During my long acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, his communiques were never less than terse and to the point, lacking entirely any concession to the niceties of polite conversation. Constrained not just by their medium, but by their composer’s own natural efficiency of expression, they tended at times even towards the terse. Were it not for my intimate association with the world’s only consulting detective, I would often have considered his messages rude, even obstinate, and certainly not the product of a gentlemanly mind aware to the importance of decorum and manners. But my familiarity with my friend’s particular eccentricities of thought and behaviour led me to forgive him his fondness for the imperative. Sherlock Holmes prized above all information: clean, unencumbered, unmediated data. His preferred means of communicating that information, and his abiding preference for the laconic, were merely functions of his greater qualities.
It’s unlikely that John Watson would write in this way on his blog; but were he for some inexplicable reason to ape the precise prose of the Victorian adventure story, what would be striking is the way in which his description of his friend Sherlock Holmes’s enthusiasm for text messaging could be read, in a different context, as a reliance on the telegram. Plus ça change, you might say.
The BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes series, as surely everyone knows by now, is set in the modern day – a return to the approach of those ’40s Rathbone movies which dropped the great detective into the middle of World War II and left him to it. What saves the series, written by Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and co-created with Mark Gatiss, from the worst excesses of those patchy productions is its clever refiguring of the original stories. Like Guy Ritchie’s version late last year, this Sherlock at first appears to bear only superficial resemblance to the popular, let alone canonical, image of Holmes; but, like Ritchie’s, this Holmes is deep down the same character in skewed contexts.
Thus the text messaging. On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it.
Martin Freeman’s Watson, too, gets similar treatment: like his Victorian forebear, he is recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a nod to Sherlockians who have puzzled for a century about the curious flight of the Jezail bullet which wounded him, this Watson has a phantom limp which resolves into his real wound – in the shoulder. These separate instances are dealt with lightly and deftly, making perfect, immediate sense to the initiate but also adding a wealth of reference, allusion and just plain smarts to what could have easily been a fairly brainless series. Only an over-done and unnecessary running ‘joke’ that Holmes and Watson had nothing to fear if they wanted to be big gay buddies (why the constant re-iteration?) rings a truly clumsy note.
None of which is to say that Sherlock is without its hiccups – though its casting, locations and wardrobe are all in the main superb, feeding on the characters’ heritage without compromising its contemporary relevance, all this grit and grain is at times flattened out by unsure execution. In particular, the central mystery felt stretched – perhaps deliberately, it was significantly less interesting or indeed complex than the character introductions, and much agonising was put on screen about a solution which Doyles’s Holmes would probably have arrived at before the opening sitting room scene was over. Furthermore, Mark Gatiss’s performance felt as if it had snuck in from a different series – camp and knowing, it seemed rather to betray the tone of the rest of the episode. Gatiss’s shtick is far more entertaining the less you’ve seen of it.
These are uncharitable gripes, however: Sherlock was a triumph, almost immediately dispelling preconceptions whilst also playing with them, making use of our storied knowledge of Holmes whilst also forbidding us to judge this new version on anything but his own terms. It is a fiendish balancing act to pull off, but the writer and his cast did so with aplomb. If a story about, in DI Lestrade’s words, a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts – and if Holmes-as-sociopath under-sells the compassion and decency which has been part of all the most successful versions of Holmes (Doyle’s not least among them, natch) – it’s far too soon to doubt an approach which, in the series’ first episode, worked by and large so impossibly well.