A Historical Sherlock Holmes – No, Not That One!


99% of murder mystery stories do not interest me. Sorry folks, it’s true! Not my cup of tea for a myriad of reasons. Mostly though, I don’t get into the stories. The puzzles seem so contrived, and I prefer either an emotional story or political intrigue for my costume drama. Unfortunately, that leaves a huge swath of historical movies and TV shows out of the Frock Flicks purview since murder mystery tales are very frequently set in ye olden times, whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie (including Poirot), or Miss Fisher (yes, I did review that show, go check it out!).

We got some requests to review Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 Sherlock Christmas special that was inexplicably set in the 19th century. I did TiVo it and was going to force myself through it, but I got distracted. And guess what distracted me? A Sherlock Holmes serial starring Jeremy Brett from 1993! What can I say? I do love a classic.

This was part of the Granada Television / ITV production from the UK that had over 40 episodes, all featuring quality actors with excellent costumes and sets. I didn’t watch the whole series, just a few episodes, which gave a fine taste of the show. The specific one I want to look at here is towards the end of the series, a two-parter titled, The Master Blackmailer, based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. It’s a high-society mystery where a wicked art dealer played by Robert Hardy (Elizabeth R, Harry Potter) has dirt on everyone. And, relevant to my interests, his victims are mostly women in really nice 1890s clothes.

While I’m admittedly not a big Sherlock Holmes fan, I do admire Jeremy Brett. He’s a fantastic actor, he’s suave, he’s smart, and his Holmes has the right mix of the character’s arrogance, weird quirks, intelligence, and hidden depths.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Sharp dressed man!

This tale has multiple layers of deceit, but let’s focus on the ones with the best costumes, shall we?

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Who wouldn’t want to be at this picnic???

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Charlotte & Colonel Dorking are going to be SO happy!

Except Col. Wonderful has a hobby he hasn’t mentioned to Lottie…

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Quite possibly the most artsy drag show ever. Digging the Klimt vibe here.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Mikado? Me too, honey.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

The colonel’s lover, backstage at the show. Nice shoes!

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

“Three little maids from school are we.”

Letters, we get letters!

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Both Charlotte and Eva are wearing perfect print gowns; Lottie in plaid, Eva in floral.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Uh-oh, shit’s going down. This gives us a chance for a better look at Eva’s dress with its elaborate collar and excellent use of coordinating print on the upper and lower sleeves.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

So Dorking is a dork, but Charlotte’s plaid dress and pleated leg o’ mutton sleeves are spot-on.

Holmes and Watson get on the case. Not that anyone asked, it’s just something they do, I guess.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Let’s reinforce the ‘bad guys have cats’ trope.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Sherlock is going to infiltrate Charles Augustus Milverton’s estate.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

He pretends to be a plumber and, uh, plumbs the maid for info.

Meanwhile, Milverton sets upon another victim, who is not-so-coincidentally connected to the last one.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Eve’s ‘good morning, you’re being blackmailed’ dress. Note the handy mirror-shot of the gown’s back pleats.

Holmes and Watson try to get info on Milverton at the unveiling of Lady Diana’s new portrait.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Have we mentioned how crappy “historical” paintings are in costume dramas?

Eva faints while riding (thanks to Milverton) and is taken to her aunt Diana’s house. Holmes and Watson follow because they’re nosey that way.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Lady Diana’s mourning gown is a bit more 1880s in style; I guess they’re going for the ‘older woman, out-of-date fashion’ trope. But it’s still terribly pretty.

Eva goes to Sherlock Holmes for help with this whole blackmailing thing.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Very smart cream suit on Eva.

Holmes and Watson confront Milverton, which doesn’t have any good costumes, but there’s some snappy dialog, so y’know, you should watch this show. Afterwards, the detectives meet their client at a museum (it’s a theme) to discuss what happened. Eva brings Charlotte for moral reinforcements.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Snazzy trim on Eva’s spotty dress.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Forefront, Eva in dots; background, Charlotte in cream.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Love this tabbed collar on Charlotte’s blouse.

