Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band (BBC/ITV, 1964/1984) [DVD]

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I’ve been a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes ever since I first encountered the character one school holiday when the BBC very kindly stripped the classic series of films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce during the weekday mornings. Since then I’ve sampled just about every incarnation of the character I could get my hands on, from Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison on radio to Peter Cushing, John Neville and Christopher Plummer on film and Tom Baker, Ian Richardson, Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett on television. These days of course I’m a devout follower of the exploits of Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Lee Miller in the role, regardless of how far these modern versions have strayed from the classic canon.

homes-wilmer-dvdUp to now, one of the biggest gaps in my Sherlock coverage was Douglas Wilmer’s well-regarded portrayal in the role in a 1965 BBC series. Those episodes had not been released in the UK until now although a Region 1 NTSC DVD has been available for some time in the US. However last month the British Film Institute stepped into the breach and delivered a brand new DVD boxset of Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes which includes restorations of two partially-lost episodes. I had this on pre-order for some weeks before its planned release date and couldn’t wait to dive in and sample the first story, which is actually a pilot episode that originally aired as part of the BBC’s Detective anthology series the previous year.

As with all Wilmer’s outings the episode is an adaptation of a Conan Doyle original short story, in this case “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in which Helen Stoner consults Holmes about the strange death of her beloved sister Julia two years ago on the eve of her wedding. Now Helen herself is engaged to be married and the strange signs and portents that preceded her sister’s death are occurring all over again. The main suspect is obvious – Helen’s odious and abusive stepfather Dr Grimesby Roylott, who even attempts to physically intimidate Holmes in his own sitting room – but it seems impossible he could have played any part in Julia’s death which occurred in a locked room with no way for any assailant to get in or out. Can Holmes work out the puzzle in time to save Helen, and determine the meaning of Julia’s dying words: “The speckled band”? Read the rest of this entry »

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville and The Reichenbach Fall (2012)

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Having previously reviewed the first of the three stories of this second series of Sherlock I think I said all I wanted to about the series as a whole, which allows me to aim to keep this follow-up to a single manageable blog post for the remaining two stories. Here goes …

One of the real strengths of this version of the Sherlock Holmes character is the way that it’s the creation and love-child of two very different writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are both excellent and currently at the top of their respective games but who also possess completely contrasting narrative styles. Sometimes, such a combination could stunt one or other (or even both) of the talents involved, but just sometimes the diversities feed on each other and not only survive but thrive, and build far more quality and depth to the end result than even the sum of their parts could lead us to expect. Such is the case with Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock.

Following on from Moffat’s extraordinarily intelligent and detailed intellectual puzzle box opener A Scandal in Belgravia comes Gatiss’ take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous (and arguably best) original Holmes story, here titularly tweaked into The Hounds of Baskerville. While it was possible to watch and re-watch Moffat’s preceding episode and still not fully understand it weeks later, there was no such problem here: Hounds was a triumph of (Hammer House of Horror) style over substance. The mystery, such as it was, wasn’t very complex: I’d pretty much worked out the solution before the midway point, although the exact ‘Who?’ remained split between two suspects until much nearer the end. But that didn’t matter – its not like Conan Doyle’s story was ever particularly difficult to puzzle out, either. In any case Gatiss wasn’t trying to out-smart us, he was trying to out-creep us – and he did, through one of the most effective and evocative Hounds committed to screen. Differing hugely from the original novel, it nonetheless had enough grace notes to the source text to make even aficionados feel warm and loved by the homage.

The extreme terror scenario did push some of the actors close to the breaking point of credibility: even Benedict Cumberbatch teetered on the edge of believability in the scenes where Holmes takes fright (although it was his playing of the scene that was also the key to realising precisely what was going on.) Poor Russell Tovey’s guest role started at “suppressed hysteria” and then had no where to go except into total histrionic breakdown, a rather thankless part; not to mention the fact that Tovey’s most famous recent role in Being Human meant that in the back of your mind was the red herring that his character (the sublimely named Henry Knight) could himself transmogrify into the hound at any point. I’m sure that this little mind game was entirely intentional from Gatiss, who is such a devotee of the classic Hammer and Universal horror films as well as Jacques Tourneur’s films including Cat People. Interestingly, the most effective “acting blind scared” came from the series star who invariably gets less attention and praise than he merits – but more of Martin Freeman in a minute.

Then we came to the season finale, The Reichenbach Fall, based on Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” which was dominated by the presence of Moriarty, and by the author killing off his most famous literary creation. We knew what to expect from this 90 minutes going in, in other words.

