21st Century Sherlock

 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:


  1. Right, I’ve now seen one full second episode of the new, 21st Century Sherlock Holmes, and a good half of the first episode, and now feel that I am in the position to make a substantial comment to CW’s blog.

    I must admit that being a bit of a Sherlock nerd, I approached the show with a large measure of scepticism. Perhaps some of this was engendered by the rather unusual name of the actor playing the main role: Benedict Cumberbatch. Then I thought, “Wasn’t Basil Rathbone an unusual name as well?”, and continued with a more open mind!

    I have to say that what I have seen so far is quite impressive. The scriptwriters and main actors (Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman from The Office) have certainly made huge efforts to update Holmes to the 21st century, illustrating the sort of clues which a modern day great sleuth would employ when attempting to solve a case, while retaining the essential characteristics of the intense, intellectual, and brooding Holmes, and the more earthy and laid-back Watson. Perhaps the producers “chickened out” a little bit by not making Holmes a recovering cocaine addict, which would have been perfectly in keeping with our more louche era. Many of the other characters are very familiar too: the envious and belligerent but sneakily admiring police detectives; the suitably obnoxious and snobbish investment banker, a university mate of Holmes; the Chinese girl once part of a criminal circle now desperately trying to escape her past ( cue The Dancing Men and the Boscombe Valley Mystery).

    The only fault that I’d have is that in the last episode the idea of introducing an action-heroine in the form of Watson’s new love interest was a little too “modern” for my taste! Action was always for the boys in the Holmes stories – but then again, we are in the 21st century!

    It is strange to see Mrs Hudson played by Una Stubbs – I still expect to hear “Ayup Aunt Sally!” in a west country accent!


  2. Sarah Carey in the Irish Times makes an interesting point:

    “It’s a bit of a risk to make Holmes so thoroughly dislikable. I’m accustomed to his type since I’ve worked in technology companies and meet characters like him all the time – super intelligent and convinced the rest of us are idiots. The writers make a point, then, to introduce some wit into the script and the result is a smart, fun ride through this well-paced show.”

    Full article here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0731/1224275868266.html

    Personally I think the episodes are too long at 90 minutes and contain some padding to lengthen the stories. Hour-long episodes would be enough – like the old Jeremy Brett series.

  3. Thought I would contribute a photo to illustrate your piece – one of my favourites – Steven Moffat with the boys:

    1. Also can’t resist setting out my own feelings about Sherlock, which I genuinely consider to be one of the best British TV series in years and years (and I watch a lot of TV).

      I love absolutely EVERYTHING about Sherlock, but in particular the fact that Benedict perfectly embodied for me the Sherlock Holmes that I created in my own imagination when I read the original stories in my teens.

      Inspired by the series, I took my Complete Sherlock Holmes collection down off the shelf after 25 years and have just finished re-reading the entire Canon. Enough said.

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