Sherlock Holmes is a hot property right now. To be fair, it always has been, and Sherlock Holmes holds the Guinness Book of Records for most portrayed movie character. It’s not just movie adaptations though, and undoubtedly through the years you’ve probably heard radio plays, cartoons and TV series all featuring our favourite genius detective. In recent years, we’ve had the TV spin-off House (a medical take replacing crimes with disease and detective skills with diagnostic ones) as well as the box office hits starring Robert Downey Jnr (not fantastic, in my opinion). But what I want to talk about today is the BBC series Sherlock, featuring a modern day adaptation of the Holmes franchise starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Created by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (famous for their work on Doctor Who), the series is about to air its 3rd season hopefully before the end of this year, after filming was delayed. The seasons are short, even by English TV standards, consisting of only 3 episodes each at an hour and a half long. Talk about short but sweet! Anyway, Sherlock happens to be one of my favourite TV series of recent years and something of a must watch.
Now, there might be Sherlock Holmes purists who find the idea of a modern day setting abhorrent. However, the BBC series manages to incorporate traditional Holmes elements despite its setting in contemporary London. In fact, the decision to modernise the series is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius, though perhaps my adoration of London is in part to blame for that. There are some absolutely stunning vistas of London, some beautiful romps through the darkly lit streets and the overall sense that perhaps London in the new millennium is not so different to London of old. A bonus for me is that Sherlock and John’s apartment is actually set on North Gower Street, a street which is just down the road from where I live in London; unfortunately I didn’t know when the filming was taking place, but lots of my friends have been around the area whilst it was filming and caught glimpses of the famous actors. It sounds pretty lame, but before I chose to attend UCL (University College London), I was really sceptical of living in London and didn’t think it suited my lifestyle. Watching Sherlock however in the summer right before I went to university really helped me feel like London was the place to be.
But more importantly, the modern day setting is a brilliant manoeuvre because it frees up the writers and producers to incorporate some really clever bits of detective sequences, without having to be burdened by creating Victorian costumes or recreating the dusty conditions of Victorian London. For example, Sherlock uses a smartphone in a few sequences, allowing him to access the weather conditions of a certain time and a certain place; other times he uses the GPS software on a phone to track down the location of a certain nefarious man. None of this feels like cheating though. If this were a Victorian setting, you’d just have a boring sequence with Holmes rummaging through local newspapers to get their weather reports or you’d use some deus ex machina to explain how he knew a certain piece of information. The use of modern technology in the Holmes universe is artfully done, and it all just feels really cool and clever. Unlike certain productions which clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding about the potential for technology (cough cough CSI cough cough James Bond cough), Sherlock manages to be realistic and sticks with conventional technology that we all understand and use, but portrays it in a way which just looks so damn clever.
One of the top selling points of the show is just how graceful it is in handling the genius of Sherlock Holmes. The writing is top notch, and there’s plenty of references to the original Conan Doyle works to keep Sherlock Holmes fan happy, whilst bringing in new material which manages to stay refreshing close to the original. In fact, I’d argue it’s one of the more faithful adaptations of Doyle’s works, because although the settings are changed, the spirit of Holmes is carefully captured in this series. Unlike the Robert Downey Jnr adaption which focuses on a more action-centric Holmes whose eccentricities come off as affable, Benedict Cumberbatch plays a much more genuine Holmes. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is that of a genius whose only pleasure is in solving problems that no one else can, and gives off the impression that everyone else with their normal lives and their normal boring social behaviour is a complete waste of time. He is single-minded, but brilliant; he is socially inept, though can be deceiving and skilful when he chooses to be; he is maladjusted and often pessimistic, but can take immense joy out of discovering some dirt under a fingernail. What I was most impressed about though was the use of disguise which is often shown rather clumsily, and never quite has the tactfulness of the books. Cumberbatch’s disguises are not elaborate plastic masks or accurately constructed costumes, but more often than not it is just his ability to fool and confidently con his way into a variety of settings. His disguise is just his demeanour, his ability to camouflage himself as whoever he wants to be. Cumberbatch’s portrayal very much captures the essence of the genius.
John Watson too is skilfully portrayed by Martin Freeman. He is the counter to Sherlock’s eccentricities: a mild-mannered, incredibly apologetic man who participates in Sherlock’s revelry because, well, who wouldn’t? Watson is very much the audience’s paragon, the normal man who had a relatively normal life, but given the opportunity to traipse around London with a man in a trench coat chasing a murderer, he embraces it whilst still retaining his everyman status. That’s not to say that Watson doesn’t want a bit of normality too, though often his efforts at having normal dating relationships or holding down a normal job at a GP’s office are thwarted by his unpredictable partner. Freeman plays an incredibly sympathetic Watson, but manages not to be overshadowed by his more boisterous and attention seeking partner. Watson has his own moments of genius, and I think sometimes that can be lost in a Holmes adaptation. In this series, Watson often plays a crucial part in the investigation; he’s not just some lapdog that Holmes commands around, he is Sherlock’s equal.
The relationship between the two characters is very sensitively done. Of course in any Holmes adaptation, there’s always the risk of how to balance the strong friendship side of things and the more bromance, sub-homoerotic undertones that seems to plague every Holmes story. Sherlock manages to ride this line majestically, never betraying the original works by making their relationship too close, but also not insulting the audience and the franchise by making them too distant. This was a flaw I found in the Robert Downey Jnr movies, where the Holmes and Watson relationship seems rather forced and not very well developed. The BBC series however, gives an excellent portrayal of the relationship and the way Cumberbatch and Freeman riff off each other is an absolute delight to watch. Also, I quite like the change to using first names (Holmes is called Sherlock and Watson is called John) because it both fits the setting but also reflects the more informal relationship that the two people hold. They aren’t just colleagues, they’re actual partners, roommates and friends and that’s heavily reflected in the show. And for those of you who are fans of the show, I’d like to link you to this Korean advertisement for the BBC series and get your comments on it; it’s…interesting, to say the least. 😉
But no Sherlock adaptation would be any good without a good storyline. Luckily, Sherlock the BBC series maintains the signature clever detective style of the Holmes franchise and the shorter seasons allows for much tighter knit storylines. Each episode is its own self-contained story, often adaptations of both famous and not so famous Arthur Conan Doyle stories. With the upgrade to modern day, the stories of course have to be adapted to, and I think that will really appeal to even the most diehard Holmes fans who have seen a hundred adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles before. Like I said, being in a modern day setting gives the writers a lot more freedom to create plots which can be both familiar yet surprising. We all know how Hound of the Baskervilles ends and how Holmes solves the mystery, but can we be certain that there isn’t some modern twist in that particular episode? Whilst the underlying mysteries may seem familiar, and of course we’ll have encounters with Holmes’ famous nemesis Moriarty, the way in which Sherlock approaches each investigation is given a new breath of life by the use of modern day forensic techniques. Of course, Sherlock must still rely on his keen observation skills and his general propensity for obscure forensic knowledge, but the show manages to include some really cool problem solving sequences which don’t seem like cheats. Every episode is therefore riveting, and often highly unpredictable.
Overall, the Sherlock BBC series is one of the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations for current audiences. Don’t be put off by the modern day setting, for the show actually benefits from it and every aspect is incredibly well done and well incorporated into the Holmes universe. If you want a clever and thrilling TV series to watch, then I would highly recommend Sherlock for its high quality, great production values, fantastic writing, talented cast and overall, for its potential to surprise even the most committed of Sherlock Holmes fans.