The Science of Excellence: Holmes • Watson • Conan Doyle • Moffat • Gatiss

Posted: 1 August 2010 in television
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An appreciation of “Sherlock”, the reinvention of classic heroes and adventures for a new generation and musings on “A Study in Pink”, an adaptation of the very first Sherlock Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet”. But before getting to that let’s consider the two most popular interpretations of the Conan Doyle canon before reaching the new versions of these classic characters…

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson

My 1st encounter with the world of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson came at the age of 5 when I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band”, and I’ve been hooked on the 56 short stories and 4 novels ever since. My Penguin Complete edition of their tales is far older and creased than the wife. Thankfully…

The first memory of Holmes and Watson in the visual medium comes from the 12 films that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made for Universal Studios in the 1940s. Shown on BBC2 during school holidays (dread to think how long ago that was) when I was a child this stories played loose and fast with the mythos, often cherry picking plot elements from varying tales within the canon to produce a 60 minute-ish film. Even now, nearly 70 years on, Rathbone remains for many the definitive incarnation of the great detective. Granted Nigel Bruce didn’t exactly channel the character of Watson as created by Conan Doyle but his genuine off-screen friendship with Rathbone helped to generate what is possibly the most fondly remembered series featuring the characters.

If the Universal series played fast and loose with the canon, then the Granada series of the 80s and 90s was an exercise in faithfulness with lavish recreations of  the Victorian age and adherence to the stories. Jeremy Brett became the definitive “Victorian Holmes” with his quicksilver perceiving of the character. Perhaps more importantly his Dr Watson (s) in the form of David Burke and Edward Hardwicke gave us for the first time a true reading of the character as Conan Doyle intended. Brave, resourceful, intelligent. Nigel Bruce may have played Watson as a bit of a Falstaff-like buffoon but the good doctor has never been that. He’s a qualified medical man, hardly something that could be achieved by an idiot…and Watson is not an idiot, he’s of average intelligence and like many of that stature totally outclassed by the brilliance of Holmes. And personally I feel that Burke has the edge on Hardwicke as the definitive Dr Watson of the 20th century as he had to redeem the character before handing over the reins.

In many ways the Brett series was overly faithful to the original stories. Many episodes became a love letter to the trappings of the Victorian age at the expense of the plot (which for the later series became very thin as they were based on the thin prose that were the final Sherlock Holmes stories).

And now the classic adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson have been reinvented for a new generation, and the 21st century, courtesy of Messers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, master storytellers and two of the best things to ever happen to “Doctor Who”. With “Sherlock” they have stripped out the Victorian window dressing in order to return to the heart of the mythos: characters and story. In common with the Rathbone era they’ve cherry picked the best elements of plot to provide memorable adventures, and in common with the Brett era we’re given solid interpretations of the main characters – heroes we can cheer on and believe in.

For possible the first time in the visual medium, and 123 years after in happened in print, the origin tale for Holmes and Watson is presented. Batman (murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents), Superman (destruction of Krypton and Smallville years), even James Bond (“Casino Royale”), have been given origin stories in both print and on film but it’s staggering that it’s never happened in both for these classic British heroes. Steven Moffat’s TV origin “A Study in Pink” faithfully takes elements from the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet” and brilliantly spins them into our present. Now, as then, Watson is a wounded army medic invalided out of service after being wounded during the campaign in Afghanistan, he meets Holmes through an old colleague at St Barts, they take rooms together at 221b Baker Street, the owner of the rooms is Mrs Hudson, Holmes is called in to consulte on deaths by Inspector Lestrade, and the hunt for a killer takes them to a cab driver.

It’s quite astonishing how well the 100+ year old material from Arthur Conan Doyle works even now. And just for good measure the fob watch deduction from “The Sign of the Four” is thrown in, and beautifully updated to relate to a mobile phone by Moffat. And with the mobile phone scene and a conversation in an Italian restaurant Moffat brilliantly tackles the issue of gay relationships and how they connect the idiotic perception of Holmes and Watson as a gay couple. Holmes simply isn’t interested in physical and emotional relationships, it just doesn’t come into his worldview of work and therefore is of no interest at all.

Benedict Cumberbatch is an inspired choice as Sherlock (interesting how he and Watson call each other by their first names when the literary originals never ever did), bringing an energy and arrogance to the character never seen before. Well, it’s arrogance to everyone else, for him it’s just frustration at how slowly their tiny little minds work in comparison to his. Great idea to give “thought bubbles” to the workings of his mind. Mundane life bores him. He’d rather take the risk of swallowing a lethal dose of poison than spending an evening in front of the TV.

Martin Freeman was an unusual choice for Watson (slightly than I’d have expected, and no moustache) but again gives the perfect character for the 21st century. Awed by Holmes’ deductive powers but not so in thrall to his friend as to allow him to stumble blindly into danger. And a ladies man too (as in the original stories) as even when he’s been “kidnapped” by Mycroft (a lovely red-herring performance from Mark Gatiss in the style of New Labour spin doctors) he’s trying to get a date with the lady abductor.

Impressive viewing figures heading for around 9m, high Appreciation Index figures, and critical press acclaim seem certain to guarantee further series of “Sherlock” but in the meantime there are still two episodes remaining this year: “The Blind Banker” and “The Great Game”.

The game is on!!!

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