I admit to having been anxious about this instalment going in, as it had been entrusted to the third (and, to put it rather cruelly, the most junior) member of the writing team behind Sherlock. Steve Thompson had contributed the middle story of season 1, The Blind Banker, and it had been by far the least of the first year’s stories – although interestingly, I found it more enjoyable second time around when I saw it on DVD again late in 2011. Perhaps its ‘average’ rating is more to do with the company it was keeping, rather like Watson inevitably looks rather dim in the company of the two Holmes boys. But another mark against Thompson was his contribution to the most recent series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” – by far the weakest episode of that 2011 series as far as I was concerned. So that was two strikes against Thompson: was The Reichenbach Fall to be the third? It would be appalling to foul up this story among all others, and the season finale to boot.

Well, I stand corrected. Not only did Thompson’s script do justice to the occasion, it was without question a match for the two stories that had preceded it. In fact in many ways it was the best of the three and perfectly pitched, fulfilment of how the combination of Gatiss and Moffat’s styles into one story by Thompson can produce new heights of genius: atmospheric, thrilling and tense like Hounds but packed full with Sherlock being as clever as only Holmes can be and all without losing the audience in the process. Sherlock got unrestricted license to show off in this episode thanks to the presence of Moriarty: no matter how clever Holmes was being, you always felt and knew that Moriarty was at least two steps in front and being even more insanely clever. Actor Andrew Scott must have had a blast with this part, which allowed him to veer from threatening and sinister to light-hearted and playful, from cunning and focused to cackling and even faux-terrified. It was a style of villain much in the vein of Heath Ledger’s Joker or John Simm’s Master, but at the same time completely individual and unique.

Scott’s towering, scene-grabbing portrayal of Moriarty has been controversial and divisive, but I loved every minute of it – it shone in a series stuffed full of great performances, from Cumberbatch himself as Holmes of course, to Lara Pulver’s memorably classy and sexy Irene Adler to Gatiss’s own cameos as a svelte brother Mycroft (particularly well used in the season finale.) In such stellar company it would be easy to forget about the down-to-earth, unshowy performance of Martin Freeman – a usual fate for actors essaying the role of Watson down the years. But he gave such an exceptional performance here, as indeed he has done throughout: thoroughly normal and yet also quietly extraordinary, and given the best line of the episode when he says “Don’t be dead” to a tombstone, before about-turning and walking away with a subtle but emphatic military gait that bestows years of invaluable, believable backstory to this usually most nondescript of men.

The sheer pace and energy of the cat-and-mouse game between Homes and Moriarty kept the episode careering along at the highest speed, although it didn’t stint on character work either. The lab scene between Molly Hooper and Sherlock was a show-stopper, as Molly suddenly floored Holmes with an emotional perception he hadn’t thought possible from her or indeed from anyone. For me, the episode only flagged when it came to the final scenes at St Barts, which felt just a little drawn out; intended to milk the moment for all the tension and drama it was worth, I found that rather than white knuckles I was instead thinking “Oh, just get on with it now, will you?” – but I suspect the pacing of these moments simultaneously hid an awful lot of the intricate mechanism by which Sherlock will be restored to life come season 3.

And yes, of course there will be a season 3. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson’s Reichenbach Fall was no more likely or able to put a stop to Holmes than was Conan Doyle’s original Final Solution. After having teased the viewers in advance of the airing by saying “This might be the end of Sherlock,” Moffat popped up on Twitter the next day and gleefully revealed that the matter had never been in doubt: the series had been re-commissioned a year ago not just for this season two, but also for a further season three at the same time. It had been a done deal before anyone even asked the question.

A nation breathes a sigh of relief: Mr Holmes and the redoubtable Dr Watson (Cumberbatch and Freeman both on day release from The Hobbit duties in New Zealand, presumably) will return in 2013. And we’ll get to find out just how Holmes manages to resurrect himself from one of the more serious and emphatically documented cases of absolutely certain sudden death seen outside of religious texts; and exactly how well Watson is going to take the news.

Have the strong smelling salts standing by.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)

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Sherlock is back! I confess that I’m somewhat amazed by how stunningly successful and popular the original 2011 three-part series was, the character of Sherlock Holmes having been done to death so many times that you could almost hear people rolling their eyeballs around their sockets at the prospect of another; but Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss produced a genuinely fresh and strikingly new take on the great detective, taking cues and inspirations from the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but then spinning them off into something altogether new and exciting.

Even so, this series – like Moffat’s parallel work on Doctor Who – makes no allowances for viewers who aren’t willing to work to keep up and who possess a modicum of intelligence. This isn’t the sort of programme you can watch while multi-tasking, it demands all your attention. I think that’s a good thing, but it can get Moffat into trouble as Doctor Who has shown at times; but he’s unapologetic and even baldly states in this first episode of the second mini-series of Sherlock that “smart is the new sexy” – and we not only believe the sentiment, we embrace it wholeheartedly and keep it close. But that relationship can still be strained, even now.

