BBC Sherlock: The Abominable Bride – opinions as messy as the plot (contains spoilers)

fe817b86-1ba2-472b-b9ff-f1c473bcf4f8-bestSizeAvailableBBC’s Sherlock New Year’s Day special, The Abominable Bride, drew in 8.4 million viewers and the internet is now alive with reviews and discussion about this polarising trip (‘Trip’ being the operative word) back to the Victorian London of the original Sherlock Holmes cannon.

The Telegraph has gone with ‘sleuths, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Sherlock combined period drama, feminism and a fiendish whodunit into a feature length comeback that got 2016 off to a flying start.’

Then at the other end of the scale we have the Daily Mail with – ‘A farce – a self-indulgent, ill-conceived mess that threatens to ruin the show’s reputation as one of the best programmes on British television.’

Sherlock Holmes for Dummies echoes my personal feelings particularly well – ‘So much potential, so much pandering, a few moments of brilliance, so many more moments of self-conscious B.S.’

I was really looking forward to this – I wanted to love it, wanted to rediscover the passion I had for Sherlock Series One and Two but utterly lost in series three. But they really let me down – again.

I still haven’t recovered from Sherlock faking his death with a squash ball and a big blue inflatable. Now they’ve done it again, lazy plot devices enabling them to go back in time with all their mates and have jolly japes together in funny costumes – what a hoot.

Turns out it was all a drug-infused, mind palace trick. Basically it was just a dream – like Booby coming back from the dead in Dallas. Well, that must have taken all of five seconds to come up with. A child could have done it.

We were presented with two different stories here, the Victorian murder mystery of a bride appearing to rise from the dead and walk the streets of London committing murders. Then we jump to where the last episode of Series Three left off with Sherlock on a private jet (can’t remember why, too confusing) suddenly coming back because it would appear that arch villain Moriarty has returned from the dead. Oh-my-gosh, anyone else want to come back from the dead? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle maybe?

Taking the period bits in isolation, they were pretty good. The sets and costumes were beautiful and accurate, the atmosphere of foggy London at Christmas with snow and Hansom cabs was a treat – the cosy sitting room at 221b with a fire roaring in the grate was wonderful. The quick-fire, fast-paced dialogue was a little out-of-place for the period but witty and enjoyable all the same. The quirky editing also uncharacteristic for a period piece but true to the Moffat and Gatiss style and worked fairly well in the main – though breaking with naturalism did pull the viewer away from the suspense of the drama. Holmes didn’t do much in the way of deducting either, which I though was the whole point of a detective drama.

But then everything suddenly turned a bit ‘Doctor Who’ and we’re back in present day. Then we go back and forth, we’re at the Reichenbach Falls, Victorian London, then back to the plane. I was lost; it was a mess and turned into silly, self-indulgent twaddle. Why do they have to do this? Are they so in love with their characters, so powerful that they can just do whatever they want? All I wanted was a cracking piece of crime drama with a really clever plot, lots of brilliant deduction from Holmes, all in the Victorian period – no explanations needed, no ‘it’s a dream/mind-palace (bloody mind-palace I’m sick of it now)/drug high,’ just a loving tribute to the canon without which they wouldn’t have their TV show in the first place.

This could have been so much better; it was a missed opportunity in my opinion. I know my opinion doesn’t matter; in fact no one’s opinion really matters when you can pull in 8.4 million viewers. I think perhaps that’s the problem here – the creative team don’t need to please anyone but themselves because loyalty, fascination, Benedict’s cheekbones, all the Benedict/Freeman fans, all the Sherlock Holmes fans will tune in no matter what. They will put up with lots of mind palace, dream sequences, people coming back from the dead, surviving a fall by landing on an inflatable etc. in the same way football fans will follow their team for life even if they do badly. We’ve got you now, say Moffat and Gatiss, and you’re bloody-well going to like whatever we tell you. Well, I didn’t like it – but yes, I will watch series four, they’ve still got me, I’m under the spell and it will always draw me back. More fool me.

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Elementary finale gives us a battle between Holmes and his ultimate nemesis – heroin

****Contains spoilers****

elementary-season-3-episode-15The Warner Bros film gave us an actual fall into a waterfall, BBC Sherlock gave us a fall from grace and now Elementary has given us a fall back, or relapse, into addiction. We love to see Holmes being brilliant but we also like to be reminded that he isn’t infallible, indestructible. Whether it’s being defeated by Moriarty or heroin, we like to see him fall. It makes future victories even sweeter and shows his human side.

Season Three ended with Holmes being forced to face his demons and ultimately succumbing to the temptation of his biggest enemy – heroin. The dominant thread running through all three series of Elementary has been Holmes’ battles to stay in recovery – it was what brought he and Watson together in the first place when his father paid her to be his sober companion. So this relapse felt like an inevitable conclusion to a very long-running storyline.

