Whether you’re a master of deduction or not, you can tell a lot about the differences between Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the Holmes created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their new modern-day Sherlock from just glancing at the titles of their respective detectives’ debut cases.
Doyle went with “A Study In Scarlet” – already the whiff of strangeness, elegance and mystery, the sense of passion and blood, but also of a curious distance. Moffat, on the other hand, has plumped for “A Study In Pink,” foreshadowing not only a slightly wearingly cute line in references, but also a nervous need to resort to a kind of camp. The coded message is: look, we know about this stuff, but don’t worry, we’re not taking it that seriously.
That’s fair enough, but it’s also been the default approach to Holmes for a while, and Sherlock, although smart, lightly moody and full of potential, would perhaps be a more singular, more fun and more thrilling adventure if they had credited the audience with the old-fashioned ability to suspend disbelief, and thrown themselves wholeheartedly into a dark, ridiculous world of danger, intrigue and the macabre, without feeling the need to tip us a wink every five minutes. It doesn’t have the action muscle or effects budget of Guy Ritchie’s recent Holmes movie – essentially, a kid’s film for grown-ups – but the television series shares some of its arch, knowing tone, albeit in subtler shades, and, indeed, can feel like a kid’s TV show allowed up past the watershed. (Moffat is, of course, behind the current Doctor Who, and Sherlock sometimes resemble an experiment in a crankier incarnation, stranded without a Tardis.)
Depending where you rank along the scale of Holmes mania, you could find the opening scenes disconcerting: a rapid montage of combat footage from Afghanistan, revealed as the tormented memories of our Doctor Watson (Martin Freeman), an army medic wounded and invalided home. Casting Watson as an Afghanistan veteran might seem an attempt at giving the series some modish, edgy, currency; unless, of course, you know that that’s exactly what Doyle’s Watson was to begin with, a regiment surgeon, whose campaign ended when he took “a Jezail bullet” during the battle of Maiwand in 1880.
The coincidence of conflicts is a gift for Moffat, who, like Doyle, takes the war as the hard, grounding reality to anchor the subsequent leap into the incredible. Freeman is still most associated with comedy, and is perhaps prone to a double take too many here, but his portrayal is, by and large, another in the honourable project to extricate Watson from the long, bumbling duffer shadow cast by dear old Nigel Bruce opposite Basil Rathbone’s rapier-like Holmes in the movies of the 1930s and 40s, and return him to Doyle’s far flintier figure. Actually, though, practically every Watson since Bruce has been trying to do this, most nobly David Burke and Edward Hardwicke opposite Jeremy Brett in the peerless Granada TV adaptations of the 1980s and 90s; Brett’s performance as Holmes really remains The Great One, a ten-year run that was less like acting and more like a case of possession.
Here is Watson as the reserved man of action, washed up in London, alone, lonely and looking for something to do. He finds it when he runs into a vague old friend from medical school, and mentions he’s in need of a place to stay, if only he could find someone to split the rent. As fate would have it, this friend has an acquaintance in the same position – and thus we meet Holmes, (Benedict Cumberbatch), first discovered in the medical school morgue, thrashing merry hell out of a corpse with a riding crop, to study the bruising.
Whether Cumberbatch’s Holmes will rank among the greats remains to be seen. He doesn’t look like Sidney Paget’s famous illustrations, but he looks the part, an odd, electric presence, planed face and long, pale eyes framed beneath a foppish mop of dark hair, long coat like a cape. Cumberbatch first came to prominence playing Stephen Hawking, and he’s good at suggesting a mind running so unsettlingly fast and furious he might need something to slow it, because it would consume him if it weren’t occupied. (Holmes’s drug use is coyly introduced, and there’s a neat gag about using nicotine patches as thinking aids, since pipe smoking is hard to do anywhere these days.)
As Moffat writes him, though, this Holmes can come very close to being less the consumed, irritable, enigmatically dysfunctional genius, and more simply an adolescent pain. The police who turn to him in desperation for help consider him a weirdo – cops continually call him “freak” or “psycho” – and in places you sympathise with their antipathy. Doyle’s Holmes could be pleased with himself, but never came out with the kind of putdowns Cumberbatch does: “Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains, it must be so boring,” he says at one point, and then, later, “Look at you lot, you’re all so vacant. Is it nice not being me?”
Such smugness would be easier to take if the mystery was enveloping, dense and devious, and his brilliance in solving it dazzling. Actually, though, it feels curiously second-hand. Gaslight-and-fog Holmesian purists might despair at the makeover, but the biggest problem Sherlock faces is not the modern-day setting. Like fellow immortals – Dracula, Shakespeare – Holmes can take anything anyone can think to throw at him, and, in countless adaptations on stage, page and screen, almost everything has been. The Rathbone movies of the 1940s were themselves largely modern-day escapades.
Moffat plunks Holmes and Watson down in contemporary London, the old city still pushing through the present, amid GPS, the internet (Watson’s reminiscences are now a blog) and texting (a little too much of that), with no great fuss. What really weighs against the series is our familiarity with all the other detective shows that have taken aspects of Holmes and his approach, but have not been burdened by also taking his name – which is to say, almost all of them. Sherlock winds up in the odd situation where Holmes feels a kinkier, but paler echo of the likes of Cracker’s Fitz, or CSI’s Gil Grissom. Watching those sleuths unravelling a TV serial killer story – which is what tonight’s episode is – is one thing. But The Great Detective needs something a little, well, greater. Or perhaps something so strange and small no one else sees it.
It might yet come, and Cumberbatch and Freeman are good together, so it’ll be painless fun finding out over the next three Sundays. Still, I return to those titles, and where they derive from. Moffat’s “A Study In Pink,” comes from a moment tonight when Holmes realises one of the murder victims must have had a pink suitcase and shouts, “Pink!”
Doyle’s “Study In Scarlet,” meanwhile, comes from a speech by Holmes, when he says this: “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”
Seriously: who you gonna call?
Published in The Sunday Herald, July 25 2010