Sherlock “The Empty Hearse” / The Thirteenth Tale / Death Comes to Pemberley

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Christmas is over, the New Year has been seen in, but just before we exit holiday standby mode here are three quick reviews of BBC television festive fare from the last week. There are some mild, implied spoilers but nothing too overt.

Sherlock S3 E1 “The Empty Hearse” (BBC One)

sherlockcoverThe BBC’s high-quality modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective finally made its long-awaited return to our screens two years after Sherlock Holmes’ apparently fatal plunge off a hospital rooftop. There had been much speculation about how Holmes cheated death and the episode had great fun in dodging and deferring that question, instead presenting some of the more outlandish Internet theories that have been bandied around in the interim (one of which included a lovely cameo by Derren Brown); when the real solution is finally rolled out late in the day, the in-show conspiracy theorist deflates and pronounces it “Disappointing” before immediately picking holes in it, refusing to believe the answer – just like the real-life social media reaction that followed after the show aired. Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat know their audience, that’s for sure.

In fact the solution was secondary to the main task of getting Holmes (the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch) back into play and moreover how his erstwhile sidekick John Watson (the always impressive Martin Freeman) would take it, and the highlights of the episode were their confrontations in a decreasingly salubrious series of eating establishments, followed by a period of estrangement where the ‘dialogue’ was undertaken by the rapid-fire editing that cut meaningfully between scenes of the two men back at work in their various practices and soon being driven mad by the mundane parade of cases they are presented. Life is so much more interesting when they’re together, is the message, and soon they are – but only after John is abducted and nearly burned alive by some unknown evil mastermind who will surely be the focus of season 3’s overarching storyline, along with the story of John’s engagement and marriage to the practically perfect in every way Mary Morstan (played by Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington.)

There were some lovely moments for all the regulars (episode writer Mark Gatiss back as Mycroft, Rupert Graves as Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Louise Brealey as pathologist Molly Hooper who has ‘moved on’ from her crush on Sherlock to someone new … who looks exactly like Sherlock) leaving very little time for the nominal ‘case of the week’ about a terrorist attack on Parliament which was rather anorexic and poorly developed as a result – but which really didn’t matter as it was never more than a distraction in the first place. You can criticise that flaw if you want along with the general disorganised over-busy feel to the episode, but you really can’t fault the show’s ambition of making a big splashy return and of knowing exactly what it’s doing from the very first frame.

Sherlock was shown on BBC One at 9pm on New Year’s Day. The next episode is at 8.30pm on Sunday January 5 2014. The entire series is out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 20.

The Thirteenth Tale (BBC2)

After the wonderful MR James programmes on Christmas Day, expectations were high for what looked like another promising festive chiller. However, where The Middoth Tractate was an effective 35 minutes, this was an example of how less can be more. This 90-minute story was framed by a successful novelist (Vanessa Redgrave) telling her biographer (the currently ubiquitous Olivia Colman) the story of her upbringing in a strange, crumbling country house where two twin girls grow up with very different characters – one placid, the other murderously insane. It promised ghostly chills, but ultimately proved very rational – a pyschological thriller rather than supernatural horror – but unfortunately the story was also somewhat fragmented, feeling like a collection of fitfully effective vignettes rather than one complete story. The viewer was led to expect a particular pay-off ‘twist’ at the end but was then blindsided by another which had virtually no foundation laid for it, and was therefore one that we never have any realistic possible chance of guessing in advance. That makes the revelation an undoubted surprise but ultimately an emotionally hollow ‘gotcha’ more frustrating than effective. However it’s all beautifully shot and the acting is top notch – not just by Redgrave and Colman, but also by Alexandra Roach as the stern governess and by Robert Pugh and Janet Amsden as the last of the dwindling domestic staff.

The Thirteenth Tale was shown on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Monday December 30 2013. It is not currently scheduled for release on DVD or Blu-ray.

Death Comes to Pemberley (BBC One)

Best summarised as Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, this is strange territory to find someone of PD James’ calibre. She moves Jane Austen’s characters five years on and weaves them into a murder mystery investigation and whodunnit when a body is found in the grounds of Pemberly. As a result, even for someone like me with a pathological aversion to English period classics of class, manners, frocks and bonnets it proved unexpectedly strong. Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin headed an all-star cast as Darcy and Elizabeth but there were strong turns as well from the likes of Matthew Goode, Trevor Eve, Tom Ward, Jenna Coleman, Rebecca Front, Penelope Keith, Joanna Scanlon and Kevin Eldon. As a result it was beautifully acted, adapted and directed. Granted it all looked a little too picture perfect and I could have done without the melodramatic ‘race against the clock’ climax and the ultimate ‘everyone lives happily ever after’ conclusion but even this felt true to literature of the period. In all, a rather gorgeous box of rich chocolates ideally suited to the Christmas period – just not the sort of thing that might be as successful out of the winter holiday context, perhaps?

Death Comes to Pemberley was shown on BBC One over Christmas over three consecutive evenings. It will be released on DVD on February 10.

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