Sherlock Holmes: The Abominable Bride

Review: The Abominable Bride:


By Martin Hickes

ONE of the great problems in producing a parody of any classic, however good it might be, remains the difficulty in sustaining the thrill for the audience.

As good as the BBC’s new Sherlock reincarnation is, courtesy as Messrs Gatiss and Moffat, and of course the superlative Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, a little like the original novels, sadly it can only run out of steam.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the original character and books, grew weary of Holmes and infamously killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls at the height of his fame.

And it was only due to public clamour that he felt forced to bring his nemesis back to life. Even by the time he got round to writing His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes had retired to keep bees upon the Sussex Downs, one feels Holmes exists in the latter years buoyed up only by an insatiable public demand.

In truth, even the masterly Dr Doyle’s stories seem a bit world weary by that late stage. CD even writes a short prologue to the collection in which he adroitly acknowledges that Holmes the character could go on forever thanks to his celebrity; and yet even his (Holmes’s) super human powers must be diminished by the laws of nature; Doyle throws in rheumatism as one of his creation’s afflictions just to demonstrate that he is prone to the way of all flesh.

As well acted and produced as The Abominable Bride was, for even the most ardent Holmes fan,for the first time, it probably showed signs of being far too clever for its own good. Many were probably left bewildered by the plot.

Since 2010, the new 21st C parody of the Sherlockian canon has held many in thrall; its sharp exchanges between the two key protagonists have been a delight to watch thanks to the razor-sharp writing of Gatiss and Moffat and first class acting of Cumberbatch and Freeman – surely two of our best actors?

Yes, it is as far removed from Conan Doyle as is an Ipad from a blackboard but the key element remains the same: Holmes and Watson have a warmth for each other which, while never overtly expressed, like the occasional goldfish in the murky pool, arises at unexpected moments to warm the cockles of the viewers’ hearts.

Nor is it a gay or deviant one, as much as many might like it to be in these sexually ecumenical times.  A little like the epitaph on Sir Arthur’s headstone, the pair remain refreshingly old fashioned: ‘Steel True; Blade Straight’.

So whether we are viewing the old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce versions, the Granada series with the first class Jeremy Brett and others, or the incarnation with Cumberbatch and Freeman, it’s this quality which remains a constant. Viewers can take some sort of reassuring glow from the fact that, as quirky as the pair are – and always have been – they remain a benchmark of steadfastness and dependability. How could someone as nice as Mrs Hudson warm to anyone of any less a character?

The problem in veering away from the Conan Doyle classics remains twofold: that a generation of viewers might grow up thinking these are the actual Conan Doyle stories; and secondly, a little like Doctor Who, how on earth do you keep it fresh?

The Doctor has the ability to regenerate which has kept the eponymous series going since 1963. Moriarty in the new series is in danger of becoming for Cumberbatch and co what The Master is to The Doctor. The Jack in the Box of antagonists who never goes away as he is so closely tied to the psyche of the main character (Holmes himself).

Literary critics have surmised that Moriarty was actually a literary avatar of Conan Doyle’s own father, a man of an artistic temperament who reportedly was a little narcissistic, and who was eventually confined thanks to bouts of insanity.

While not representing the dark nature of Moriarty, some have suggested that the fear of any sort of hereditary instability might have stalked the psyche of Conan Doyle himself;  a fear which would subliminally manifest itself in his darker literary creations i.e. Moriarty or The Hound and, by extension, explain the clinical flipside character of Holmes. Holmes’s coldness was an effective bolster against passion and artistic flair and all that can be associated with such.

In a bid to keep the latest creation fresh, Moffat and Gatiss resorted to the age old trick of time travel.

Just when you thought you were firmly implanted in the age of Meerschaums and Hansoms, after a injection of the 7 per cent solution, we find Holmes back in the jet plane at the end of the last series. Only then to find that the modern day Holmes was apparently on a drug induced trip to recall a case from the 19th C in which a bride had apparently survived a suicide attempt by a gunshot to the mouth.

In both cases, dear Sherl is trying to exorcise the ghost of how Moriarty ‘survived’ suicide by the same method, in the last modern series.

While all very ingenious and impeccably acted, viewers at this stage of the plot could be forgiven for going on their own time travel trip and longing for the good old days of Rathbone and Brett, when everything seemed a little bit more dull but reassuringly tangible.

Yes, time trips are clever – fiendishly so at times – but they can also seem a bit too cod. Just as The Doctor gets out of scrapes by reversing the polarity on his sonic screwdriver, sometimes a comfy armchair, a pipe and good old fashioned mystery in a set time, with perhaps one flashback,  are all you need. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the perfect example.

Agatha Christie also knew the trick of starting off with a flashback, and then rolling out a mystery which referred back to such at the end.

The Abominable Bride started off as a parody of a parody, switched back to the original modern parody, then even tried to mimic the original source material in a brief Reichenbach scene. Compared to such, your granny at Christmas after a jig and few sherries is far more lucid.

2017 we are told promises a return to the good old fashioned 21C style series, if this is not a contradiction in terms. (Fans of the old Wonder Woman series will recall Lynda Carter’s version  - an update on a short lived former series - was called The New Original Wonder Woman), the ultimate televisual oxymoron.

In the same sense, let’s hope that the old new Holmes, when it eventually arrives next year, with the old new Cumberbatch and Freeman, is back to its reassuringly quirky form, rather than this curate’s egg of a Holmesian pantomime.