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

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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.

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