With BBC Sherlock, CBS Elementary and the blockbusting Warner Bros film trilogy dominating the TV and film market, is there room for anything else? If not, then is it fair that big players like CBS, Warner and Hartswood Films have taken over the market to the exclusion of all others? If there is room for more, what form should the next major Sherlock Holmes adaptation take?
These were the questions I posed during Saturday’s Great Sherlock Holmes Debate 4, live at UCL in London. The event was an enjoyable gathering of Sherlockians organised by MX Publishing. We gathered to discuss the current adaptations on offer and what these contributed to the legacy of Holmes. There were excellent presentations – particularly from screenwriter Bonnie MacBird (with support from the Sherlockology team) who gave a detailed analysis of BBC Sherlock and the fantastic quality of the writing. Also author Luke Benjamin Kuhns, whose presentation detailing the different kinds of pastiche books was very informative. I came last (so imagine how nervous I was by the time my turn came around). I outlined how things currently stand, posed my questions then had a go at answering them myself.
I don’t feel that the market has reached saturation point just yet. I believe that there is a section of viewers who still haven’t discovered Sherlock Holmes. These viewers don’t particulary watch crime drama, but enjoy human-interest shows such as Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Dickens dramatisations – dramas about life stories, relationships and interaction between different social groups. If a Sherlock Holmes drama could pull in this large, influential demographic of viewer, it would prompt them to start reading the canon and discover the intimate human stories which Doyle crafted so well. I think there is a misconception amongst those who haven’t read the original 56 stories that they are all about grisly murders and police procedures. This puts off many potential readers. We must not forget that the original stories by ACD are full of emotional drama – star-crossed lovers, evil step fathers, runaway brides, unrequited love etc.
I believe there is room for something which falls within the human-interest genre bracket but remains heavily rooted in the canon and in the Victorian period. This would appeal to this new section of viewers, as well as existing Sherlock Holmes fans. We need something which is a hybrid of modern tastes for emotional drama set in the past, but blended with the crime and ‘method’ in the canon.
During the debate, I offered my own novel (Barefoot on Baker Street) as an example of the type of story I was trying to describe. Barefoot involves the character of Sherlock Holmes but he is seen as part of someone else’s story, someone very different to Doctor Watson – our usual viewpoint. The narrative thread running through the piece isn’t a crime; it’s a person’s life story following her journey from a childhood spent in a Victorian workhouse to eventual peace and fulfilment towards the end of the century. We get to experience Holmes from a new perspective, see more of him as a man not simply a reasoning machine. There is also a new take on Moriarty and an exploration of Watson’s ‘unexplored possibilities’. But the story remains rooted in the canon, re-telling The Final Problem, The Empty House and The Blue Carbuncle quite faithfully – except for a few crucial changes.
I think that the next major Sherlock Holmes drama shouldn’t be a commercial cash-in created by a celebrity or big player. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if it came from the works of a genuine fan of the canon, just an ordinary person writing stories in-between their day-job hoping one of them might just change their life? We must remember that Conan Doyle wasn’t a famous author or celebrity; he was just a humble doctor aspiring to be a writer, creating stories in-between seeing patients. Wouldn’t it be great if Sherlock Holmes could change another person’s life, just like he did for Doyle all those years ago?
So I do think there is room for more Holmes in the current market. But whatever comes next needs to be very different to what we have already. And it needs to come from a very different place.