TV review: Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

The BBC's new Sherlock Holmes is great fun, says Gary Day, but the man himself remains an enigma

January 5, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Oh dear, oh dear, what has the BBC done to Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, BBC One, Monday 1 January, 8.10pm)? Well, for a start, they have taken away his cape and his deerstalker. And where is his pipe and his magnifying glass? All gone. Ah well, who cares about accuracy - it's entertainment that counts.

The great detective's makeover is yet another example of the disastrous effects of modernisation. It asset-strips the past. Gone is Holmes' London and, with it, something of Holmes himself. The fog, a key part of the atmosphere of the stories, has vanished. It was a symbol for the unknown city whose mystery not even Holmes could penetrate.

Raymond Williams argued that the detective story appears at roughly the same time as sociology and that both are a response to the complexity of urban life. Holmes' forensic skills give the illusion that the fog will be lifted. But it never is; except once. And what do we see then? A labourer going to work. As if scared that it has given away a secret, the fog rolls quickly down again. The Sherlock Holmes stories may have arisen as a way of understanding the city, but in fact they only romanticise it. Holmes himself knows little about politics but a great deal about sensationalist literature.

Steven Moffat's updated version of the character swaps mist for internet transparency. Holmes no longer needs to leave Baker Street to solve a crime, he can do it by means of a webcam. How was the hiker killed? Elementary. He turned round as a car engine backfired and was hit in the back of the head by his boomerang. A warning, perhaps, of what happens when you throw away too much of the work you are adapting.

Holmes' power of reasoning is expressed through technology. The camera zooms in on a visitor's coat, trousers and shoes to dramatise his deductions about their life: their occupation, their habits, their likes and dislikes. The information flashes up on the screen just as it does on the eyes of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator as he surveys his surroundings. The futuristic feel is to be expected since Moffat is currently the lead writer on Dr Who, but the split screens and mix of speeded-up and slow-motion shots also betray the influence of Spooks.

Of course, some of Holmes' traits survive in this series. His ennui, for instance, which he relieves, in the stories, by taking cocaine or playing his violin. In this episode, though, there was no snorting, only scraping. But the biggest omission is the contrast between Holmes and Watson. Holmes is thin, Watson stocky; Holmes is a brilliant thinker, Watson a plodder; Holmes is an ascetic, Watson a man who likes his creature comforts.

These differences were at the heart of the 14 feature films, made between 1939 and 1946, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. But they have all but disappeared in this series, like footsteps in the fog. Benedict Cumberbatch at least looks like Holmes, but Martin Freeman as Watson is so anonymous, you could spend the night with him and not recognise him the following morning.

Which sort of brings us to sex, the chief ingredient in this adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle's 56 short stories about Holmes. Was Holmes a virgin? Is Dr Watson gay? Is thinking the new sexy? Apart from these pressing questions, the plot remains pretty much the same, which certainly saves the bother of invention. A royal personage employs Holmes to recover compromising images of an encounter with Irene Adler, played with seductive archness by Lara Pulver.

In the original, Irene is an opera singer; in this adaptation, she is a dominatrix. She greets Holmes in the nude. This is a clever move because a naked body does not give as many clues about the owner as a suit of clothes. Or it may just be that Holmes hasn't seen one before. A battle of wits ensues in which Irene comes out on top, as you might expect, given her profession.

It transpires that she has more than just pictures on her phone. There's also a copy of an email about saving the world that a Cabinet minister showed her while he was supposed to be tied up. Either Irene skimped on the knots or else the minister is something of a contortionist. I go for the second option. You don't get into government unless you can extricate yourself from some pretty sticky situations.

It was all good fun. But there was an edge. Cumberbatch's performance implied that Holmes may be slightly autistic. Conan Doyle himself said his hero was more calculating machine than man and, as such, the perfect emblem for our modern times.

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