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Review: Sherlock

Robert Weedon | Television | Monday 26th July 2010


Channel: BBC One/BBC HD
TX Dates: 25th July 2010
Duration: 90 mins
Details: SD:stereo/HD:5.1, widescreen.
Writers: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss
Director: Paul McGuigan
Producers: Sue Vertue
Overall: 8/10

As noted before on this site, there has been a tendency in television commissioning to go with slightly unoriginal or safe ideas, and nowhere more so is this is case than in the genre of detective dramas. As we've seen, there have been detectives with all sorts of quirks - detective chefs, detective magicians, detective gardeners - yet nearly all of them owe something to Sherlock Holmes - not quite the 'original' detective (that honour usually goes to Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories), but certainly the most famous by a country mile. This is presumably why since about 1900 (starting with the enjoyably rubbish Sherlock Holmes Baffled and most recently with Guy Richie's film, of which the same could probably be said) there have been films and TV programmes trading off his famous name.

With all this in mind, in January I was slightly sneery about the forthcoming series Sherlock, the BBC's contemporary update of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, and was all ready to criticise it for being yet another adaptation of a usual suspect. After all, as with Alice in Wonderland, what the public were really crying out for was another Holmes story, having suffered from not having had a new one since... 2004. And 2002, and that's just on the BBC. It seems the critics, or at least the anti-BBC ones, were also quite critical of the fact that the original pilot for the series had only been commissioned with the proviso that it be completely re-scripted and remade.

Everyone knows something about Sherlock Holmes, to the point where people who know just a bit more about him like to go around bursting popular clich├ęs about him - it's quite a fun sport to kick the kennels of Holmes fans by repeating all the popular ones about deerstalkers and "my dear Watson" catchphrases, just to see if they'll bite. Sherlock fans are also in the enviable position of their hobby being somehow more classy and intellectual than being, say, a big fan of Mr Bean or Japanese manga comics. Therefore, Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss have a difficult job to keep Sherlockians happy, and also provide a modern, fresh approach to the Victorian characters.

Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss for that matter, are having a good year, both being quite heavily involved with the latest series of Doctor Who as well as various other projects. Being interviewed a few weeks ago in The Guardian about his role as 'showrunner' of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat apparently compared The Doctor "to homegrown heroes such as Robin Hood, King Arthur and James Bond" (the first two of which have appeared in recent tea-time BBC re-imaginings). To this list one can almost certainly add Sherlock, although in this instance not as a tea-time family drama, but a post-watershed 90 minute drama series.

Unfortunately for the cynical tone of this article so far, I actually rather enjoyed Sherlock. The updating of details from the source material was rather clever in places, and it must have been a happy day when the writers realised that Doyle's back story for Doctor Watson involves an injury from a war in Afghanistan. However, I'm sure someone else will bang on about those sort of details elsewhere, so I won't mention the nicotine patches, Watson's blog, etc.

What was more impressive was the visual style - much more interesting than I was expecting. Indeed, having come straight over from Top Gear on BBC Two (an episode, which, incidentally, might be remembered as a definitive one), Sherlock proved a match for interesting and innovative editing. The central section involving street sign graphics was particularly arresting, and it was a nice idea using onscreen captions for the text messages which formed a large part of the plot. Having said that, given that these captions were used to illustrate text messages, I wasn't sure why they occasionally displayed Holmes' thought processes as well, especially when he usually said what was displayed a second later.

Holmes is played by Benedict Cummerbatch, who puts in an idiosyncratic but energetic performance. Meanwhile, Martin Freeman was excellent as Watson, playing him as a deadly serious, almost ruthless equal to Holmes, as opposed to the bumbling Arthur Dent I was expecting him to.

As it's rarely mentioned in reviews, I'll also put in a good word for the music by, amazingly, David Arnold, best known for his James Bond scores, and Michael Price, which lent the production a suitably cinematic quality using the hammered dulcimer, an ancient folk instrument, to illustrate Holmes' cranky nature instead of the violin more readily associated with him. Strangely, though, the incidental music was much better than the title/credits music, which was somewhat different in tone and completely forgettable - it would be interesting to see which composer was responsible for which.

Indeed, the whole production felt like it was aiming for a film-like standard, which is presumably why it was reshot - TV drama has moved on a long way since the days of studio-bound televised plays. One almost wonders if they saw Guy Richie's film and thought they could match it on a quarter of the budget. I'm looking forward to next week.



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