So, Sherlock Holmes is alive and well, working in the 21st century, helping out the police with their enquires, equipped with mobile phones, computers and Google Maps. No, wait, come back: it’s better than that – much better.
Traditionally, when there’s been this sort of twist on the Most Famous Detective In The World™, it’s been a mystery as to why anyone thought it was a good idea. However, in BBC One’s Sherlock, from the minds of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen), the solution is as simple and elegant as any one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best stories: this isn’t a Victorian detective transported to the modern day, he is of the modern day.
Here, there was never any Sherlock at the turn of the last century, and he’s having his adventures for the first time, alongside modern versions – again, the ‘first versions’ – of Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade.
It’s a masterstroke, one you feel absolutely shouldn’t work, but Sherlock is compelling, fast-paced and absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original. So much so, in fact, that you remain convinced that this is still the London – bustling, mysterious, strange and dangerous – that Conan Doyle wrote about: the fact that it’s got the Millennium Dome and Gherkin added to the skyline makes no difference.
It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but here is achieved with great success, mainly because the creative team seem to have spotted that, whereas the Agatha Christie novels owe a great deal to their time and location, a surprisingly small amount of the magic of Sherlock Holmes is contained within the fog and gaslight. It’s all about the chemistry and allure of the gentleman detective himself.
Benedict Cumberbatch – apart from being blessed with the kind of name that you feel convinced belongs to a villain that would throw Sherlock from a high cliff one day – is a genuine revelation. Familiar to many for playing fey, somewhat sexless parts in fare such as Starter For Ten and Small Island, he here gives us someone who is… well, fey and somewhat sexless (he’s confused by people flirting with him), but at the same time is energetic, powerful, whip smart (obviously) – and yes, sexy and charming.
Recognising that someone as aloof and as distant as the detective we all recognise wouldn’t really be able to operate in 2010 – not without attracting the attentions of several clinical psychologists, anyway – here we have a detective who is wryly aware of his social shortcomings, and is able to joke about it.
He suggests that he’s a ‘high operating sociopath’ (as opposed to a psychopath). Able to immediately identify smells, brand names, small hidden scars, and, it appears, the famous cab driver’s ‘Knowledge’ in order to find the best route to run across London, there’s even a suggestion that he’s operating somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
It’s a great, virtuoso performance from Cumberbatch – possibly a career-defining one – and there’s a moment when you suddenly wonder how close he was from stealing a certain role from under Matt Smith’s nose – particularly when he delivers a signature Moffat line when faced with an impossible problem. There’s also great chemistry with Dr Watson (Martin Freeman, guiding the audience gently in and providing a great deal of bewildered humour), Mrs Hudson (a perfectly cast Una Stubbs) and a particularly impressive guest star, playing a mysterious and sinisterly speaking shadowy figure, whose name begins with ‘M’.
Put simply, this is a great success, and we hope to see many more beyond this first series. Currently only three stories have been adapted, and if this first one is typical of the evidence, they’ve been updated with great skill and wit, with fun to be had for those familiar with the original mysteries as certain clues are twisted and even completely reversed for a modern audience.
There are plenty more stories to give us (including one with a big dog, we hear), and while we’re constantly being told that the BBC needs to tighten its belts, this is one programme they really can’t afford to lose. Really, it’s (and you should be impressed we got this far without saying it) elementary.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 25th July 2010 on BBC One.