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Sherlockian Reflections


TV’s new Holmesian regeneration, inspired by the makers of Doctor Who, might have purists biting down on their Meerschaums, but to many, the BBC’s modern take on Conan Doyle will come as a welcome relief.

In this case, it seems, the game is not such much afoot as cleverly adroit.

Those who eschew modern takes on classic works, as boldy championed by Sherlock, (BBC One)  starring the twin talents of Benedict Cumberbatch  and Martin Freeman, need only  look to Holmes’ past annals.

While Sherlock has all the hallmarks of the new Who makeover, it’s worth remembering that Holmes is the silver screen and cinema’s most re-invented character.

Jeremy Brett and his initial partner-in-crime Watson, David Burke, were only slowly warmed to when ITV Granada introduced the familiar tales of the world’s only consulting detective in the early 80s, but only later to be hailed (with Edward Hardwicke) as being latterly masterly.

And for those who remember BBC-2 Fri early evenings in the very early 80s, (Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) – (surely the stalwarts of the Holmes visual canon?) – it’s worth recalling that many of their tales were not set in the swirl of Baker Street but often transplanted to a Nazi-influenced pre-WW2 world.

Cumberbatch, who has more than a look of the young Daniel Day-Lewis, and the steadfast Freeman, can perhaps hope for further adventures.

Sherlock is co-created by the talented partnership of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Coupling) and Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen, Crooked House, Doctor Who) and produced by Sue Vertue (Coupling, The Cup).

The three, 90-minute films, written by Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Steve Thompson (Whipping It Up, Mutual Friends) are directed by Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Gangster No. 1, The Acid House) and Euros Lyn (Doctor Who, Torchwood).

In this unique adaptation, the iconic details from Conan Doyle's original books remain. The pair still live at the same address, are only interested in the bizarre and, somewhere out there, Moriarty is waiting for them.

In The Great Game, the last of the initial trilogy, the writers cleverly weaved in references to The Bruce Partington Plans, the Five Orange pips and even 221A – the unexplored downstairs flat of the long-suffering Mrs Hudson (a sprightly if exasperated Una Stubbs).

But perhaps the series’ masterstroke is its ability to remain loyal to the spirit of the original stories, while at the same time introducing sparkling new technology.

The slight peculiarity of Holmes and Watson sharing a flat without aspersions being cast is also both cleverly alluded to and sidestepped.

Purists will recall while Holmes’s sexuality is not in doubt – nor Watson’s  - (the latter is married in the later books)– the fraternity between the pair still shines through at opportune moments.

In The Devil’s Foot, in the original Granada series, a chance sampling of a South American root drives Jeremy Brett’s incarnation of Holmes into temporary hallucinogenic madness. On coming out of the stupor (induced to catch the criminal in question) , he grasps Watson, referring to him unusually as ‘John’ , in a brief flash of warmth.

Cumberbatch’s Holmes occasionally, but welcomely, displays the occasional flash of the emotional goldfish in the murky pool in the persona of the great detective, significantly also referring to Freeman as ‘John’.

Perhaps, if nothing else, the series demonstrates how much has (or paradoxically, hasn’t) changed between the 19th and 21st C.

In Holmes and Watson’s Britain, the subjugation of foreigners in the scramble for Africa was in full spate, the Victorians were inventing all kinds of weird and wonderful machines, and Britain’s was losing its Empirical identity.

In this case ,what has changed perhaps?

For this reason, if none other, to a new generation of viewers, I strongly suspect Cumberbatch and Freeman will not have taken their last bow.

And while Britain and indeed the Beeb might have ‘dumbed down’, how often has it been the case that mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, and yet talent instantly recognises genius?