Sherlock Holmes and The Case of The Laboured Modernisation

From The Social Affairs Unit blog on January 5th 2005.

Since this was written, and even more “modernised” version, the BBC’s “Sherlock”, has been made and widely celebrated. While I initially quite enjoyed Sherlock, it was always rather tricksy and self-consciously “modern.” I also increasingly found the unreality of the plots and the contrived twists off-putting. The less-heralded US series Elementary was a more human scale modernisation – and Jonny Lee Miller a better Sherlock.

We also had two movie Sherlocks with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, somewhat closer to contemporary action movies  I am sure now a rewatch of”Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking” would seem rather quaint. Re-reading this review, it strikes me as a more fundamental “modernisation” than either Sherlock or Elementary; what is “updated” is not the physical setting but the attitudes and practices of the profiler/forensic TV show.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Laboured Modernisation

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking
BBC1, 26th December 2004

Inevitably, each age will have its own approach to the major texts of its literature and the great plays of its dramatic history. We simply cannot view the treatment of Shylock as equitably as an Elizabethan audience might have, for instance. This is surely uncontroversial and clear. It’s another thing to insist, as so many do, that we need to “reinvent” or “reimagine” the classics, “improve on it” in the manner of Romeo Coates polishing up Shakespearean soliloquies. “Versions” of Shakespeare or the ancient Athenian tragedians in which contemporary political and moral attitudes are transplanted wholesale onto the originals are ever popular – for surely no modern audience could sit through Aeschylus or The Tempest without the requisite “relevance” and lashings of contemporary politics and preoccupations?

The Sherlock Holmes stories can hardly be claimed to be works of art of the equal of the above examples. However, they are revived as often – more so perhaps, since Holmes is claimed to be the most portrayed character in the history of the cinema, ahead of Dracula. The world of Holmes is both more and less amenable to the reinventing imagination of directors than that of Shakespeare or Sophocles.

Less so, because they are set in a very specific time and place, a landscape with instantly recognisable landmarks; Mrs Hudson, Hansom cabs, pea-soupers – all instantly recognisable dramatic shorthand. We see the silhouette of a deerstalker-clad face with meerschaum pipe – a popular image that owes much to the illustrator Sidney Paget and the actor William Gillette who incarnated Holmes on stage, rather than anything in the stories – and instantly we are in Holmesland. There is something of the security blanket about the Holmes world, a literary pill to banish all cares. One can see why it makes sense to produce another Holmes drama in the Christmas season.

More so, because from the very start Holmesland was the creation of imaginations other than Conan Doyle’s. Doyle famously disliked his creation, hurling Holmes off the Reichenbach falls in what would be a failed attempt to kill him off. Doyle wrote the stories with scant regard for the creation of a mythos and chronological missteps, inconsistencies in character and even appearance and similar slips abound. From the never used phrase “Elementary, My dear Watson” to the impedimenta of Paget and Gillette and children’s adaptations featuring mice or Bassett hounds as Holmes, the Holmes image has long departed from the control of Conan Doyle.

The legions of Holmes fanatics do their best to reconcile the inconsistencies in the “Canon”, to use the jargon for the original Doyle stories. It’s an uphill task. In the very first “Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.”, A Study in Scarlet, Watson makes a catalogue of Holmes’ knowledge, which concludes his awareness of literature, philosophy and astronomy is precisely “nil”. Holmes is cheerily, proudly ignorant of the Copernican system. Later in the Canon, of course, Holmes declaims Goethe in German, cites Carlyle, and generally displays polymathic breadth of knowledge.

Holmes is therefore a tempting target for reimagining and revising, as well as a reliable ratings draw. BBC1 were therefore onto a sure winner with their Boxing Day presentation of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, a brand-new tale of Holmes and Watson with Rupert Everett and Ian Hart incarnating the consulting detective and his medical sidekick respectively.

Holmes’ cocaine habit is irresistible for modern directors, hopeful as they are that it lends him a sort of street cred, and it came as little surprise that we first glimpse Holmes lounging in an opium den. Meanwhile, a body turns up in the foggy Thames estuary (London is fog bound more or less throughout the action), and Watson turns up at the autopsy. Here we see one of the major influences on the producers – the current vogue for pathologist-heroes, the likes of the various CSI shows and Silent Witness. In this case, however, the pathologist is not a hero, quickly deciding that the corpse is of a prostitute.

Watson, having bullied Holmes out of his sottish torpor, reveals that the corpse is actually of a virgo intacta and it is left for Holmes to conclude that the young lady is a daughter of the aristocracy. The young lady’s cold mother at first denies that the cadaver could be her daughter’s, and barely reacts when persuaded to reconsider by Holmes. Her equally cold-fish husband is a portrayed as a creep of the first water, engaging Holmes’ services with barely a glimmer of grief.

