Tuesday, 27 July 2010
TV Review: Sherlock (BBC1)
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert or a devotee or an aficionado of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary and, it seems, indestructible Victorian detective – the Great Detective. I admit I’ve seen more versions of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ than may be considered healthy (but then who hasn’t?) and back in the 1980s Jeremy Brett’s Granada TV adaptations of the Holmes canon were pretty much required viewing to the extent that I’ve now got the DVD boxset and, indeed, a boxset of the less respectful but oddly-enjoyable Basil Rathbone movies of the 1930s and 1940s which quickly dispensed with the Victoriana in favour of a more contemporary wartime narrative. Good grief, I even recently watched the cheapo Asylum Studios effort starring Torchwood set dressing Gareth David Lloyd as Watson alongside Ben Snyder as the Worst Holmes Ever in an adventure involving robots, dinosaurs and dragons. Honestly. I haven’t, in passing, yet found time for Guy Richie’s action hero version starring Robert Downey Jnr but it’s on my to-watch list. So yes, in restrospect, I suppose I am a bit of a devotee, albeit more of a casual one. News of yet another BBC Holmes series could well have been met with the usual sighs of ‘Not again’ and ‘can’t they think of anything new??’ and reports that this was going be a contemporary spin on the Holmes myth only raised eyebrows even further as we imagined something arch and knowing, shot through with a bit of ‘look how clever we are.’ I suppose I should have known better. Steven Moffat, current architect of ‘Dr Who’, has teamed up with ‘League Of Gentlemen’ (amongst others) star Mark Gatiss to reinvent Holmes for and in the 21st century and, on the evidence of the just-screened first ninety minute episode, it looks as if they’ve created something very special indeed, a show which looks set to be the drama event of 2010. ‘Sherlock’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, is brilliant.
There’s so much to admire in this stylish, witty and imaginative retelling of the exploits of a character we all feel we know inside out that it’s actually difficult to know where to start. Moffat’s slick, tight script sets the scene with Martin Freeman’s Dr John Watson invalided out of the war in Afghanistan (just as the original Watson was) and battling to come to terms with his new life as an invalid and as a civilian. Via a mutual friend – and in search of somewhere to live – he meets up with a very curious man. This is Sherlock Holmes, a freelance (not amateur!) detective and in Benedict Cumberbatch we have as fine an example of perfect TV casting as we’re ever likely to encounter. Cumberbatch just is Holmes, embodying all the fierce intellect and near-supernatural deductive prowess so fundamental to the character and yet creating a contemporary version of the Detective which is at home with mobile phones and computers and forensics as the Victorian version was with hansom cabs and London smogs. Cumberbatch powers his way through the episode the way Matt Smith does in ‘Dr Who’ and, with Moffat instrumental in the casting of both men, the lines between the Doctor and Holmes are more blurred than ever. Both have little time for silly social niceties, both ride pretty much roughshod over those they see as lesser intellects and both burn with a ferocious nervous energy, especially when in confrontation with their enemies. Moffat’s Holmes is a modern man and yet, cleverly, he’s also a man out of time – he’s married to his work, he has no time for relationships, he’s driven by his need for justice and his passion for mystery. Dr Watson, so often wrongly depicted as a bumbling old duffer, is portrayed here as a man looking for direction, looking for a purpose – and he finds both as he inadvertently strikes up a grudging relationship with Holmes. This gives Martin Freeman ample opportunity to demonstrate the bewildered everyman look he perfected back in ‘The Office’ and which he’s been trading on ever since. But here it works and Freeman’s never been better or more perfectly-cast. There’s a subtle and underplayed story arc for Watson, too; depicted as a traumatised war victim who can only walk with the aid of a stick, his own personal confidence grows as he becomes more embroiled in Sherlock’s world and, almost unnoticed, suddenly he doesn’t need his stick and he’s racing along the rooftops and rushing through the streets with a new purpose, his old world forgotten as he embraces a new and much more exciting one.
Moffat’s script cleverly balances its need to establish both Sherlock himself and his new partnership and its low-key, undemanding murder mystery story – here a serial killer on the streets of London apparently inducing suicides in completely random people. Sherlock thunders breathlessly through the mystery, gathering clues, making typically impossible deductions from the minutest of details, leaving the Police – including the inevitable Inspector Lestrade (a suitably exasperated turn by Rupert Graves) – trailing open-mouthed in his wake. And there’s more; Una Stubbs is a fussy and motherly Mrs Hudson, here distinctly not Holmes’ housekeeper but rather his landlady at 221B Baker Street – but best of all perhaps we have Mark Gatiss himself as a mysterious, urbane figure who briefly sidelines Watson for his own purposes and whilst the audience is encouraged to put two and two together to make Moriarty (Holmes’ traditional nemesis and a character who, incidentally, barely figures in Conan Doyle’s original Holmes canon) Moffat’s far too canny for something so obvious and the reveal of the real identity of Gatiss’ character is another clever reinvention breathing new life into an all-too familiar element of the Holmes mythos. And who didn’t feel a shiver of excitement as bad guy Jeff (Phil Davis) expired with the name ‘Moriarty’ on his lips?
‘Sherlock’ also benefits from an astonishing visual style; modern-day London (and even the bits of Cardiff which fill in for it now and again), all dark, damp streets and distant glittering lights, has rarely looked so magical and other-worldly and director Paul McGuigan, determined not to fill the screen with endless shots of people looking earnestly at text messages on mobile phone screens, struck paydirt by deciding to display texts as words floating on the screen; it’s odd and disconcerting at first but after thirty minutes or so you’ll be wondering why every other TV drama doesn’t utilise this simple and yet effective narrative shorthand. This week’s episode two (of only three, dammit!) is directed by Euros Lyn, veteran of many Dr Who episodes and last year’s brilliant Torchwood mini-series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll adopt some of McGuigan’s tricks to create a consistent house style for the series.
‘Sherlock’ attracted an audience of nearly 8 million people last weekend; proof positive that, if you give the audience something good, something intelligent which doesn’t insult them, they will come. If there’s a downside – and I’m not convinced there is one – there may just be a bit of a niggle that ‘Sherlock’ is just a rehash of an old idea. But this is a show done with a real passion – Moffat clearly just gets what Holmes is all about perhaps even more clearly than he gets what the essence of Dr Who is – full of wit, warmth and a genuine sense of excitement. Far better than I dreamed it would be and far better than we could reasonably have expected, ‘Sherlock’ is an absolute triumph and I doubt we’ll see a better, more enjoyable British drama on our TV screens this year. Is it next Sunday yet??
Coming soon: The A Team, Splice, Cult TV - Freewheelers, Curb Your Enthusiasm season 7 and more...