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The Last of Sherlock

We’ve been rewatching the four series of Sherlock – the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman broadcast between 2010 and 2017: what has been called a Sherlock for the 21st century.

A Sherlock for the 21st century

More accurately, it might be called a Sherlock for the Cameron years. Certainly, the first series has a sort of quaint nostalgic charm. It exudes such a wonderful confidence, a confidence born of the knowledge that London is just as successful, bustling and iconic as it ever was in Conan Doyle’s day. (It may be remembered that Dr Watson described London in A Study in Scarlet as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”; but, oddly enough, even these words seem to add to the charm.) This was the nascent Olympic city of London, of money, banks, the Eye, Black Cabs, of an unimaginative but steadfastly honest police force: a world long gone now, if it ever really existed.

The strength and failing of Sherlock was its creative adventurousness. It never quite became formulaic, because the formula changed each time; the writers took such great pleasure in wrongfooting the viewer in every episode. What is real and what is imagined? What is what it seems? (Ah, nothing, of course.) The distinction between what is imagined in the head and what is “actually” happening in the “real world” was often blurred. The dead are alive. What seems to be one character is really another. And so on and so forth. Because the point of the series is to treat all its crimes and adventures as games. (What is a game? Is a game “real”? Never mind all that – the game is on!)

But because each episode was an experiment, some of them don’t work. That’s what happens, of course, when creativity takes risks. The risk is of failure, and some do fail. But at its best, Sherlock is amazing.

From the recent viewing, I would rank as the best of them the episode in Series 3 called “The Sign of Three” – the one set at and around John Watson’s wedding. It was, to my mind, a perfect mixture of darkness and light, of mystery, misdirection and comedy. The depiction of John’s stag do must be the most deliriously funny sequence in any of the episodes.

John Watson and Sherlock Holmes smashed out of their skulls on about three pints each

But something went awry between the end of series 3 and the start of series 4. “The Abominable Bride”, the one-off Christmas episode in which the characters are transposed to Victorian times, had a weird hallucinogenic edge; this was not new to the series, of course, but was here exaggerated to a wearisome degree. This tone reappeared in series 4. We gained in melodrama what we lost in comedy; a poor exchange.

At its best, Sherlock combined a heightened atmosphere with a connection with reality (reality here often being symbolised by the Mrs Hudson of Una Stubbs.)

Mrs Hudson keeps Sherlock in line

Series 4, broadcast in 2017, shows a world in the process of deliquescing. A prominent celebrity is a serial killer in plain sight. John’s wife dies violently, almost destroying his relationship with Sherlock. All is in decay. The settings of the last episode, “The Final Problem”, include a burned-out house, an asylum, and various collapsing fake sets, mostly murky in appearance and lighting. 221B Baker Street, the solid rock upon which the series is founded, is blown apart. This is a post-Brexit world, and the solidity of Series 1 is long gone.

We often lose our footing in the real world too; “The Final Problem” is a James-Bondish confection mostly set in an unreal remote castle/asylum, and, significantly, Mrs Hudson is largely absent. We go into grim depths, in which life is expendable and almost meaningless. One character blows his own head off because John and Mycroft refuse to do it, during one of the villain’s tests. (This breaks a fundamental Hitchcock rule, that suspense consists in the danger of a bomb exploding, and not in the bomb actually doing so.) Layers of lies are applied and then stripped back, leaving the viewer sore and weary. I kept thinking of the wise words of the immortal Ted Bovis: “Where’s your reality?” Without reality, all this sound and fury means nothing.

I gather there is still talk of a further series of Sherlock. I doubt it will happen. There are practical problems, and too much of the set-up has been tested to destruction. (I would have loved to see an episode showing John and Sherlock during lockdown, but obviously that’s not going to happen now.)

But all the same, at its best, what fun it was!

Is the game on?


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