I’ll probably never forgive chief Doctor Who scriptwriter Stephen Moffatt for turning the show’s eponymous time lord hero into an irritating floppy-haired indie boy twat by casting Matt Smith in the role. I’ve got nothing against the boy Smith – he’s not a bad actor and would probably make an excellent Harry Potter or Peter Pan, but as far as I’m concerned he’s just not Dr Who material. A trendy young actor fresh out of drama school who’s down with the kids and looks like a 16-year old can never adequately replace the likes of David Tennant, Chris Ecclestone, Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee among others (Note I’ve deliberately omitted Sylvester McCoy from the list and I wouldn’t include in the “others” category either). And think of all the good actors out there who could have made an excellent Doctor – Paterson Joseph*, Paddy Considine, David Morrissey – or if the BBC could ever afford him – Robert Downey Jr – to name but a few. But then maybe that’s just a reflection of my age.
When I heard that the very same Moffatt was involved in a new modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes for the BBC I feared the worst. The fact that up-and-coming young actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes bears a passing resemblance to the boy Smith did little to quell my apprehension.
Many devoted Sherlockians would consider this attempt to modernise Holmes as nothing short of blasphemy. But remember the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s when Holmes and Watson were outwitting the Nazis. And consider James Bond, essentially a cold war figure of the 1950s and ‘60s, yet the nmakers of the franchise have constantly been able to reinvent him to suit the zeitgeist – albeit not always with positive results.
In this new 21st century Holmes Martin “Tim from The Office” Freeman has already committed a sacrilege by being the first Dr Watson not to have a moustache. But maybe a cleanshaven Watson is simply a sign of the times. Back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras moustaches were considered respectable and adorned the upper lips of statesmen, generals, writers, academics, explorers, accomplished sportsmen and other distinguished gentlemen. Since then however they have come to be associated with dictators, 1970s porn film actors, lower division footballers, unscrupulous salesmen and RUC men.
A Brief Pictorial History of The Decline and Fall of the Moustache in Respectable Society:
The essential characteristics of the Doyle books remain intact however. The Baker Street address is the same, Watson is a military doctor returned from the latest campaign in Afghanistan. And there’s even a tenuous link to Doctor Who. Mrs Hudson, Holmes and Watson’s landlady is played by Una Stubbs, who played Aunt Sally, the love interest of Worzel Gummidge in the TV series of the early 1980s. Gummidge was played by Jon Pertwee who also played the third version of Dr Who. Pertwee was succeeded by Tom Baker as Who who went on to play Sherlock Holmes in a BBC version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Full circle indeed.
Holmes now lives in a world where horse-drawn carriages and telegrams have been replaced by black cabs, mobile phones, e-mail and websites. Cocaine replaced by nicotine patches. His importance as one of the most famous fictional detectives cannot be underestimated. Sir Arthur’s creation, although merely one of many similar characters of the era, many of whom have since been long forgotten set the template for Marple, Poirot, Columbo, Morse and other icons of detective fiction and TV.
But is it really necessary to resurrect as a present day consulting detective of the early 21st century?
Should Holmes be left alone and kept within his own era for the benefit of the literary purists?
Or is he a flexibly timeless character who could happily exist any time in world history?
I’m not quite sure where I stand on this, but might have a better idea of my position in a few weeks time. Having seen the first episode I thought it wasn’t bad, but I’ll reserve full and proper judgement until I’ve seen at least another instalment.
The new series has nevertheless left me intrigued. I’m thinking of submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police for access to the case files of Sherlock Holmes.
* Incidentally had Paterson Joseph landed the role of Doctor Who, he wouldn’t (contrary to popular belief) have been the first black Doctor, as this little gem below made c. 1985, but set in 2010 proves: