I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I read all of the original stories when I was a kid and again when I was ill a few years back (they’re perfect reading while ill… stimulating but not too taxing, and evocative enough to lift you out of your present circumstances and transport you elsewhere). I’ve also got the complete box-set of the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett* which is endlessly rewatchable. Brett’s eccentricity in the role is exactly how I imagined Holmes when I first read the stories. Others insist that the rather more restrained Basil Rathbone is the perfect Holmes. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion (absurd though it may be) but for me Jeremy Brett will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued when I heard about the new BBC adaptation. Updated to modern London and given the faintly irritating first-name-only title of “Sherlock”, it had the potential to be rather ridiculous. As I said to Citizen S when we sat down to watch the first episode, “99% of television is utter crap, so statistically this is likely to be utter crap”.
Well, having seen the first two episodes, I am very happy to be proved wrong. It’s actually rather good. The production has managed to update the characters and setting while somehow retaining enough of that stately Victorian grace that defined the Granada series. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes far closer to the Brett than Rathbone end of the spectrum. In the first episode he describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”, a kind of nonsense pseudoscientific phrase that nonetheless suits the character perfectly (and I don’t mean that in a bad way).
There’s a dry humour to the proceedings that drifts just close enough to sheer silliness for enjoyment but never crosses the line and bursts the bubble of dramatic tension. And for those intimately familiar with the source material, there are a vast array of knowing winks and nods to the original Holmes. The “three patch problem” line made me laugh out loud and Holmes’ use of a smartphone to discover that Cardiff was the only place that had the appropriate weather to fit the facts was the perfect update of the original character’s constant trawling through newspapers and reference books.
Interestingly, the heart of the adaptation is Watson. Played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, he’s brought far more to the fore than in previous screen outings, or indeed than in the original stories. Like the original Watson, Freeman is a military surgeon returned from active duty overseas and clearly misses the action. Action he finds aplenty when he teams up with Holmes.
Apparently the BBC have only commissioned three episodes, so the final one will be next Sunday. If you’ve not seen the first two, then I’d advise you to track them down this week (if you’re in the UK then they’re probably on iPlayer… if you’re not, then you might have to wade into the murky waters of the torrent networks, though you didn’t hear that from me) and watch them before the final episode.
It’s a clever, well-written series with new mysteries that nonetheless retain a similar atmosphere to the originals. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever see, not even the best Holmes you’ll ever see, but it is part of that elusive 1% of television that’s not utter crap.
And for that, I am thankful.
* Aside: I met Jeremy Brett once. He was a neighbour of a friend of mine and he invited us in for a sherry one evening. Yes, a sherry! He was exactly as I expected him to be… a wonderful gentleman of the Old School.