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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent