Saturday 7 August 2010

TV: Sherlock

I'm the first to admit it: sometimes I can be a real literary snob. When I find out about a new TV or film adaptation of a favourite book, I find myself excited and apprehensive in equal measure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to leap on every use of artistic license in the FilmOfTheBook, but I do notice if someone acts in a way that is inconsistant with their character, (for example, Faramir in The Lord of the Rings) or if new events are inserted into the story that are noticeably out of place (such as the Death Eaters at the Burrow in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) if a really significant, character-defining line is omitted, ("DON'T - CALL - ME - COWARD!" in the aforementioned Harry Potter) or if it just "feels wrong." (ITV's recent Wuthering Heights, though accurate, just didn't live up to the pictures in my head.)

When I saw the trailer for last year's film entitled Sherlock Holmes, I recoiled in horror. I am loath to repeat my exact snooty remarks about it, but I did not like the look of it in the slightest. It looked to my mind like a mock-James Bond action film which was trying to be funny. However, I never actually saw the film, and my friends who did, unanimously declared it a lot better, a lot truer, than the trailer implied. Also, except for The Hound of the Baskervilles I haven't actually read any of Conan Doyle's novels since I was about twelve, and am undoubtably influenced by my impressions of the time: very clever, but a bit old-fashioned and stuffy.

And then another version of the famous detective popped up, months after the last. I was alerted to this through micro-blogging site Twitter, when a rather successful TV writer named Steven Moffat opened an account to talk about his latest project. Mr Moffat's writing skills burst into the public consciousness in 2005 when he sent Great Britain diving for cover behind the nearest sofa with four words: "Are you my mummy?" Over the next four years Moffat wrote one Doctor Who story per series, awakening the nation's terrors of Things Under The Bed, Things That Move When You're Not Looking and Things In The Shadows, before making fans shudder and cheer when he took on the job full-time. It is this blogger's opinion that Moffat's first series was the most consistently good since Doctor Who was revived.

So when I heard he was working on a series about Sherlock Holmes, I determined to watch it, without knowing a thing about it other than its writer. When the Radio Times came in, I turned straight to the Sherlock feature and looked at the picture: Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) outside 221B Baker Street. And they looked good. Cumberbatch looked younger than the usual Holmes but even from the picture, I could tell he had the right air. Watson, well, I never could quite picture him. TV and film Watsons never quite looked right to me, though I wasn't sure what he should look like. But Freeman has the right sort of everyman manner about him. It helped that he was Arthur Dent in a recent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Then I read the first paragraph of the article, which pointed out the thing I'd somehow managed to miss. His Sherlock was set in the 21st century. Oh, the heresy. And I didn't mind. More, I was embarrassed not to have noticed the characters were in modern dress. I read on, and, possibly hypnotised by the Moff's supernatural power of the pen, found myself agreeing with every word he wrote: Conan Doyle didn't write stuffy period drama, but fast-paced detective thrillers. TV and film adaptations formerly were in danger of forgetting this, and viewers certainly were, building up an idea of Holmes that wasn't actually there. At this point I became aware of an uncomfortable recognition of this in myself and resolved to go down to blockbuster and check out the recent film and examine it on its own merits.

Watching the TV series, it became clear that Holmes and Watson translated well into the twenty-first century, if in fact Conan Doyle didn't have a time machine and wrote it for this very purpose. Holmes' first line to Watson: "How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

I was hooked on Sherlock from the first minutes. The police are giving a press conference about their investigations into a string of "serial suicides," and every so often everyone in the room's mobile phones ring in unison. All have the same text message, a single word. "Wrong." This Sherlock is well at home with technology and the modern world, a fact that is shown through his deductions throughout the episode, which are truly astounding: being able to track down the killer from one scratched word: "Rache." The original story: A Study in Scarlet reveals this to be the German for Revenge, but knowledge of the book won't help with that detail in A Study in Pink.

To help us mere mortals, snatches of Holmes' thought-processes flash up on the screen, such as a map of London complete with traffic directions and short cuts during a chase.

Holmes is brilliant, arrogant, deeply unsettling, (seemingly) clueless when it comes to personal interaction, wonderfully, perfectly Sherlock Holmes. Only one person could call himself a "high-functioning sociopath" as a put-down to someone else. Also, his voice is perfect: a bit posh, deep and rather disdainful but somehow reassuring. I'm in control, his voice says.

Watson is a well-rounded character, brave and intelligent (as an army doctor should be) and ordinary, but holds his own against the rather other-worldly, impossible Holmes. The interaction between them is wonderful (more than one character in the first episode is convinced they are a couple, much to Watson's bemusement.)

There's so much more I could say about this series, but I don't want to give away plot spoilers, so all I will say for the time being is, if you haven't seen the first two episodes, go to BBC iplayer and watch them now. If you have: go anyway. Watch them again.

Alas, it is a British series, and only three episodes long. The last one is on Sunday night, 9PM. Watch it.


  1. Good review! I'm excited about tomorrow's, I must admit. It's a shame about the brevity of the series, but better this than that it should drag its carcass around for years, unwanted and unloved. (Sorry 24.) It *is* Cumberbatch, though. ;)

  2. *hangs head.* I am ashamed. Edited for spelling.

  3. I've also really enjoyed the series and hated the movie. It seems that there are only three episodes of the current series which I suspect is a sort of pilot/experiment type thingy. I hope they continue, I really believe that if Conan Doyle had written his stories in the 21st century it would have looked exactly like this.

  4. I know I am late to the Sherlock party but I started to watch to it online last week and I hooked on it and maybe a bit in love with Benedict Cumberbatch! ;)


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