Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood inspiration

Watching BBC’s Antiques Road Trip last night (yes I know, but there was nothing else on) I was surprised when a segment about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popped up.

There I was, TV dinner on my lap, brain going into it’s usual early evening stupor, when my attention was unexpectedly caught by some rather informative stuff.

For those who don’t watch the programme (i.e. sensible people) it involves two celebrities teaming up with two antiques experts and travelling around in old cars buying general tat from bric-a-brac shops. They then have to sell the items at an auction and see who can make the most profit. It’s gripping stuff let me tell you.

Anyway, last night one of the teams visited Sir Arthur’s old boarding school – Stonyhurst College in Clitheroe, Lancashire. It turned out to be a fascinating little segment and very revealing.

Doyle attended Stonyhurst from the age of 9 in 1868. He started in the prep school and the log still exists where he signed his name on arrival. He signed his full name including the ‘Conan’ but never used it again and was known for the rest of his time there as simply Arthur Doyle.

At the bottom of this list was a boy named Patrick Sherlock who was Doyle’s class-mate. By all accounts, Patrick wasn’t an especially clever boy so didn’t inspire the character of Holmes but most likely did inspire the name.

It was also fascinating to learn that there were two Moriartys in Doyle’s year – Michael and John. Michael was a brilliant mathematician so could easily have inspired this aspect of Doyle’s most famous villain. John Moriarty went on to become a lawyer and attorney general for Ireland. He was described in later years as ‘serpentine’ and could conceivably have inspired the darker aspects of Sherlock Holmes’ great nemesis.

There was even a Watson but he was five years younger than Doyle so it is difficult to know whether they would have been friends or known to each other.

It is widely accepted that Doyle modelled Baskerville Hall on Stonyhurst but the school’s curator when a step further. She pointed out that Doyle’s bedroom would have been very close to the school kennels and perhaps all those years of listening to them howl led him to create the fearful hound of Baskerville fame.

I found all this information fascinating, how strange to think that something which may have seemed so insignificant at the time could go on to inspire someone to create some of the most famous characters and stories of all time?

I’ve had a holiday day from work today. There I was having my morning coffee when Jeremy Brett popped up on the TV – ITV were showing one of the Granada episodes. I’m proud to say that husband and I guessed which one it was in seconds. We heard the line ”Three of them are lame,’ turned to each other and said – ‘Silver Blaze!’ As the rain lashed the windows, we snuggled in and watched the episode which was a real treat. It is undoubtedly one of their best and reminded me (not that I really needed reminding) of why Jeremy Brett will always be my favourite Holmes. But how different things might have been if little Patrick Sherlock had been sent to different boarding school? Or called Patrick Smith?

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How does the Conan Doyle canon inspire me?

sir-arthur-conan-doyle-1One of my Facebook friends messaged me to ask an interesting question – how does the canon influence my writing? I thought, ah-ha! Great idea for a blog…

The canon is always at the heart of anything I write with regard to Sherlock Holmes. I just like to put my own spin on things.

For some, the goal is to recreate the voice of the original stories so accurately that when people read it, they feel like they have stumbled across a lost work by Doyle – or even Watson himself.

I greatly admire those who take this approach, even more so if they manage to pull it off. But for me, the creative challenge lay in not trying to replicate, but rather trying to innovate – take the canon as a starting point and re-tell it in a fresh new way which would appeal to not only existing fans but also people who knew nothing about Holmes except his choice of hats and loyal friend.

But I didn’t want to leave the canon behind. It was my starting point, the very thing I had loved since childhood (way before Sherlock Holmes became ‘cool’ like he is today). So, I took the most fascinating period in Holmes’ life and worked with it, re-telling the events from a completely new perspective. I had always felt that the Final Problem and Empty House lacked something – Moriarty appeared too suddenly and became both a nemesis and then defeated all too quickly. So I decided to fill in the blanks, add a deeper context.