I just wonder where it can go from here and wish that the build-up to it had been better, longer. The episode felt hurried and unrealistic – a fellow addict discovers the dead body of his sister and all he can think about is Holmes’ previous put-downs and continuing sobriety. So he dreams up and executes a plan in which he kidnaps Holmes’ sponsor Alfredo, pretends his sister is still missing, forces Holmes to help find her and leads him back to his old rehab facility and a ‘shooting gallery’ in the hope he will relapse. When he gives him heroin the temptation proves too great.

It was silly and unrealistic, just a vehicle to get Holmes from sobriety to using again in space of one episode while also providing a crime to be solved and something for the police to do. After a three-series build-up, I expected better. But we have been given the tantalising promise of finally discovering the identity of Holmes’ billionaire father who is now flying in to see his fallen son. That will guarantee I tune in to episode one of season four but whether Elementary will hold me through another 24 episodes is hard to tell at this stage.

Overall I’ve enjoyed series three but it lacked the dramatic threads that came to conclusions in the first two – Irene and Mycroft. I even came to like Kitty but disliked the way she interrupted the Holmes-Watson partnership.

The crimes remained clever and inventive (except for this last one), the addiction issues are well-handled and Holmes’ growing ability to form friendships and think of others was believable and touching – if at times a bit oversentimental. As usual, the original Sherlock Holmes stories were largely ignored but certain themes remained the same – Watson moving out and finding love only to return after their tragic death being the best example.

My main problem with Elementary is that Watson is now a detective in her own right. Her abilities almost equal Holmes and she sees private clients as well as the cases they work on together. That just doesn’t work for me. Watson should be a doctor, an everyman character who dips into Holmes’ world and gets a unique up-close look but remains rooted in the same world as the reader/viewer. Watson should be ordinary, Holmes extraordinary, that’s how the dynamic works. Yes, Watson should be capable, intelligent and have ‘unexplored possibilities’, but shouldn’t be a detective. Watson should be an assistant, a friend, an observer and biographer.

I also think that the Elementary version of Holmes is a bit too official, too accepted by the police. He and Watson are both consultants with the NYPD but I much prefer BBC Sherlock’s interpretation of him as a ‘freak who shows up at crime scenes just because he likes it’, an outsider who isn’t exactly accepted, more simply tolerated because he’s an oddball but useful.

I sometimes think Elementary gives us a more sanitised version of Holmes but then I also feel that they delve into his phycology better than anyone else ever has. His vulnerability, his childlike neediness contrasts extremely well with his other side which is arrogant and fiercely independent. Elementary play out the contrasts very well and for all its faults, I’ll miss it now the series has ended.

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Sherlock Holmes – were his abilities a blessing or a curse?

I’ve just watched an episode of Elementary and it raised an interesting point – are Holmes’ abilities a gift facilitating interesting work, or an illness that he uses the work to treat?

In episode 18 of season three, ‘The View from Olympus’, a causal lover asks Holmes to have a child with her. She doesn’t need him to have a relationship with either the child or her, she just needs him to (to put it delicately) do the biology. Towards the end of the episode, there’s a wonderful scene when Holmes finally explains to her why he must decline her offer.

She had previously tried to persuade him by telling him he is remarkable and a good person for using his abilities to help people. In their final scene together Holmes agrees that he is remarkable, but explains that this is the very reason why he can’t have a child:

“The things I do, the things you care about, you think I do them because I’m a great person, but I do them because it would hurt too much not to. It hurts Agatha, all of this (pointing out of the window across the city), everything I see, hear, touch and smell, the conclusions I’m able to draw, the things that are revealed to me, the ugliness. My work focuses me, it helps. You say that I’m using my gifts; I say I’m just treating them. So I cannot in good conscience, pass all of that onto someone else.”

I found this so touching, a clever and more sensitive interpretation of Holmes’ abilities than the usual ‘Look at me I’m brilliant’ approach. I have always argued that Holmes’ abilities to see connections between things, hidden meanings, minute observations, are more like a compulsion than a choice. I’ve explored this in my own writing, likening it to a form of OCD, an addiction almost. If it wasn’t for being able to channel them into his work, they would consume him.

I think Elementary explored this in a very eloquent and sensitive way, better than I’ve seen done before. It’s a very modern interpretation of Holmes, the flawed hero battling mental health issues and addiction. This suits a contemporary audience well I think. We need to get inside the heads of our heroes; we want that level of analysis and complexity, the tortured genius. Conan Doyle hinted at these things in the canon but its shows like Elementary and Sherlock that dare to take them one step further.  Holmes is evolving before our very eyes.

