Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Scarlet made pink!

Sherlock Episode 1: A Study in Pink
Airdate: July 25th 2010. UK. BBC1

There seemed to be a general consensus when it came to speculating about the new Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss written Sherlock Holmes series that it can’t be any good because it’s been updated to contemporary times and will, therefore, lose all it’s flavour.

As it turns out... this is both just not the case and, even if it were the case, the people responsible for this show have an excellent defence against any such attitudes, at least when it comes to people like myself who prefer the more “classic” Hollywoodland version of Sherlock Holmes as played by Basil Rathbone.

But allow me to elucidate...

I could easily jump onto that particular bandwagon, and have done in the past, with various movie adaptations which have strayed from either their period setting or just played too fast and loose with the original material to the extent that it’s no longer in keeping with the spirit of it’s source and I have, amongst my friends, been pretty vocal about it. For example: Spiderman isn’t set now it’s supposed to be 1962... and he has web shooters not a bloody mutation. Superman The Movie? Why isn’t it set in 1939? Daredevil? Where’s his yellow costume then? He didn’t have that red thing in the first issue! The Incredible Hulk? That’s a laugh, he’s got green skin! He had grey skin in the first issue so that’s what he should have in the first movie... etc.

And yes, these are all my own complaints and I have had to deal with them and keep them under control if I don’t want to end up walking out of the movie.

Bit did you notice that this passion for getting the basics right all seems to be about superheroes? Well Sherlock Holmes is surely one of the great superheroes of our time. Maybe he isn’t faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound but he does have a mind that functions at pretty much a superhuman level. I’ve never met anyone who can match the extremely fast deductive reasoning to reach a conclusive piece of information as fast as Arthur Conan Doyles great literary creation and nor do I expect to in real life.

I grudgingly watched Sherlock, however, because I am a big fan of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce series of films made by Hollywood in the 40s? And if you’re a fan of those you can’t possibly be against updating Holmes because, if memory serves me correctly, all but the first two (made for Fox I think before they switched over to Universal) were updated for contemporary times... so with the Rathbone films you really do get Holmes against the Axis powers!

Also, as much as I love Nigel Bruce as Watson and as much as I can watch him do it over and over again... the simple fact of the matter is that Bruce played him as a bumbling comic relief kind of character... and Watson was never like that. In fact he was much more like the character played beautifully, surprisingly and impressively by Martin Freeman in the first episode of Sherlock.

The show starts off with modern day war footage edited in quick bursts and after my mind had gotten over the shock of that rather abrupt intro and got used to the idea that I was indeed watching Sherlock and not a trailer for another show next week, I then thought to myself... “Oh. It’s one of those Sherlock stories that start off in another country and then, eventually, the story will link up in some way with Sherlock Holmes. Well I was wrong again because then I saw Martin Freeman and I realised he was playing Watson and it was only then that I remembered Watsons military service.

And the way the rest of that sequence was edited by crossfading from separate moments in time to a more choppier editing style which gives the programme an edgy brevity which doesn’t let up... well I was pretty much hooked before Holmes even comes into the story.

Then there was the scene where, at a press conference with Inspector Lestrade, everyone's phones in the room are being “texted” with Holmes comments on the situation without him being even present. And the way they’ve chosen to show this, again perhaps with the spirit of brevity in mind, is to literally show the texts drifting up from all the phones in nicely animated typography (I’ll come back to that in a minute).

And then we are introduced, as is Watson, to Sherlock Holmes and before you can say “deerstalker” the two of them are thrust into a shared lodging and a shared, frantically paced adventure and the game is afoot (well, actually “The game is on” which is a change I didn’t like so am trying to forget about it). Now I like Moffett but as readers of this blog will know... I stopped trusting him on the last season of Doctor Who, which I thought was the weakest in a while. This, however, restores my faith in him completely. The writing is well crafted but not too much so that you can see the manipulation behind the writing too easily and the dialogue sings it way off the page and into your head with ease. The chemistry between Holmes and Watson is remarkably good in this first episode. Hope subsequent episodes are like this because that’s half the battle.

Now, back to the animated type. There’s some interesting stuff going on here because as Holmes looks at thing and notices things you get little typographic indicators in situ to give you a clue as to what his thought processes are. Now this is something in which I'm in two minds about because I actually really enjoyed this aspect of it but I’ve got some niggling thoughts in the back of my head as to Moffat and Gatiss’ motivation to do this. Seeing as all the required exposition is also present, one can’t help thinking that this is kind of like repeating the joke and, well, dumbing it down to basics for the audience so they don’t miss out... and that would really annoy me if that turns out to be the case because, frankly, I’ve had enough of this kind of oversimplification of TV and movies to last me a lifetime. You don’t see comics and novels employing the same condescending tactics to win over an audience.

But... as I said before, the animated intertitles do give these scenes a fascinating edge. I loved it. Hope the motivation for those was considered and honourable and not my worst fears.

Oh, and I got a little cross, it has to be said, with Mark Gatiss’ appearance as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. He turns up halfway through without letting the audience in on his identity but, I'm afraid, the first thing that came into my head was... oh, yeah that’s got to be Mycroft. However, Gatiss makes a further appearance at the end at which point I said to myself... “Oh. That couldn’t be Mycroft after all because Mycroft never leaves the confines of the Diogenes Club if memory serves.” But then the character was, in fact, revealed to be Mycroft... which is wrong isn’t it? What’s he doing out and about on the streets of London? He’s too busy. Never leaves his club. Am I right? Or is my memory on this one hazy?

The other thing that I must grumble about (because you all know I like to have something to grumble about) was that I thought the denouement was both a bit contrived and not very well thought through after such a strong series of “suicides” and on top of that, what in heck would compel Watson to shoot through a window across an alley and save Holmes life when Holmes didn’t once look like he was being threatened at this point in the proceedings? Seems a bit “how-did-you-know-he-was-the-bad-guy-if-you-weren’t-in-on-the-conversation” to me.

But this is just a minor annoyance, I was taken completely by surprise by Moffatt and Gatiss and have to say that I was completely bowled over on the first episode of Sherlock. Even the music was excellent, taking a similar direction as the recent Robert Downey Jr movie in it’s style of putting backbeat against a strong, Victoriana style of melody and arrangement... and that’s exactly what was needed because all the while you’re watching all this new technology come into play (and some unfortunate nicotine patches as a not very welcome alternative to Holmes' pipe) you have this strong, traditional, Holmesian melody pumping through the action sequences to remind us that we are indeed, watching Sherlock Holmes.

So, first of three episodes down and I am so looking forward to watching the next two. An absolutely brilliant and surprisingly respectful take on the pop-detective phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes.

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