Spoiler free, my dear Watson!
Sherlock Holmes is one of fiction’s most enduring creations, and he is so firmly embedded in the public imagination that some mistakenly believe him to be real. Not only do tourists flock to Baker Street to see where the master detective took his residence but to this day he still receives letters from the misguided members of the public offering him a case. Much like his contemporary Dracula, he has appeared in so many versions on our screens, and so many divers hands have created fresh adventures for him, that his fictional weight seems to have reached a density where it may distort the fabric of space-time and hence people assume that all these stories are based at least in part upon the exploits of a real life person.
However also like the Count, he is such a familiar character, new iterations of his adventures tend to fall into one of two camps; either directors plump for a reverential approach holds fast to the traditional portrayal of the character and his world which revels in the Victoriana, or they opt to reinvent the tropes, focusing on differing aspects of the canon or radically rewriting the character wholesale. However frequently these new incarnations, whether trad or rad, are uniting in their claims that this latest version will be truer to the original texts.
And equally often, these claims prove to be somewhat dubious. Like Frankenstein and Dracula, the trouble with Holmes is that the public perception of the character has been indelibly altered by the power of the early renderings of the character. Hence in the same way that most people are unaware that originally Frankenstein’s Monster was an intelligent and highly articulate being rather than a lumbering hulk festooned in sutures, or that Stoker’s Count wore a moustache and could walk aboard in daylight to no ill effect, few realise that the Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was never described as habitually wearing a deerstalker and Inverness cape or ever uttered his famous catchphrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Therefore many elements that audiences consider to be traditional, and hence are included on screen, are in fact additions to the original texts.
Holmes' famous saying actually first appeared in the William Gillette stage productions. And his trademark garb actually comes from the famous Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied Conan Doyle’s tales when they originally were published in The Strand, which served as the visual template for the most influential screen version of Holmes, the Basil Rathbone films. And this series of movies created the bulk of the popular conception of the characters – Rathbone’s Holmes established the typical portrayal of the consulting detective as a stern and icy logical thinker, while Nigel Bruce gave us Watson as his bumbling comic relief sidekick.
Interestingly though, these screen adventures are both trad and rad; the first two entries produced by Fox are Victorian outings whereas when Universal picked up the series they moved the setting to contemporary times, and had Holmes and Watson tangling with pulp style villains like the Spider Woman and foiling Nazi plots. And while die-hard Sherlockians may favour the Jeremy Brett television adaptations as being the definitive screen Holmes, an opinion with which I concur incidentally, in the pop culture consciousness it’s Rathbone and Bruce that most readily spring to mind.
Now at heart I am something of a purist, and as regular visitors to these pages will know, I am firmly of the opinion that if you are going to adapt a famous work of literature, then you should stay to true to the source. Yes, changes are inevitable in the translation to the screen, but this isn’t carte blanche to discard everything and produce a a work that only shares the names of the characters in common with the original. And so when I heard the internet faeries whispering that there was a new television version of Holmes in the offing and that it would be set in modern times, I put the kettle on ready for a visit from Dr Rant and Mr Swearing.
Thankfully though, these two dubious mental gentlemen postponed their appointment when further intelligence reached me that the guiding lights in this venture were to be Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Mr Gatiss I knew was a great admirer of the master detective and Mr Moffat’s modernisation of Jekyll and Hyde, another venture that I was initially dubious about as it had shed its period setting, turned out to be a great delight. And naturally being impressed with their work on Doctor Who into the bargain, I was of the mind that if anyone could pull of a contemporary rendition of Holmes, it was this duo.
And after further cogitation on the subject, I did come to the conclusion that the concept of moving the characters forward into our age was not necessarily such as bad idea. After all, the Jeremy Brett series did so marvellously bring the canon to the screen, was there any real point in trying to top it? Against such stiff competition, it does make sense to attempt something different rather than compete with these classics.
Even more encouraging though was the news that despite being initially conceived as a one-off, the BBC was so impressed they commissioned a series of three feature length episodes. And I am very pleased to report that both my faith and that of the mandarins at Broadcasting House in this endeavour has been amply rewarded. The first episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink is both a fantastical piece of television and a great reinvention of Holmes.
Firstly they avoid a major pitfall by crafting a new case for Holmes to crack. The details of Holmes’ deductions are often so rooted his world and his times, that any attempt to move one of the classic tales over a hundred years into the future would make a nonsense of the proceedings. Rather than a mere modernisation of Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock is perhaps better thought of as an alternate universe version of Holmes where he exists our modern times, and hence A Study in Pink, while it borrows some components from the first ever Holmes adventure A Study In Scarlet (1887), is very much a separate adventure in its own right.
And despite the change in period, they have actually delivered a Holmes that is in many ways very close to Conan Doyle’s original. As they have both remarked in interviews preceding the series airing, their concept was that what makes the Holmes stories so enduring is not all the gaslight and pea soupers, but the brilliant deductions, the unravelling of the mysteries, the outré nature of the crimes and the interplay between our two heroes. And Sherlock proves that if you get these elements in the correct measure, then it really doesn’t matter when the stories are set.