Back at her fiance’s grand home, Eva is worried.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

For being depressed about the blackmailing thing, Eva is really well-dressed.

But gamely playing along with Holmes’ plan, Eva invites Sherlock, Watson, and Milverton all to her pre-wedding ball.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Everybody dance now!

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Lady Diana views the ball from behind a moving painting — I need one of those things.

Sherlock holmes & the Master Blackmailer (1993) starring Jeremy Brett

Eva’s ballgown, in the only promo still I could find for this show.

During the ball, Holmes and Watson break into Milverton’s estate, but they’re not the ones who get the job done in the end. I’ll let you watch the show to see how it turns out — this one is available for streaming and (as you can see from the watermarks) can be found on PBS. I definitely recommend Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes!


Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan? What’s your favorite series?



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

22 Responses

  1. Donna

    We were watching some of these the other day and I was thinking the costumes were good and deserved a frock flick :-)
    Trystan, you can take my share of Austin, Bronte and all their ilk (I really don’t get the appeal) and give me your share of Holmes and all the other wonderful sleuths, OK?

    • Trystan L. Bass

      It’s got snappy dialog & great visuals, & the ‘mystery’ isn’t hokey or really much of a mystery — it’s more of a drama with this specific one. Prob. why I liked it a lot. I watched a few others that were more typically ‘Holmes figures out obscure clues & solves mystery’ & that didn’t interest me as much, tho’ this series does have high production values throughout & Brett is great.

  2. MoHub

    Brett was the best Holmes ever! He did not hesitate to play Holmes’ lack of likability, and the writers were wise in not trying to give Holmes a soft side.

  3. toranut97

    To this fan. the Brett Holmes is the closest to canon. This story kept true to Conan Doyle, as the series so often did. The GIF of Brett swinging that cane reminded me of his turn as Freddy Aynsford-Hill in the film of My Fair Lady. Yes, that was him singing “On the Street Where You Live!”

    • Donna

      I’m pretty sure that was him lip-synking to someone else singing On the Street Where You Live … yes, the IMDB says it was Bill Shirley

      • Emily Barry

        True, but I’m not sure why, because his voice was AMAZING! Maybe because he was a baritone and not a tenor? But look up him singing “She Moved Through the Fair” on some sixties talk show… I had chills, in the best possible way!

    • MoHub

      Vincent Price once asked Brett why he played Holmes so unlikable, and Brett answered, “Vincent! have you ever read the stories?” As you said, Brett’s Holmes was the truest to the written canon.

  4. mmcquown

    Rathbone got the short end of the stick with the contemporary settings and Nigel Bruce’s awful Watson, which leaves Brett the absolute front-runner for Holmes. I always appreciated the fact that the Granada series always had him dressed appropriately for whatever time, place and activity he was involved in. Of the two modern Sherlocks, each has its merits and faults. Finally, “Elementary” is now putting less emphasis on his addiction. On the other hand, they have saddled him with a rotten father, (superbly played by Australian actor John Noble) and a slimmed-down and amorous Mycroft. (He and Watson had a thing — if you’re not familiar, Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson, MD — not the first time Watson has changed gender).

  5. Dawn

    Jeremy Brett is the only real Sherlock Holmes! Accept no substitutes!

    (and so glad they did a good job on the details)

  6. Karen Hayes

    The elegant and fascinating Mr. Brett was def! the best Sherlock. The series is excellent, hope you will view more episodes–no ghastly 80s-speak, cheap costuming or weird hair. Seems all very authentic, so probably not that much to comment on.. But Jeremy could really rock a frock coat.

  7. Kathy Woodyard

    Jeremy Brett was my favorite Holmes. I also loved the dark gritty sets in this series. I am so glad to find out that the costumes were as good as I thought they were!

  8. Emily Barry

    I ADORE Jeremy Brett’s Holmes! There were several different writers and directors over the course of the series, and some I definitely like better than others, but Brett himself is always impeccable, and was always pushing for closer adherence to the original stories.

