Preview: Sherlock

WHEN the BBC announced it was staging a contemporary update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, I can’t say I was exactly thrilled by the prospect.

Not even the key involvement of Doctor Who scribes Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss filled me with much hope, as – exceptionally talented though he is – Moffat’s modernisation of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was a mess, and Gatiss’s Who episodes are usually less than essential.

And while I’m no Holmes scholar, I admit I must have been suffering from a form of purist myopia brought on by a lifetime of exposure to the traditional Holmesian archetype. No deerstalker and pipe? No hansom cabs and fog? Pah. That’s like launching Poirot into space. It’ll never work.

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Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The reason Sherlock works so well is that Moffat and Gatiss are unabashed Holmes enthusiasts. It’s only because they’re so respectful of the source material that they can diverge so ingeniously from it. Faithful in spirit but promiscuous in execution, each episode is loosely inspired by Conan Doyle, retaining his core plot elements while inhabiting territory very much of their own (updated this year are A Scandal In Bohemia, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Final Problem).

Also, the contemporary accoutrements employed by Holmes and Watson – blogging, texting etc – feel less like clumsy gimmicks and more like reasonable extrapolations of how these characters would operate in the modern world. Sherlock is knowingly post-modern in the best possible sense.

It is telling that Gatiss has criticised some of the more recent adaptations for being too reverential and languid, citing the enjoyably anachronistic 1940s films in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce battled Nazis as an example of how to successfully free the characters from their Victorian milieu.

Director Guy Ritchie presumably felt the same way, since although he retained the standard period setting for his comic-book movie versions, their wham-bam energy couldn’t be more at odds with the stately pace of most conventional stagings (It’s interesting to note that two Holmes franchises are running concurrently, yet neither impinges upon the other since their tones are so very different: testament to the malleability and longevity of Conan Doyle’s iconic creations).

But as Sherlock’s co-creators have been keen to point out, the original Holmes adventures were exactly that – kinetic adventures, full of action and ideas. Perfect, then, for a writer such as Moffat, whose best work tends to revel in its cunning sleight of hand. Intricate puzzles being solved from within, these stories have clearly inspired Gatiss too, who seems much more in his element here than on Doctor Who.

Put simply, Sherlock is a striking projectile of stylish entertainment rightfully aimed at an intelligent adult audience, which is doubtless why it was embraced with such gusto when it debuted last year.

Together with Downton Abbey – with which it shares an agreeable air of panache, if little else – it shook the Sunday evening drama slot from its usual torpor with such cocky assurance, it immediately captured the attention of a mass audience clearly crying out for something a bit different. For a brief moment at least, it suddenly felt as if we’d never have to sit through another plodding serial about a miserable provincial detective growling at paedophiles. But, of course, we always will.

Nevertheless, the success of Sherlock and Doctor Who is a gratifying reminder that audiences are more than willing to accommodate audacious and original drama. That may sound odd when discussing a pair of fictional characters with a combined vintage of 172 years, but the fact remains that, amidst the general conservatism of mainstream television, they each stand out as welcome anomalies. That both function under the auspices of the same writers is even more remarkable still.

But they mustn’t get all the credit, since Sherlock’s popularity is owed in large part to the astute casting of Britain’s most splendidly named thespian, Benedict Cumberbatch, in the lead role, and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson.

Inhabiting the precise physical nexus between Nick Drake, David Bowie, an anthropomorphic gerbil and a ferociously precocious 1970s public schoolboy, Cumberbatch is a charismatic whirligig as the sociopathic super-sleuth genius.

Likewise, the perennially understated Freeman is a superb foil for his partner’s wild peregrinations. Their odd-couple chemistry is palpable in a way that, say, that between Dalziel and Pascoe wasn’t.

Despite being increasingly in demand – both star in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming Hobbit movie, coincidentally enough – it would be nice to see more of their witty double-act for several years to come.