And barring a couple of contemporary touches, Moffat and Gatiss haven’t messed about with the fundamentals. He may wear nicotine patches to appease health Nazis and use a mobile phone but essentially he's the same man as ever. Hence Sherlock is a reintroduction to the character rather than the dreaded reimagining. All the incisive reasoning is here in abundance - something the recent incarnation of Holmes courtesy of Guy Richie was a little light on – and rightly it drives the devilish plot forward. Benedict Cumberbatch captures not only Holmes’ intellectual brilliance but his relish of a challenge and there is great chemistry brewing with Martin Freeman’s Dr Watson; as the mystery unfolds, their relationship grows.
Although this is very much an introductory piece, A Study in Pink thankfully isn’t an origins story. In a sense, what we are actually presented with here are two mysteries; aside the titular case, we are introduced to the characters and their new world through Watson himself attempting to unravel the enigma of who Holmes is and what he actually does. It’s a marvellous mechanism that allows the episode to leap straight into the main plot very swiftly while at the same time establishing the key characters, relationships and elements of this new Holmes.
And I must applaud the decision to make the episodes in this series feature length. In order to present a proper Holmesian mystery, there are layers of deduction to be peeled back and the more usual 45 or 60 minutes just isn’t long enough to include the depth of detail that a case worthy of the world’s greatest consulting detective. Also I must praise the music, which I felt was nicely retro; an old school orchestral score that evokes the period spirit and atmosphere of the Holmes stories. Similarly the London depicted is closer to the real city than we often see, with its mix of ancient and modern buildings, and as often grimy and smoky as it is flash and shiny.
Now as I am keeping this missive spoiler free, I shall speak no more of the intricacies of the narrative. Suffice to say then this outing has great pace, masterful performances and is superbly directed by Paul McGuigan. There are some lovely original flourishes in the way the episode presents some of the deductions which I shall leave as surprise for the new viewer. So that said, let us move on to safer waters where we make discuss the details that comprise the new Holmes and Watson.
Undoubtedly there will be both purists who will cry foul at moving Conan Doyle’s creations into the 21st century, and causal acquaintances of the master detective who will disappointed that there is neither a deer stalker nor a voluminous pipe in sight*. However Moffat and Gatiss have brought us a Holmes that adheres closer to the canon than one might expect. To begin, let us examine some of the little details.
Holmes’ rooms at 221 B Baker Street are every as messy as described by Sir Arthur rather the genteel abode most screen version employ. Doctor Watson is once again a veteran of an Afghan war and is introduced to Holmes in the same manner. In our first encounter with Holmes see him brandishing a riding crop, which as any Sherlockian will tell you, was stated as the detective’s preferred weapon. And like his Victorian incarnation, this Holmes has also dabbled in illicit substances.
However where Sherlock most strongly channels the spirit of Conan Doyle is the conception of the characters. Martin Freeman presents us with a Watson that is closer to the original; capable and loyal rather than the clownish companion essayed by Bruce. As in the original stories, this Watson is more a partner in the investigations than a sidekick whose role is to provide comic relief and ask useful questions for the sake of exposition. Also like the original, he’s a man of action as well as a capable doctor, a crack shot and capable of making a few deductions of his own.
Cumberbatch’s Holmes is equally faithful. While some may baulk at the arrogance and the passion he displays, this is how Conan Doyle wrote him. Most interpretations of the role portray Holmes as a chilly thinking machine guided by the cold light of logic, to the extent that in some renditions he appears to be a honorary Vulcan. But this is just one aspect of his personality as laid out by Conan Doyle – the true Sherlock is a man possessing by a formidable double nature; on one hand the icy, razor sharp intellectual but on the other a wild bohemian in constant need of stimulation. The recent Guy Richie movie attempted to readdress this, for example drawing on the little known fact that in the original stories was stated on several occasions that Holmes was a skilled bare knuckle boxer, but in the main Robert Downey Jnr. incarnation comes across a simple thrill seeker. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock on the other hand, is far more psychologically complex – this is a man driven by his inner forces into the role of detective. Doyle always stressed how much of an outsider his intellect and talents made Holmes, and in Cumberbatch we have at last a Holmes who "detests every form of society" like the original.
Similarly the Holmes of Sherlock has also regained his wit. For all his mighty intellect, Doyle's Holmes frequently employed his brain power in dispensing sharp one liners, and it's a real pleasure to side this aspect of Holmes back on the screen.
But also of key importance is the relationship between characters. So often screen versions of this famous pair break down the relationship to hero and sidekick whereas the original stories present are far more equal partnership. But judging from this first outing, Sherlock looks set to rectify this; throughout A Study in Pink you can see the fascination with each other and the friendship developing between Holmes and Watson. By the finale, their relationship is firmly cemented and it is a refreshing return to the originals that we get to see that Holmes values Watson as a true friend rather than a mere companion in crime solving. There is a genuine warmth between the pair that bodes well for future adventures.
All in all Sherlock is a riveting watch. It manages to be solidly traditional and faithful to Doyle while being fresh and modern at the same time. And despite the change in period, I suspect Holmes novices won’t find it hugely disconcerting if they go back and read the original tales. It’s fair to say that Moffat and Gatiss have mixed the characters and flavours with the contemporary world into the perfect seven percent solution. Once again the game’s afoot!
* "I'm f**king with them on that one! Those anti-smoking c***s deserved to be royally f***ed with a meerschaum as far as I'm f**king concerned" - Mr SWEARING