It felt as if Doyle had left clues scattered throughout the stories about Holmes’ mental state – was he autistic? Was Moriarty too? Could that curiously rotating head be a sort of compulsion? Could that phenomenal mathematical ability at a young age be evidence of savantism? What if Holmes’ need to observe everything was actually an obsessive compulsion which he only managed to control by channelling it into his work?

Isn’t that what inspires most Holmes writers? Filling in the blanks and answering the questions? Conan Doyle left us plenty to work on and these things have fascinated writers ever since. Did Holmes ever fall in love? What were his parents like? Where did he go to school? What really happened during the Great Hiatus? What did he do in his retirement besides keeping bees?

I wanted to fill in some blanks and expand the clues but remain close to the canon, using actual extracts and even keeping certain plot lines exactly the same – just setting them in a new context. It was hard to do – like trying to renovate a house and keep all the original features rather than simply knocking it down and starting again.

For my last project, I returned to a similar principal but kept it simpler this time. I decided not to get bogged down with emotional analysis or answering the unanswered. I wanted to have a little fun with the canon this time, write something light-hearted, easy to read and a bit different. We have two mainstream modern Sherlock Holmes series – Sherlock and Elementary – but I felt that both of them had departed too far from the canon. I wanted to write a series of stories which were also set in present day, but each one would be based on a single original Conan Doyle story. The general plot and themes would remain the same, just upgraded to modern settings and equivalents.

That was great fun to work on and meant I had to really know the stories I was reinterpreting.

It reminded me all over again how timeless, clever and beautifully crafted the canon really is. It deserves to be at the heart of everything it inspires.

 

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BBC Sherlock to return with a Christmas special in 2015

p01nw99fBBC Sherlock will be returning in 2015 for a Christmas special followed by a series of three new episodes, presumably to be shown in 2016.

Filming will begin in January next year on the special with the series shooting later in the year. Controller of BBC Drama Ben Stephenson gave the following teaser: ‘Steven and Mark are ready to unleash the most shocking and surprising series of Sherlock yet, the only thing to expect is the unexpected.’

The writer and co-creator of the series Steven Moffat said: “A special, plus a new series of three episodes – it’s a record-breaking run. Of course, it’s far too early to say what’s coming, but we’re reasonably confident that the very next thing to happen to Sherlock and John, is the very last thing you’d expect.”

Mark Gatiss, the programme’s other writer and co-creator said the episodes “will take Sherlock and John Watson into deeper and darker water than ever before”.

For me, this is mixed news. I suppose, like most Holmes fans, I was hoping the series itself would return in 2015, not just a one-off special. Or possibly even this Christmas. It looks like we will now have to wait until 2016 for the actual series. But perhaps having the wider scope of a special AND three episodes, the team will be able to build something with more balance than I felt they achieved in series three.

There is so much hype and expectation that I genuinely hope they can recreate the magic which I felt they lost in series three. Or else they might be experiencing ‘a fall’ of their own.

I’m excited, optimistic and looking forward to finding out. I loved their last special which aired on the internet last Christmas – ‘Home (or was it ‘Back’?) for the Holidays’ – I actually thought it was better than the series which followed.

After all the promises and hype about series three, I felt absolutely let down that Sherlock faked his death with nothing more than a squash ball and a big blue inflatable. There I was all excited about seeing something amazing but it didn’t happen. Then I was all excited to see what kind of ingenious, never seen before terrorist plot they would devise, only to get V for Vendetta. So I’m crossing my fingers and toes this time in the hope of getting something genuinely ‘shocking and surprising’. Come on team Moffat et al – I know you can do it!

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CBS’ Elementary finally wins me over

cbs-elementary-jonny-lee-miller-lucy-liu-imageI presumed I would absolutely love series three of BBC Sherlock, but sadly I didn’t. I also presumed I’d dislike season two of Elementary but I actually rather enjoyed it. I do like to be proved wrong every now and then.

I think I have judged Elementary a bit harshly in the past and perhaps been a bit too glowing and gushing about Sherlock. So, to set the record straight, I actually found myself enjoying the last season of Elementary despite my scepticism.

