherlock Holmes”

  1. Yes. The definitive Holmes. A bit somber but the closest portrayal of the book’s character.

  2. telescoper Says:

    At the time the first episodes were made, Brett cut a svelte and rather dashing figure and when I first saw them I was amazed at how much he looked like I had imagined Holmes to look when I read the books as a schoolboy. He was also extremely camp, in a way I still find completely wonderful.

  3. For some reason camp worked so well for his version of Holmes, despite never imagining it would until I saw his portrayal. I think it’s because it was tempered by the melancholy of both the actor and of Holmes. The mix was surprisingly effective.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    You are in the company of most of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in thinking Brett the best Holmes. But are these words from the Canon? Also, did Brett’s Holmes ever do cocaine – as Holmes did in the early novels at a time when it was a legal high?

    Reason cannot answer that question of Holmes’, because reason is a way of navigating from premises to conclusions. Your answer depends not only on your reasoning but also on your premises. We all, unavoidably, have premises. Some acknowledge this, some don’t. All who have theistic premises are in the former group.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, he certainly did use cocaine, to Watson’s disapproval. The Devil’s Foot offers an example of Holmes using cocaine to dispel his boredom and the famous needle is also seen in The Musgrave Ritual.

      The Adventure of the Cardboard Box does not appear in the original British edition of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes because of its controversial subject matter. It did appear in Strand magazine with the other episodes, but wasn’t published in book form until later collections.

      The last lines of the published version are:

      “What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

      Interestingly different…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I had always presumed that Conan Doyle envisaged Holmes snorting (rather than injecting) it, as Victorian gentlemen did snuff, but I don’t know if the Canon is specific. I vaguely remember a reference to Holmes “reaching for the cocaine bottle” at the end of a long day’s sleuthing, but that proves nothing.

    • No, Holmes most definitely injected presumably because this produces the most rapid high.

      Incidentally, it was not uncommon in Victorian times for cocaine to be administered in the form of a suppository, although there’s no evidence that Holmes took it this way.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I don’t get that ‘because’. Holmes is not noted for being in a hurry with his pleasures. Have you please a reference from the Canon to his injecting?

    • I think I meant it was a stronger high rather than necessarily a quicker one but the two are related through the means of delivery.

      The most explicit example of Holmes’ cocaine use that springs to mind is from the opening passages of The Sign of Four:

      Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

      Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

      Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

      "Which is it to-day," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"

      He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

      "It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"

      As many have pointed out, what is surprising about this passage is not Holmes’ drug use but Dr Watson’s disapproving reaction to it. Apparently, the practice wasn’t particularly frowned upon by the medical establishment at the time.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That’s definitive, thank you.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Too bad the scriptwriter didn’t put some effort into writing it in blank verse. The theme brings to mind some of Hamlet’s soliloquies, “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge/ what is a man…” (Act 4 scene 4), “What a piece of work is a man…” (Act 2 scene 2), inevitably “To be or not to be…” and even his first words lamenting that he cannot even commit suicide.

    Anyway, dear old Watson probably replied “Search me mate, we’ve cracked the case, now let’s go to the pub.”

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Very fine incidental music on this clip.

  7. A truly classic Holmes.. Brett will live on forever.

    Wish he had not suffered from his physical tribulations. He would have been alive today and enjoyed his much deserved success and recognition.

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