This second series takes off exactly where the first left-off – a poolside stand off between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Andrew Scott playing ‘Jim’ Moriarty (deliciously styled in this modern version as a ‘consulting criminal’ making him the perfect mirror image of Holmes’ consulting detective.) That segues seamlessly into the new story, which is initially based heavily on one of the best known Conan Doyle stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. This time the royal family at risk is Britain’s own, resulting in Holmes and Watson being whisked off to the palace while in the middle of another case. This puts them on the trail of a dominatrix called ‘The Woman’, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver who makes an unforgettable entry into the story dressed in … earrings.

Holmes’ ruse to get the blackmail material she possesses is the same as in the original short story, but that’s barely the beginning of proceedings which extends the romantic cat-and-mouse game played between Holmes and Adler. Cumberbatch plays this new side of Holmes quite brilliantly, while Martin Freeman is still quite astoundingly good as John Watson and the relationship between the two is still as wonderfully drawn as it was in the first series. Gatiss himself is back as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the two providing a sparklingly barbed relationship with poor Watson caught in the middle, while Una Stubbs is also coming into her own as a very resourceful Mrs Hudson and pathologist Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) continues to carry a doomed torch for Sherlock and consequently features in one of the most awkward and touching scenes of the entire 90 minutes.

Just to emphasise that this is a very modern Holmes, technology plays a major part in proceedings: Watson’s blog plays an important role in the story (and listen out for the little gems of more reworked original Holmes titles for the blog posts), the McGuffin is a password-protected smartphone, and even Twitter gets a name-check. The series continues with its audacious gimmick of putting text messages up on screen, and it continues to work unfeasibly well with some lovely visual touches, such as when the text is faintly reflected back in the window behind a character as they’re reading the phone’s screen. And in this episode, the whole texting strand is also augmented by the quite brilliant special ringtone that Adler has set to announce the arrival of her messages: so much so that as well as being laugh-out-loud funny every time, it also plays an important role in itself at two key points of the story.

The whole thing is hurtling along at a million miles an hour keeping an entire state banquet’s worth of cutlery up in the air, and it’s perhaps no surprise that there are a few breakages along the way. The case that Holmes and Watson were working on is thrown away as of little importance and in fact it’s others marked by only a single line in a montage that we’re supposed to recall as the plot comes together at indecent speed. Whiplash (appropriately given Adler’s profession) is a real danger as the story goes into overdrive to tie everything up in the final minutes, and while “smart is the new sexy” this is really straining even the brightest audience’s intellect close to breaking point. You’ll have to rewatch it again, and possibly another couple of times more, in order to really understand how it all fits together. Maybe that’s no bad thing, and possibly even the result Moffat consciously intends.

It’s a Moffat trait that we’ve been critical of in Doctor Who, but whether you’re pro- or anti- this approach it certainly fits much better here in Sherlock (which is all about puzzles, deception and misdirection after all) than it does in an ostensibly action-adventure science fiction family show. As a result, it seems a far less serious flaw for Sherlock than it does the Doctor; but a minor flaw nonetheless in an otherwise perfect gem.

Moffat seems to manage to attract whole legions of vociferous critics attacking his work these days – he has become the number one target for Daily Mail readers in the last year, who turned first on his work for Doctor Who and now seem to be taking aim on his award-winning Sherlock as well. Here it seems to be the presence of implied (although artistically hidden) nudity and the very implication of Adler’s ‘moderate scolding’ profession before the 9pm watershed. Well, for one thing, scheduling is up to the BBC controllers, not Moffat; and for another, this is getting even sillier than the early extremes of political correctness demanded by the obsessed Mary Whitehouse in the 70s. The kind of ultra-sensitivity of people criticising Sherlock would leave you nothing but fluffy kittens (and emphatically none of Mrs Slocombe’s pussies) if they had their way; although it’s “odd” that the criticism is always directed at BBC shows and never about the catalogue of improprieties at, say, ITV’s Downton Abbey.

Perhaps more serious is the criticism from long-time Holmes aficionados that the story is somehow misogynistic and/or betrays the character of Irene Adler from the Conan Doyle originals. On the one hand, ‘The Woman’ here is more striking and capable than any Irene Adler ever seen before on screen. Compare it against the by-rote and quickly backgrounded and finally predictably damsel-in-distress equivalent character played by Rachel McAdams in the Robert Downey Jr. 2009 motion picture. Pulver’s interpretation absolutely wipes the floor with Sherlock for 89 minutes of the running time and is totally in command – most memorably when she totally throws him off with her initial underdressed entrance into Holmes’ life and he’s completely unable to read anything about her. She’s not a character you’re likely to forget in a hurry, and that makes her a very worthy Irene Adler far above the usual sea of mediocrity. However, it’s still a shame she ‘loses’ at the end (unlike in the book) and has to be saved by Sherlock, and that so much of her power in the story appears to be predicated upon sex.

Next week we move on to “The Hounds of Baskerville”, written by series co-creator and occasional Mycroft, Mark Gatiss. Doubtless there will be storms of criticism of implied animal cruelty or outrageous liberties taken with the plot. We can but hope – otherwise where would the fun be in this dependably, deliciously dark detective delight?