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Arthur and George tested the waters – now the BBC is jumping right in

imagesLast night ITV aired the final episode of their three-part dramatization of Julian Barnes’ novel – Arthur and George. Starring Martin Clunes as a gentle but determined Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the action follows Doyle’s investigation into ‘The Wyrley Ripper’, a case he takes up in order to clear the name of the accused – George Edalji. Right from their first meeting, Doyle is sure of the man’s innocence and he works tirelessly to prove it, using the case as a way to cope after the death of his first wife.

Based on true events and set around 1903, it was almost like watching a traditional Holmes and Watson adventure. Doyle applied many of his creation’s methods to solve the crime and outsmart the sceptical, sneering police. Examining footprints, breaking and entering, testing a knife to see what sort of wound it would make, arguing with officials and defending an innocent man despite the odds – sound familiar?

Doyle was assisted in these endeavours by his friend and valet Mr Wood (Woodie), who fitted into the Watson role perfectly – advising caution and trying to be the voice of reason to temper Doyle’s persistence.

Hansom cabs rattled along the cobbles and steam trains puffed into stations. It felt very much like ITV were testing the waters to see if there was an appetite for a traditional Sherlock Holmes set in the period, similar to the famous Granada series starring Jeremy Brett which aired on ITV between 1984 and 1994. It certainly left me hankering for it.

But then, this morning I see that Steven Moffat has now officially confirmed that the BBC Sherlock one-off special will be entirely set in the Victorian period – not a dream sequence or costume ball as I had feared. ‘The special is its own thing,’ Moffat told Entertainment Weekly. ‘It’s not part of the run of three episodes. As we could hardly conceal – it’s Victorian.’ Moffat also adds – ‘(co-creator Mark Gatiss) and me, we wanted to do this, but it had to be special, it had to be a separate entity on its own. It’s kind of in its own little bubble.’

So no testing of the waters for the BBC, the massive success of Sherlock and the popularity of the cast has given them the confidence to jump straight in and give us a traditional Holmes. Personally I think this is brave and exciting but I hope they don’t spoil it with gimmickry and over-the-top ideas – just keep it simple please, full of subtleties as with Arthur and George.

Clunes put in a great performance as Doyle with a soft, warm Scottish brogue and gentle manner but obvious passion against injustice and racial prejudice. And for me personally, I grew up near to the area where the drama was set so loved hearing the accents of my childhood, of Cannock and Staffordshire. Some of the scenes were even filmed at the Black Country Living Museum, an excellent local visitor attraction I have been to many times.

I’d say that the future of Sherlock Holmes looks set to go back to the past, possibly on both BBC and ITV. Or will we get a whole series of ‘Sir Arthur investigates’?

Can it be only a matter of time before we get the natural successor to the Granada series? And will this end up being bigger than both Sherlock and Elementary who have displaced the detective into a modern setting? Is it time we went back to the past?

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What does this year’s BBC Sherlock one-off special really have in store for us?

24F1F53200000578-2921763-image-m-111_1421938850201First we had the official picture of Cumberbatch and Freeman in period costume evoking a Brett/Hardwicke vibe. Now the internet is alive with more pictures of the pair in Victorian dress, along with Amanda Abbington. The pictures were taken while the team were filming at Gloucester Cathedral and seem to confirm speculation that the one-off special will indeed be set in Victorian times.

Personally, I’m delighted about this. I think it’s brave and inventive, harking back to the spirit of series one and two when Moffat and Gatiss simply wrote the show exactly as they wanted to, not writing for the fans or the awards or ratings. It was quirky, stylised and a bit niche.

While defending the change from the Victorian setting of the original stories to present-day London, the team said it was the essence of the characters and sense of adventure that mattered, not the period. I entirely agreed and still do. So taking the same characters and placing them in a different century is a great idea, especially as they seem to be paying due respect to the highly successful and much loved Granada adaptations. I hope there are plenty of nods to Granada and Brett in the episode, it would also be great if the team decide to take an original ACD story and re-tell it authentically but with their own unique twist.

People are speculating about how they will explain the change of time period – will it be Sherlock in a coma like Life on Mars? Will it all be a dream like Dallas? Is it fancy dress? Or time travel to right the wrongs of the past like Quantum Leap? Did aliens abduct them and dump them in Victorian England? Will it be a strange Doctor Who mash-up?

I really hope it’s none of these – I hope they are brave and bold enough to just go for it without any explanation at all. Let’s have a whole episode in the period where the stories were originally set, no explanation needed. If the quality of the drama is good enough, no one will even question it after about two minutes because we will all be so absorbed by the storytelling and characters.

I’m so excited about this episode and hope I don’t end up feeling as let down as I did at the end of series three. Please let this not be a publicity stunt, or as disappointing as Sherlock surviving his fall by landing on a big blue inflatable. I can’t wait to find out!

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2014 – The Year Sherlock Holmes Became Free

Leslie KlingerIt’s been yet another busy year for Sherlock Holmes admirers as the popularity of the world’s most famous detective continues to grow.

