Sherlock Holmes: Why mess with the fabulous Baker Street boys?

Holmes and Watson are back in a BBC drama. The reasons we shouldn't update them are elementary, says Gerard Gilbert

Viewers will on Sunday get their first glimpse of BBC1's new Sherlock Holmes – or Sherlock as this three-part updating of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian detective to contemporary Britain is being called, with the sort of familiarity that would no doubt incur a disdainful wrinkle from literature's most famous aquiline nose. The series is being preceded by the sort of big-bang press screening favoured by the Beeb when launching new series of Doctor Who – and this new Sherlock Holmes (with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman as Watson) comes with its own Whovian credentials, having been co-written by Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss, who himself has three Time Lord episodes under his belt.

But then the connections back between the Tardis traveller and the pipe-smoking detective are nothing new – big-screen Doctor Who star Peter Cushing played Holmes several times. Basil Rathbone is probably the best-known Holmes, if not the most prolific – that honour goes to silent actor Eille Norwood. Vasily Livanov is considered by Russian speakers to be the world's best Holmes – President Putin led the birthday salute when Livanov turned 75 earlier this month.

In the English-speaking world, the definitive Holmes appeared on ITV in the 1980s – Jeremy Brett so totally identifying with the role that it is thought to have contributed to the bi-polar actor's nervous breakdown. Even if that is not true, and the death of his wife during filming looks a more likely cause, certainly Holmes needs an actor who can skirt with madness (a weakness in the Peter Cushing version – has a Holmes ever seemed more boringly sane?) Nicol Williamson, who played Holmes in the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, certainly had the requisite edginess – his Holmes travelled to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud for his cocaine addiction.

Ah, yes, the cocaine addiction. It seemed to dominate Rupert Everett's 2004 portrayal for the BBC's Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. This was a pallid Holmes, so languid that you truly believed to he needed a couple of toots in the morning to go and solve a crime. And what a terrific piece of meta-casting to have fiction's most famous abuser of the coca leaf played by Robert Downey Jr in Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes.

Ritchie's movie was set in the Victorian era, although it might as well have been in present- day Hoxton, which brings us back to the BBC's new version, which really is set in 2010 London. The updating seems a little desperate to me – couldn't we have a female Holmes and Watson while we are at it? It also seems entirely unnecessary. Nearly all modern detective fiction – whether the lead character is called Taggart, Rebus, Luther or Lewis – exists under the influence of Conan Doyle's creation. The genius detective solving crime with the power of deduction, a million miles from the painstaking teamwork of real police investigations, is proving impossible to shake off. Even the mighty CSI franchise is merely a variation on the Holmesian theme – with forensic science in place of the master detective.

The clever crime writers working today tend to use the genre to look at the wider society (Henning Mankell's Wallander being the obvious example), but they still can't jettison the essential template. Both Moffat and Gatiss are innovative TV writers – and I'm sure their Sherlock will be a lot of fun, even if their 60-minute pilot episode, filmed at a cost of £800,000, was binned after the BBC decided to go for three 90-minute features instead. Even so, you don't have to wear a deerstalker and smoke a pipe to detect something awry with the exercise. Writers keep reinventing Sherlock Holmes as if he needed their help to adjust to the modern world, when the reality is that the modern world is still in thrall to Sherlock Holmes.



'Sherlock' begins on Sunday at 9pm on BBC1

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