I thought for a while that we would be in for a story of the Unfeeling Aristocracy and their perverse passions. However, another young, aristocratic debutante is abducted and found hanging from a lamp-post on Westminster Bridge. Her parents are sincerely grieved, expressed in televisual terms by lots and lots of weeping. The stoniness of the first set of parents is left hanging, lurking until it too plays a role in the unsatisfactory denouement. We are plunged into the pursuit of a sexual sadist, a fetishist who is abducting young ladies of the aristocracy and dressing them in the clothes of his previous victim before killing them in turn.

Watson’s fiancée, a Ms (or was it Mrs?) Vandeleur, then takes the stage. She is a psychotherapist, who hands Sherlock (with whom she is on ostentatiously first-name terms) a volume of Krafft-Ebbing and rattles off the names of as many sexual deviances as possible. Later she pops up again, after another young aristocratic female is abducted, but released by the killer (on account, it seems, of having had surgical correction of a club foot) and undergoes a sort of debriefing from Mrs Vandeleur.

The other major preoccupation and stylistic role model of the drama is thereby revealed. The psychological profiler, that shadowy, seemingly omniscient figure as portrayed in the likes of Cracker, has traveled in the time machine for the updating. Later Holmes gives a speech to the detectives investigating the crimes that echoes so many serial killer movies, describing in psychological detail “the type of man we’re dealing with”: “a sexual deviant … a ruthless killer”.

Of course, Holmesians have claimed Holmes as a forefather of psychological profiling for years. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, he describes the murderer as:

A tall man, left-handed, limps with his right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a gray cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt pen-knife in his pocket.

But this is not profiling in the Cracker sense, or in the sense of The Case of the Silk Stocking. In Boscombe Valley, Holmes’ precision is based on observation of the physical environment, and all his conclusions are on physical characteristics. In the case of the Silk Stocking, however, presumably under the influence of the Krafft-Ebbing, Holmes produces a litany of psychological insights.

There was much to admire in this production. Period authenticity and the physical atmosphere of a Holmesland were well created. The music helped create this atmosphere, but one had the constant sense of having heard it before in other films and TV dramas. Indeed, Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna Dell Strade di Madrid No. 6 was used at the very end of the film, as it was in Master and Commander to rather similar effect. A wonderful piece of music and a rousing closing theme it may be, but there is something rather low-rent and unimaginative about this recycling.

Rupert Everett made an effective Holmes; able to capture the louché lassitude with the underlying reserve of boundless energy of Holmes at the beginning of so many of the stories, and the blend of solicitude and the insensitive focus on cracking a case that marks his dealing with the victims of crime. He does not have the hawk-like face of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, which may be why Ian Hart, reprising his role as Watson from the 2002 BBC Hound of the Baskervilles, is not the Watson of popular image. Just as the deerstalker and meerschaum pipe were Paget’s legacy, our image of Watson as a rotund buffoon derives from Nigel Bruce in the role opposite Rathbone rather than anything in the stories.

Hart’s vigorous, rather irritable, evidently intelligent Watson, may seem a more suitable right-hand-man, but there is something lacking in the chemistry between them. As well as being that bit dimmer than Holmes, to give the readers or audience a representative in the action, Watson should be an emollient, good-tempered figure.

Overall, this was a disappointment for two major reasons. Firstly, the key twist in the tale. Presumably the drama will be repeated, and possibly released on DVD, so I won’t divulge it here. But this twist is spectacularly lame. Correcting stories written for English composition in primary school, teachers would reserve their strongest condemnation for stories that ended with some variation of the words “I woke up. It was just a dream”. (Do primary school teachers now dare indulge in such common-sense criticism?) The resolution of The Case of the Silk Stocking is nearly as bad a cop-out.

Perhaps the producers could cite Conan Doyle as precedent – in the later stories, which all too often bear the signs of literary water-treading, he would increasingly enlist a deus ex machina, with obscure Indian toxins and killer jellyfish being enlisted to provide solutions to narrative problems.

Secondly and even more fundamentally, there seems something jarring in matching Holmes with a series of sordid sex crimes. It is like setting Miss Marple on the Soham murders, or Poirot on the Wests. The great literary detectives deal with schemes and plots, not the banal lust-driven crimes of the killer (or killers – still don’t want to give too much away) in this production. Sexual killers may be cunning in their way, but their crimes can hardly be claimed to possess the certain elegance and mystery that matches Holmes’ efforts. Krafft-Ebbing, debriefing, psychological profiling – all belong to a different world than the one Conan Doyle created. It says something about today’s television producers that they feel the need to stuff all this into every drama rooted in the past.

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