Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 4 Aug 2010

To take on one of the most well known and best loved literary characters of all time is a gamble; but to alter them to the degree that what you’re doing crosses the line from adaptation to reinterpretation suggests a brazen confidence in your own ability. By setting Sherlock (BBC1 – and you know what it’s based on) in the modern day that’s exactly the game the BBC are playing. The detective genre is one founded on limitations – and the detective’s ability to get around them. Of course the Victorian Holmes faced a great deal more of these than a modern detective would, and therefore the transposition to modern times requires the line mentioned above to be crossed. As a result it was hard not to go in with an air of cynicism, a cynicism somewhat intensified by the knowledge that the eponymous lead role was being played by Benedict Cumberbatch – not because of any reservations about the man’s talent, but because he would make such an excellent original flavour Holmes. Martin Freeman is Watson, which is probably a decent call, as ‘normal guy in a situation’ is his forte.

But enough speculation – it’s time to tackle the beast itself. The first thing that strikes you is BBC scented corniness – that slightly naff music, the campy raised eyebrows, the smug little modernisations (Holmes has a bloody website). We don’t seem to do eccentrics that well these days, and indeed the makers have fallen back on a Holmes who seems the epitome of savant syndrome (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). His high functioning thoughts are occasionally displayed visually on the screen as writing, which did not sit well but at least provided a welcome break from the rapid-fire vocal deductions he constantly makes, complete with giddying camera swoops. Freeman, as expected, is Mr Vanilla, and a bit too hapless for my liking – but a suave sophisticated Watson is probably too much to ask for, as he is too useful as a comic character.

But something happened – I don’t remember the bad taste disappearing, but it became strangely compelling, in the way that only a detective story can be. There aren’t many opportunities to work out clues for yourself, but as Columbo proved (where you know the answer anyway) it’s utterly addictive to watch a great deducer deduce. Cumberbatch is impossible to dislike, and even although Watson is pretty useless, Freeman plays his part well. The modernisations are thankfully done rather well too (the rache/Rachel thing was a brilliant switch for Holmes fans) and end up serving as a neat tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle rather than a travesty. Indeed they’ve sidestepped a potential hazard, as it’s so easy for things set in the 19th century to become petticoat and smelling salt laden comedies of manners. There is one reason that stands above the others as justification for the modern setting though – and that is that Sherlock is a love song to London. It is a love that precludes any fiction. They cannot play fast and loose with the city as they have done with the great detective; it has to be the real thing, as it is now. It’s a reciprocal relationship though, as the city is marvellously evocative and gives the programme a certain credibility. It’s not gritty by any means, but it’s not twee either, which can be considered a quite a victory. I’ll end by tempering this gushing praise. There are a couple of occasions that reek a bit of deus ex machina, which can end up being a little confusing. The second episode wasn’t quite as good as the first, and would’ve worked better as the fifth episode in a 12 part series, as opposed to the second in trilogy. And finally they’re laying on the Moriarty a bit thick, which seems slightly forced – at no point does it seem like an arch enemy is necessary. I’m absolutely terrified they’re going to do a Batman/Joker in The Dark Knight thing, where they both need each other to exist. Please don’t.

Other than Holmes we’ve had John Bishop elevated to a Saturday night slot in John Bishop’s Britain (BBC1), which is possibly the most Saturday night thing I’ve ever seen. You’ve probably not seen it, unless you’re a child or too old/dull to have anything better to do of a Saturday night. The premise is thus: a topic is chosen, and some talking heads representing ‘the people of Britain’ talk about it, punctuated by Bishop (it just me or do a lot of Scousers look very similar. Is it that haircut?) doing some of his stand-up, which is rather arbitrarily acted out in short vignettes. It leaves you with the same feeling an old gameshow would, or You’ve Been Framed (as presented by Beadle, we’re not savages) i.e. it’s so inoffensive I don’t really want to be offended by it, but it is Saturday night tripe. Heck, maybe it’s not the slot for Bish, because he doesn’t seem that funny, which might come down to him lacking family friendly material. He did recycle a bit he did on Jonathan Ross (it worked as a personal story, but not as a ‘bit’) so maybe that’s the deal. Meh.

A new series of Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum (BBC3) started. This shouldn’t be good, but reality shows hinge on the people on them, and this lot are ruddy hilarious. Apologies for the cliché, but this is car-crash television at its best. What a bunch of hilarious cocks, I couldn’t stop laughing. Brilliant. Finally, we have The Great Outdoors (BBC4) which caught my eye because of the channel it was on. A sitcom on BBC4!? A new thinking man’s comedy? Well no, but it did have Brian from Spaced and her from The I.T. crowd (I don’t know if I like The I.T. Crowd – do you?), so the cast was pretty decent. And indeed, the acting was just that – but it was a bit sitcom by numbers in the end, as anything that claims it is about ‘misfits’ is bound to be. Ultimately rather nothing-y. Meh.

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