DJ Taylor: Sherlock Holmes is more than a brand name

Rupert Everett has canvassed the need for a different kind of Holmes, one without deerstalker

Share
Related Topics

We should be grateful, in a landscape crowded out with the likes of
Big Brother and TV's
Naughtiest Blunders 14, that any literary classic gets dramatised for the small screen these days. Even so, I was slightly alarmed to discover the BBC's intentions with regard to its latest remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes. The attempt to return Baker Street's cadaverous, cocaine-injecting sleuth to the forefront of the public consciousness is to be called
The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and the choice of Rupert Everett as the leading man is, according to the pundits, sure to upset the diehard fan.

We should be grateful, in a landscape crowded out with the likes of Big Brother and TV's Naughtiest Blunders 14, that any literary classic gets dramatised for the small screen these days. Even so, I was slightly alarmed to discover the BBC's intentions with regard to its latest remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes. The attempt to return Baker Street's cadaverous, cocaine-injecting sleuth to the forefront of the public consciousness is to be called The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and the choice of Rupert Everett as the leading man is, according to the pundits, sure to upset the diehard fan.

It could be argued that the diehard fan, whether of old-style Radio Three or old-style BBC2, exists only to be upset, but there are several reasons for this prospective chorus of dissent. On the one hand the film is not based on any known work by Sir Arthur but derived from "an entirely original plot".

On the other Rupert Everett, savage iconoclast that he is, has canvassed the need for a very different kind of Holmes. "I won't wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe," he recently told an interviewer. "The deerstalker is never mentioned in the books. It was invented by the actor Basil Rathbone, and now I'm taking it away and going for a mysterious and moody Holmes."

Doubtless there is a Sherlock Holmes Society somewhere in the English Home Counties - The Writer's Handbook lists only an Arthur Conan Doyle Society care of a box number in British Columbia - and doubtless at some point between now and next year's screening its members will be protesting about this re-invention.

The row that breaks out between purists and TV adaptors whenever a literary classic is brought to television is one of the most regular sights of the modern media age. At the same time, all resistance is futile. There is no point in complaining, as I used once to do, whenever Andrew Davies decides to crank up the bonk factor in Trollope, because neither he nor anyone at the BBC cares a bean. All you can do is grit your teeth and hope that two or three thousand viewers will be sufficiently inspired to wander into a public library and borrow the book.

Leaving aside the particular villanies perpetrated on many a Victorian novel by inky-fingered modern screenwriters, it would be odd if succeeding ages didn't reinvent great books and their characters according to their own preoccupations. There have, heaven knows, been plenty of predecessor Holmeses, all of them differing in some way from the remorseless, aquiline original. Basil Rathbone played him as an English gent, Peter Cushing as an enigmatic brooder, Jeremy Brett as a wonderfully camp creation with a ballet dancer's gait and baroque hand gestures. All this, too, is as nothing compared to some of the re-imaginings brought to certain cornerstones of the English canon.

To examine the dramatic history of A Christmas Carol, for example, is to discover a tract for Dickens' time capable of serial metamorphosis. Immediately after the author's death it was interpreted as a spiritual allegory, with Scrooge's moral about-turn seen as a form of Christian redemption. Sentimental Edwardians saw it as a Peter Pan-ish fairy tale. A Depression-era British film offered scenes of prosperous burghers carousing at a Lord Mayor's Banquet while the starving poor queued humbly outside - only slightly less detached from the template than a West Coast "adult" extravaganza from the 1980s called The Passions of Carol.

There comes a point, in fact, at which any fictional item with sufficient elemental allure ceases to belong to its creator and transforms itself into a brand, ripe for exploitation by anyone who cares to put up the money provided a few rudimentary ground rules are obeyed. Literature can hardly complain about this, for it was literature, or rather literature's impresarios, that led the way, with their several James Bonds, their enthusiastic sponsorship of Austen-finishers and Brontë-continuers and, at the very bottom of the heap, the hilarious posthumous career of the entity known as "Virginia Andrewes", two decades dead now but still producing two best-selling novels a year.

And yet even amid this joyous artistic free-for-all, some kind of responsibility lurks. The TV adaptor who puts sex scenes into a Victorian novel usually claims to do so on the grounds that the average Victorian novelist, trammelled by contemporary censorship, would have approved, which is simple delusion. Most Victorian novelists, if not wholly approving of the limits set on art by its moral guardians, were deeply chary of the explicit. Dickens might have enjoyed lampooning "Podsnappery", his shorthand for genteel middle-class taste, but no one could wax more genteely middle class when the occasion demanded it.

Thirty years ago, when Jonathan Miller turned his attention to producing Mozartian opera, his justification of his radical, composer-ignoring approach was that "We owe him [Mozart] nothing." On the contrary, we owe him absolutely everything. The producers of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, however "original" the script they happen to be working from, might remember that they owe a similar debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own