No, it’s not Holmes from the canon, it’s not heart-stopping ‘event television’ and it is rather over sentimental at times, but hey, it’s a good crime drama. And I think that’s what I liked about it.

It was simply Holmes and Watson solving clever crimes together. Most of the episodes stuck to the formula in the canon – Holmes and Watson are presented with an unusual case, they work on it together, Holmes solves it and along the way we see little glimpses of their friendship and personalities. Nice and simple.

Ok, we had Watson and Mycroft falling in love and Mycroft actually being a spy (started to feel the old scepticism coming back at that point) but it did work in the context of the series as a whole.

That’s the beauty of having so many episodes, the characters can travel a full arc of development and you get balance – a splash of personal drama interspersed with good old fashioned detection. There were plenty of episodes to suit all tastes.

Having only three episodes to play with, BBC Sherlock didn’t have that luxury and consequently, in my opinion, didn’t get the balance right with series three.

The partnership between Holmes and Watson in ‘Lemon-Entry’ is touching, funny and, for me, very true to the spirit of the original. Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes as a sensitive but brilliant man-child. He manages to show Holmes’ vulnerability extremely well, conveying all his neuroses in a believable and strangely likable way.

I think it was a bit harsh of me in a previous blog to describe veteran actor Sean Pertwee as a ‘Rupert-Graves-a-like’. Yes his world-weary Lestrade was cut from a similar cloth but they took him much deeper. Particulary in the episode ‘Ears to You’ (gotta love any show with an episode called Ears to You) which sensitively played out the complexities of his relationship with Holmes. Sorry Sean, I take it back.

The relationship between Holmes and Mycroft was a bit silly at first and then turned into an unexpected joy. I’m not sure about the whole ‘spying thing’ though, and I’m even less sure about the whole ‘restaurateur/chef’ thing. I do wish people would leave Mycroft alone and just let him be a fat Government official with a big brain and even bigger behind. This all-singing-all-dancing action man that people want to turn him into doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve been watching re-runs of Sherlock series two on Alibi. They are brilliant, especially A Scandal in Belgravia and The Reichenbach Fall. The sequences when Moriarty breaks into the Tower of London and then the sequence set to Nina Simone’s Sinner-man are simply breath-taking. Oh gosh, here I go glowing and gushing again. It’s just so sad that, in my opinion, they lost that magic in series three. I think the contrast is so great that it’s almost as if they were made by completely different people. Maybe my disappointment has fuelled my new-found enjoyment of Elementary. I knew what to expect and I got it. I just liked it more than I thought I would. There’s something rather comforting about that.

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Museum of London to stage a new Sherlock Holmes exhibition

Museum of London Sherlock Holmes exhibitionA major new exhibition opens in London on October 17 and it’s all about Sherlock Holmes. The popularity of the world’s most famous detective continues to grow and this exhibition is proof of the nation’s love for all things Sherlock.

The show, at the Museum of London, focuses on the character of the great detective and the city where most of his adventures were set.

Alex Werner, head of history collections at the museum in central London, said: “You can’t have Sherlock Holmes without Watson and you can’t have the two of them without London. For me London is the third character, the essential element in the stories.”

The exhibition will also include a mix of traditional and modern Sherlock iconography ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch’s famous coat and dressing gown, to paintings, a pipe and deerstalker hat and one of Doyle’s original manuscripts. There will also be a portrait of Doyle painted by Sidney Paget who illustrated the original stories.

For more information and tickets, follow this link to the museums’ website – http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/exhibitions-displays/sherlock-holmes/

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Charlie Milverton on the shelves in Waterstones

20140505_122407I was very excited to call in at a local Waterstones and see my book on the shelf – so excited I even took a picture. Various people did look across and wonder if I was slightly mad but that didn’t stop me!

I went back to basics with these stories, even though this is rather counter to recent Sherlock Holmes trends. A lot of current literature, pastiche and dramatisation focuses heavily on Holmes as a man, above Holmes the detective. They forge out into previously unacceptable territory such as Holmes having sexual relationships and falling in love (Elementary, Warner Bros), his relationship with brother, family and friends (BBC Sherlock) and how he deals with dementia and old age (upcoming film A Slight Trick of the Mind).

I looked at these things with my first novel, Barefoot on Baker Street, and got admired and panned for it in equal measure. I felt quite brave for going where others feared to tread, how times have changed…

But with Charlie Milverton I just wanted to keep things simple. I did upgrade the themes and settings to modern day but besides that I stuck to creating five traditional stories showcasing what Holmes does best – detection. No romance, no autism, no in-depth analyses of his psyche. Each story is based on the canon – we experience and learn about Holmes’ character through watching him work and interact with his only friend, the ever-loyal Watson. I tried out the less-is-more principal with this one.

Steven Moffat said in response to criticism about the direction series three went into, that Sherlock isn’t a detective story, it’s a story about a detective. I think this summed up his interpretation very well and also the current way of looking at Holmes. I enjoy this approach and have contributed to it myself, but hope we don’t lose sight of the simple essence which is the core of Holmes – he was a bloody good detective! And the stories Doyle wrote to demonstrate this were some of the cleverest, most imaginative detective fiction you might ever read.

Some quotes from recent reviews of Charlie Milverton:

“In contrast to the deeply researched social history of her novel Barefoot on Baker Street, Charlotte Anne Walters has written a witty quintet of short stories, updating five cases from the canon, in Charlie Milverton and Other Sherlock Holmes Stories – the others being ‘The Premier Bachelor’, ‘The Leaping Man’, ‘A Question of Identity’ and ‘Abbey Strange’. Perhaps she was inspired by Sherlock, but her approach and style – and indeed the set-up – are rather different. The stories are clever and good fun.” Roger Johnson writing forThe Sherlock Holmes Society of London

“The stories are set in our modern high-tech world, but within a few paragraphs we recognise Holmes and Watson as our very own, thanks to Ms Walters’ skill. Entertaining, clever and witty.” The Baker Street Society

“Each of these tales is carefully crafted and all are satisfying as well as amusing. The author tweaks the beaks of 21st Century social media freaks and brings the problems of the 19th Century right up to date, proving that people remain people as Sherlock remains Sherlock across the Centuries.” – Sherlockian scholar and reviewer Philip K Jones

“The style of the writing is fast-paced and very plot driven. Readers won’t find themselves getting bored” – Author Amy Thomas, Girl Meets Sherlock Blog

“Charlotte’s stories are light-hearted, intriguing and humorous, and allow insight into how these characters and their plotlines might adapt to modern day life.” – Amazon review

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Former home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ‘Undershaw’ is finally sold

YesUndershaw’s future has finally been resolved after years of dereliction and threat of unsympathetic development. I am delighted to hear that the new owners are actually an independent school called Stepping Stones which specialises in educating children with special needs, including autism.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is regarded by many as having autistic tendencies and reading of his adventures has been an inspiration to those who share some of these traits. So this seems like a very favourable outcome which will bring new life to the building Doyle lovingly created.

Stepping Stones want to see how the legacy and history of Undershaw can serve the children and I think this is a wonderful way to honour the memory of Doyle and his most famous creation. Their curriculum has a strong emphasis on creativity so I’m sure the new surroundings will provide much inspiration – just as they did for Doyle.

All this would not be happening if it hadn’t been for the fantastic work done by the Undershaw Preservation Trust. They fought to rescue Undershaw from its previous owner who wanted to destroy most of the building and turn it into flats and separate houses. The Save Undershaw campaign captured the hearts and imagination of Sherlock Holmes fans all over the world who actively helped fight to save this wonderful historic building.

Stepping Stones have released this lovely video all about themselves and their plans for Undershaw – I personally feel that it demonstrates their respect for the building’s history and opens a very exciting new chapter in its life.

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