by MICHAEL MORRISSEY
Years ago when I was working as a steward on the HMS Maori I got into an odd discussion about Sherlock Homes. My fellow stewards insisted that the lean detective was a real person — after all, they knew the address: 221B Baker St!
My insistence that he was a “character” invented by Arthur Conon Doyle was met with scepticism. I let the matter drop.
This debate about Mr Holmes reinforces the notion that he is arguably the most famous character in fiction — so famous
that he was assumed to be real (unlike, say, Tarzan or James Bond). Our social misfit played the violin and took cocaine and morphine.
Bear in mind those drugs were legal at the time (although sensibly disapproved of by Dr Watson).
Famous actors who have played the great sleuth include Basil Rathbone, Stewart Granger, Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, George C. Scott, Peter Cushing, John Barrymore, Edward Woodward and the superb Jeremy Brett.
Testing our devotion, local television has recently given viewers three lots of Sherlock Holmes, all concurrent.
Two of the newish TV series featuring the pipe-smoking sleuth have included Sherlock and Elementary. In Sherlock, the traditional frock coat has been traded in for a full black overcoat. But why (in
Elementary) — except in the name of a mischievous campishness — is Dr Watson now played by a woman? Logically, we will
soon have a Sherlock played by a femme fatale talking like Mike Hosking.
Also recently on show were the steampunkish Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes:A Game of Shadows. Robert Downey Jnr made only a fairish fist of the part — that is, good fight sequences — but was
frequently upstaged by the always excellent Jude Law and menacing Mark Strong as master illusionist Lord Blackwood.
In all Holmes portrayals, the supernatural turns out to have an explanation — revealed by the master detective, naturally.
Screen versions of Holmes vary between setting them in 1890s London (then the greatest city on Earth) and shifting it to the contemporary. The Robert Downey films opt for the former and the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock TV series opts for the latter.
The third series of Sherlock began with the improbable return of Mr Holmes. After all, we saw him splatter on a hard London pavement and blood leaking from that superior brain.
The original story had him fall over a waterfall while tussling with arch-crook Moriarty, although our beloved hero was saved by a handy ledge.
After two new red herrings, we got the real deal. Top marks
for the cunning of the scheme (a soft hidden landing device, swap
of bodies), although the motivation seems a tad shaky.
Although Cumberbatch retains his memorising screen presence, Martin Freeman as Watson is not his match in character portrayal. Cumberbatch’s ratiocinative competition with brother Mycroft (played superbly by series creator Mark Gattis) showed off his machine gun speech to the full. He is eerily brilliant with de rigueur nerves of steel and narrowed eyes, conveying the impression of a cold, superior intellect ill at ease with emotion, considered to cloud
the clarity of reason.
Holmes’s gloomy silences punctuated with extremely rapid bursts of speech hint at manic depressive disorder. Or he is an obsessive neurotic? Or an eccentric genius? Arguably, all three.
The plot of a missing railway carriage turned into a giant bomb was frankly preposterous but allowed an opportunity to showcase — here and throughout — some highly effective techno-enhanced filmnoirish
photography. And Holmes is now showing a sadistic side not quite in keeping with the literary original.
How much more punishment can psychologically abused Dr Watson take? Taking a wife would seem like a smart way out.
Portraying Sherlock Holmes is now almost on a par with tackling Hamlet. It offers the challenge of reinventing one of the greatest of all fictional characters. But please, don’t let Sherlock Holmes become any more camped up than is currently the case.
by MICHAEL MORRISSEY