What price Sherlock Holmes?

Benedict Cumberbach and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

Lockdown entertainment doesn’t come better than this. It is said that you can’t copyright an idea. Really? Thousands believe Sherlock Holmes to have been a real life private detective, pipe smoking and playing the violin to stimulate his little grey cells at his 221B Baker Street address. That address is now a museum, brought about by subscriptions of thousands of fans, large numbers of them in the US. Add his buddy, Dr John Watson, his somewhat improbable stimulant, through his inane questions.

Everyone knows that sometimes those inane questions can prompt pertinent answers. Elementary, my dear Watson is as near to compliment as the quick-witted detective is supposedly gives. Arrogant but with unexpected muscular charm, neatly summarises the sleuth.  Of course, Holmes never utters that phrase in anything Conan Doyle wrote.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1809 – 1930) was born in Edinburgh to parents of Irish extraction; he distinguished himself in medicine at the University, which then as now, was a leader in medical research. There is a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh, opposite to where Doyle was born (now demolished). It is not insignificant to mention that there is no statue to the author. After experience on ships as a doctor, then docking on England’s south coast, Doyle set up surgery at what is now 2 Wimpole Street, where you will these days find a blue plaque to the writer.

No patients arrived, however. Conan Doyle’s hyperactive mind began to invent stories. He always said that Sherlock was based on the fastidious application of cold, steely reason and nought else, that Edinburgh’s Professor Joseph Bell had instilled into his students. It was a struggle to find a publisher for these stories. Not for the first or last time, must publishers have been eating their hats.

Did Benedict Cumberbatch endure severe weight-loss to appear as hippy, sleuth Sherlock? Dazzlingly athletic too, with leaps which impress more than the impressable Watson. More than a dash of spoof in the dashing script that gives continual challenge to that entertainment skill. With writing often shared between Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat during the four series, but mostly Gatiss, also sometimes the producer, and who was most probably casting director, having found the fastest speaking ventriloquist in Cumberbatch.

Not everything is spoken out loud. Some of the detective’s reasonings are ‘thoughts’. Like me, I am sure Mr Gatiss perceives Professor Joseph Bell as slow, sure, and ponderous in thought. But there is often a gap between creator and created. The fast ventriloquism works brilliantly. Gatiss takes the character backwards to move it forwards: Boris Johnson blustering, without many of the mistakes. Also more sure-footedness. Even some peevish sulking when things are not going too well for him.

More inspired casting with Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. This is not the dullard of Conan Doyle’s invention. This Watson is a pin-up boy (BAFTA best supporting actor award), ever so slightly world-weary, and – dare one say it? – hankering to be in love with Sherlock while flirting with every woman in sight.

What this BBC series gets neatly across is a sleuth who is so fast in his reasoning that he edits his ideas – going back on them even as they are forming – while Watson is so ponderous, he never gets to the end of an idea. So, a bit of Professor Bell in both leads. Imagine what fun Conan Doyle had in creating these characters. Updating the action to today offers further inventiveness. All purists must now leave the room. The audience is invited onto the bandwagon to ride with persons they thought they once knew. There are only four series and three main writers, all of them with the wit to keep the show on the road.

Archvillain, devil incarnate, indestructible Moriarty is beautifully played by Ireland’s greatest charmer, Andrew Scott, who could kill you just by looking at you.  No pantomime devil for Mr Scott. This Moriarty also operates on Professor Bell’s trinity of slow, sure, and ponderous. Entire kingdoms would evaporate at the Scott smile.

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard will surprise you by his slow-wittedness, his only defining feature, most ably delivered by Rupert Graves. Remember his Scudder in the Merchant-Ivory Maurice where the shy stables-tender shocks himself and us as he gives way to uncontrolled wrath. Earthquakes beneath shy men seems to be the message here. (Ben Whishaw gave one of his best performances on the same reasoning, as Norman Scott in the BBC telling of the Jeremy Thorpe trial.)

Russell Tovey makes an impressive appearance in the Baskerville episode as a psychiatric man disturbed by his inner demons, yet strangely unable to connect with himself. Remember the History Boy who got into Cambridge because I told them that Stalin was a sweetie, and they said I was clearly a person who thought for himself. (I don’t know who enjoyed this line the most: Alan Bennett writing it or Russell Tovey speaking it.)

Una Stubbs is Sherlock’s landlady, dogsbody, and cook, whose dedication to service would be more comfortable in a Victorian context. I don’t recall who it was who said, as cooks go she was not bad and as cooks go, she went.

Writers, directors, actors, and producers all subscribe to the truism of drama: less is more.

The good news so welcome in lockdown is that you can enjoy all four series of Sherlock with each episode of approximately ninety minutes on BBC iPlayer made available for the next six months. Arthur Conan Doyle could be invoking his dedication to spiritualism to smile down on the universal enthusiasm for his sleuth.

Footnote: Sherlock Holmes aficionados should relish the final episode of the second series when Douglas Wilmer – whom many regard as perhaps TV’s finest Sherlock Holmes – makes a great cameo appearance.

Jack Buckley

Sherlock is available on BBC iPlayer click here.

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