Zhou Yeling couldn’t wait until 7am for a long-awaited date with her favourite Englishman.
The 19-year-old from the city of Shanghai dragged herself out of bed at 5am to watch the third season premiere of Sherlock on the BBC’s website. Two hours later, the episode started showing with Chinese subtitles on Youku.com, a video website. Youku says it was viewed more than 5 million times in the first 24 hours, becoming the site’s most popular programme to date.
“I was excited beyond words,” said Zhou, a student in the central Chinese city of Changsha.
Sherlock has become a global phenomenon, but nowhere more than in China, which was one of the first countries where the new season was shown.
Online fan clubs have attracted thousands of members. Chinese fans write their own stories about the modern version of author Arthur Conan Doyle’s prickly, Victorian detective and his sidekick, Dr Watson, to fill the time between the brief, three-episode seasons.
In Shanghai, an entrepreneur has opened a Sherlock-themed cafe.
“The Sherlock production team shoot something more like a movie, not just a TV drama,” said Yu Fei, a veteran writer of TV crime dramas for Chinese television. Scenes in which Holmes spots clues in a suspect’s clothes or picks apart an alibi are so richly detailed that “it seems like a wasteful luxury,” Yu said.
Even the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily is a fan.
“Tense plot, bizarre story, exquisite production, excellent performances,” it said of the third season’s first episode.
With its mix of odd villains, eccentric aristocrats and fashionable London settings, Sherlock can draw on a Chinese fondness for a storybook version of Britain. Wealthy Chinese send their children to local branches of British schools such as Eton and Dulwich.
On the outskirts of Shanghai, a developer has built Thames Town, modelled on an English village with mock Tudor houses and classic red phone booths.
“The whole drama has the rich scent of British culture and nobility,” Yu said. “Our drama doesn’t have that.”
The series has given a boost to Youku.com, part of a fast-growing Chinese online video industry. Dozens of sites, some independent and others run by Chinese television stations, show local and imported programmes such as The Good Wife and The Big Bang Theory.
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Youku.com says that after two weeks, total viewership for the Sherlock third season premiere had risen to 14.5 million people. That compares with the 8 to 9 million people who the BBC says watch first-run episodes in Britain. The total in China is bumped up by viewers on pay TV service BesTV, which also has rights to the programme.
Appearing online gives Sherlock an unusual edge over Chinese dramas. To support a fledgling industry, communist authorities have exempted video websites from most censorship and limits on showing foreign programming that apply to traditional TV stations. That allows outlets such as Youku to show series that might be deemed too violent or political for state TV and to release them faster.
“Our writers and producers face many restrictions and censorship. We cannot write about national security and high-level government departments,” Yu said.
Referring to Mycroft Holmes, a shadowy government official and key character, Yu said, “Sherlock’s brother could not appear in a police drama in China.”
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