2014 kicked off with the return of BBC Sherlock. Series Three burst onto our screens with a riot of unexpected kisses (Sherlock/Mollie, Sherlock/Moriarty!), zip wires, a big blue inflatable and the world’s strangest best man speech. We met Sherlock’s parents (Benedict Cumberbatch’s real-life parents,) we saw his love for John and John’s love for Mary. We had a wedding, a pregnancy and a returning face from the past.

Millions enjoyed the series, others like me had their doubts but the success of the show cannot be denied.

2014 also saw an end to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Undershaw, former home of Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The house has now been bought by a school and they have proved to be careful custodians so far, honoring the building’s heritage and restoring/adapting it sensitively.

But for me, the biggest thing to happen in the Holmes universe in 2014 has been Leslie S Klinger winning his lawsuit against the Doyle estate. Klinger’s tireless actions have freed the character of Sherlock Holmes for the world.

The suit was instigated by author Leslie Klinger, who co-edited two anthologies of new Holmes tales written by modern authors. He sought a judgment that would enable him to use material from 50 of Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories without having to pay a fee to the Doyle Estate, something they had demanded from his publisher.

As the Free Sherlock website explains – ‘Throughout the suit, the estate had argued that although most of the Holmes stories are in the public domain, the famed detective himself was still under copyright because certain character traits were developed in later, still protected books. That meant new stories featuring Holmes couldn’t be created until the very last work in the series fell into the public domain in 2022, according to the estate.’

Fortunately, the judge sided with Klinger and it was decided that the estate’s case lacked “any basis in statute or case law for extending a copyright beyond its expiration” and the appeal “border[ed] on the quixotic.”

This means that thousands of pastiche writers, movie makers, producers and publishers can now use the character of Sherlock Holmes and all the characters outside of the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (which is still under copyright in the US) without having to pay anything to the Doyle Estate.

So here’s to lots more Sherlock Holmes creativity in 2015! Free at last.

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Elementary is back and Holmes is most certainly not forgiven

untitledReview of Season Three, Episode One – Enough Nemesis to Go Around (contains some spoilers)

As regular blog readers may recall, I had a bit of a Damascene conversion over Elementary during the last season. I went from disliking it for being a poor imitation of BBC Sherlock to enjoying it very much and appreciating the clever crimes and great partnership between the two leads.

So I was excited for its return and optimistic that I would continue to enjoy this interesting addition to the Sherlock Holmes universe. But as with Sherlock series three, I do feel a bit let down – again.

I think one of Elementary’s strengths has always been its interpretation of the friendship between Holmes and Watson. I had come to love watching their partnership grow; it was well-paced, believable and done with a lightness of touch which gave it great credibility – in contrast to the Sherlock/John love-in we had in Sherlock series three.

But now ‘Lemon Entry’ is back and for the first 13 minutes or so we don’t even see Holmes. Instead we have Watson doing very nicely for herself in her posh new pad, solving crimes on her own for the NYPD and private clients. Holmes has been away in England for six months working for MI6 and they didn’t exactly part on good terms.

I do like the fact that Liu’s Watson is a capable, intelligent woman but here it goes too far. Holmes should be the detective, Watson the assistant – that is the dynamic at the heart of all we love about Sherlock Holmes stories. Suddenly, we are now being asked to accept Holmes working with a new assistant, Kitty Winter, and Watson, a fully-fledged detective, whose skills are a match for his own.

Kitty Winter is one of my favourite characters in the canon (she of the acid throwing fame in The Illustrious Client) but I’m not sure about her incarnation here in Elementary. I think (hope) that perhaps it is too early to pass judgement and that the character will be developed further in forthcoming episodes. I want her to have a great back-story that explains why she has given up everything and left England to work with Holmes. And I hope it will relate in some way to the original Kitty and her struggles against the evil womanising Baron.

What I do like is the fact that Watson doesn’t simply cave in and forgive Holmes for his disappearance and behaviour. I felt this was a major weakness in Sherlock series three and actually in the original Empty House. I think that Watson’s hurt and anger here is much more realistic. I’m torn between being desperate for them to make up and reinstate their partnership and thinking ‘Fair play, give him hell.’

I didn’t like the fact that in his absence, Watson has become such a successful detective in her own right that she now holds the power over whether Holmes can return to working for the NYPD.

They’ve played around too much with the essence of what the characters should be – Watson isn’t a detective in the canon, he’s a doctor, an ordinary (albeit intelligent) bloke who readers can associate with. He/she should be an everyman character who gives a contrast to Holmes who must always remain the only one who can shine light into the darkness. Elementary have messed around with the formula in this episode and in my opinion, haven’t got away with it.

The crime story was imaginative but I suspect that they didn’t quite get the science right. I’m no expert but wouldn’t you need a much bigger magnet than that?

I await next week’s episode with interest and a healthy degree of apprehension.

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