  9. Pina

    Well, I’m disappointed :P (I was the one who asked for an analysis of the Sherlock episode, or one of them.) I haven’t actually seen the Jeremy Brett version (though I definitely mean to, since this isn’t the first time I’m hearing about how awesome he is) but I read most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories back in high school, and loved them. That’s why I resisted seeing Steven Moffat’s Sherlock for a long time. But now that I have, I love that version too. What’s ingenious about it, I think, is the way the writers interpret the original stories while adapting them to 21st century. They’re never “the original Sherlock Holmes, only this time everything is taking place in the modern times”; instead, the writers just take elements from the original stories and put them in a new story inspired by something in the Sherlock Holmes canon. I think it’s really clever what they’re doing. As a viewer you’re constantly going “Aha! I recognize this!” but the mystery itself is always something new. Of course the basic premise seems even less realistic in our times than it might have in the 1890s, so the series has a somewhat wacky, tongue-in-cheek feel to it, and they gave Sherlock Holmes all the “insufferable genius” flair that is en vogue nowadays. Still, his personality seems somewhat more grounded than other, more serious modernization attempts such as House M.D., which is another reason why I like this show. Despite all his eccentricity and awkwardness, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is actually (more or less) capable of functioning as an adult (as did the original Holmes, and as would befit an actual genius, I think). Benedict Cumberbatch might not have made as good a classic Holmes as Brett, but he’s killing (no pun intended) as the 21st century Sherlock, and the acting in general is really, really good. I also appreciate how Moffat and his team didn’t choose to turn this into a regular series with 10 or more episodes every season and one season per year, because that would risk the balance they’ve achieved between using the canonical material and being original. Obviously there are some downsides to this as well, for example I’m somewhat dissatisfied with the fact that each season (or series, as the Brits call them) is woven around an “archenemy plot” with independent cases having much less significance and almost always having to be tied to the main plot. Despite all that, BBC’s Sherlock remains a delicious experience for a Sherlock Holmes buff like me.

    Sorry, I could go on and on about this forever. Also, the special episode isn’t “inexplicably” set in Victorian times, you’ll see if you watch it to the end :) Thank you for this review, by the way.

  10. fogandstitches

    I’ve literally been watching this 90’s (and has a place in my heart as I’d watch it on PBS with my mom and at a time where me and her didn’t always get on, this was something we could come together on and enjoy) and in bits it can seem dated but its really stood the test of time and Jeremy Brett is always who comes to mind when I think of Sherlock and Edward Hardwick when it comes to Watson. Hardwick also appears in the Poirot series a few years later. But the costuming is actually pretty spot throughout the whole of the series and if it was on Netflix I’d probably watch it all the time. Like I do Poirot quite a bit and even with a such long running series. (the last episode aired I believe a year or two ago) the design and costuming is always consistent and lovely. Captain Hasteings and Ms. Lemon always having very smart and lovely clothes.
    But I am glad you got to see some of Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

  11. Jose

    I do love Jeremy Brett as Sherlock he’s probably my favorite so I wanted to ask two things:
    1. Could you review the Scandal in Bohemia episode? i simply love that one especially because Gayle Hunnicutt plays a Perfect Irene all the while wearing some fabulous esembles.
    2.Could you try his version of Rebecca (1979)? i like that one but i have no idea if the wardobre is right yet He and Joanna David are wonderful, Anna Massey gives room to all her veiled rage on her ex as Mrs. Danvers I was surprised to find him charming as Max this character usually repulses me until near the ending but this time i could understand the girl’s fascination for him.

    • mmcquown

      Holmes has the distinction of being the most filmed fictional character ever. And some of the spinoffs are interesting. I just saw “Enola Holmes,” about a younger sister of the Holmes brothers. Part of the tension arises from the fact that the ultraconservative Mycroft and the more liberal Sherlock have diametrically opposite views on her rearing. (The mother, Helena Bonham Carter, has done a runner). But the kid has the ferocious Holmes intellect and goes her own way, abetting a young runaway peer and eventually helping engineer a major government overturn along the way.