Sherlock: A Study in Pink (2010) and Holmes on TV


Writer: Steven Moffat; Director: Paul McGuigan

The most impressive thing about A Study in Pink, the brilliant first episode of new series Sherlock, is that, for all the modern-day rebooting and visual invention, its spirit and detail are so faithful to the source work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As in his Doctor Who work, writer Steven Moffat brings a fan’s eye to the strengths and weaknesses of his beloved source material, developing the series format with fellow executive producers Sue Vertue and fellow Holmes and Who expert (and writer of episode 3) Mark Gatiss. A Study in Pink captures the essence of Holmes’s 19th century debut – reworking A Study in Scarlet (1887) and elements of Holmes’s second story, The Sign of Four (1890) – in a package that, with the impressive pace and technique of director Paul McGuigan, makes for one of the 21st century’s sharpest 90 minutes of popular drama to date.

‘Not in the canon’: modernity and the limits of iconography

Critics worrying about modern versions of Holmes are nothing new. Although Moffat and Gatiss are fans of the original sources, they were struck by how the 1940s Holmes films, featuring Basil Rathbone, were ‘a damn sight more fun than most Sherlock Holmes movies’. Moffat was aware that these were ‘cheap as chips’ B-movies that fans could see as ‘a heretical defilement of a sacred text’.1 From The Voice of Terror (1942), the third Rathbone film, onwards, Holmes and Watson are relocated to the Second World War period, but only after a caption almost apologises for time-shifting them, reminding us that they are ‘ageless, invincible and unchanging’. This could almost be an epigram for A Study in Pink. The apology was necessary because critics were already disappointed by adaptations that moved away from period detail and fidelity to Doyle’s originals. However, even a brief study of Holmes on screen can reveal that period detail and fidelity have rarely been central issues.

Picturegoer Weekly complained that The Speckled Band (1931) was ‘asking for trouble’ by trying to ‘modernise’ Holmes, because ‘you cannot divorce Holmes from the period of hansoms and a Baker Street that is long past’.2 David Stuart Davies notes that many reviews of The Missing Rembrandt (1932) ‘made mention of the modernisation of the setting’ as if it ‘seemed to catch the reviewers unawares’.3 However, as Davies replies, ‘all previous Holmes talkies and most of the silent movies had eschewed the Victorian period for budgetary reasons’.4 Indeed, Rathbone’s debut, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), was the first ‘period’ Holmes. Therefore, updating Holmes is as strong a tradition as attempting fidelity to Holmes’s ‘proper’ place. But what is his ‘proper’ place? It may not be a specific time period – after all, Doyle published new Holmes stories between 1887 and 1927, during which time the world and Doyle’s interests changed – but an idea of period, which took stronger hold after Doyle’s death in 1930.5

Jeremy Brett's Holmes disappearing into smoke, 'The Greek Interpreter'

Therefore, post-war years see screen versions focus on period iconography which then passes into the popular consciousness. Russell Miller notes how Doyle, early in A Study in Scarlet, has ‘set the blueprint’, with ‘Victorian London’s murky gaslit cobbled streets swirled in fog, its rattling hansom cabs, its urchins and ragamuffins, and its endless mysteries’.6 Moffat observed that ‘hundreds of TV and film adaptations’ showed Holmes as ‘the icon of a bygone age. A lovingly preserved relic; a suitable object for awe; a monolith from ancient times, looming out of the fog.’7 Although Moffat and Gatiss both ‘loved Victoriana and fogs and melodrama and a nice bit of posh shouting’, they thought ‘this was not what Sherlock Holmes was meant to be’.8 For Moffat, adaptations rendered Holmes ‘a period piece’ but Doyle ‘wasn’t writing a period piece’: The Sign of Four doesn’t contain vast ‘period detail’ because ‘Doyle was writing fast-paced, contemporary detective thrillers – he wasn’t wasting time on what you could see from your own window’.9 Some dramas, therefore, depend too heavily on period iconography. For instance, Matt Frewer’s Sherlock Holmes is quickly established in a Holmesian milieu in The Sign of Four (2000) but David Stuart Davies was not alone in despairing at the opening scenes with Holmes walking the street in a Tam O’ Shanter while scraping his violin; for Davies, Frewer’s The Sign of Four improves our sense of Holmes’s abilities when it incorporates ‘new elements’.10 Sherlock is keen to stress Holmes’s modernity – but then, so was Doyle. As Andrew Lycett notes, Doyle builds the ‘contemporary feel’ of his introduction to Holmes and Watson by flagging them up as Bohemians; furthermore, Doyle often demonstrated ‘skill at absorbing and reflecting trends, whether literary (Gothicism and sensationalism), cultural (science and its discontents) or social (how two men disport themselves)’.11. Why shouldn’t future adaptations do what Doyle himself did so often, displaying ‘the chameleon side of his nature’?12

Jeremy Clyde and Michael Cochrane in a scene from 'A Scandal in Bohemia' enacted for Crime Writers
Jeremy Clyde and Michael Cochrane in a scene from ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ enacted for Crime Writers (1978)

Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock in 'The Man with the Twisted Lip' (1965)
Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1965)

This is not to deny that there are vital elements of Doyle’s Holmes stories that are specific to their time. For Lycett, the ‘fragile and intriguing creature’ that lay beneath Holmes’s ‘cerebral exterior’ reflected, amongst other things, the age in which he lived, ‘in which the certainties of reason were under threat’.13 Locating him in his time period provides a context for his modernity. The Metropolitan Police were only founded in 1828, and major landmarks in the detective thriller genre were still fresh, including Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) which is often seen as the first British detective novel.14 Moffat is right about iconography obscuring Doyle’s achievement, and Sherlock superbly returns to Doyle’s spirit – but several period-based adaptations hold onto period for the same reason of returning to Doyle. Two previous BBC Holmes series of the 1960s saw first Douglas Wilmer and then Peter Cushing battling production circumstances to insist on accuracy and fidelity.15 Wilmer’s insistence on honouring Doyle – including rewriting scripts himself – was welcomed, as the Baker Street Journal called Wilmer ‘quite possibly the best and most accurate Sherlock Holmes ever […] the only man who ever got it right’.16 Then there are dramatisations within documentary series, such as the scenes in Crime Writers in which Jeremy Clyde plays Holmes and Michael Cochrane plays Watson; Holmes is placed in his and Doyle’s contexts to such an extent that Clyde plays Dupin and Raffles in the same episode.17

There are further issues of cultural value at stake: after all, Doyle’s first decade of Holmes writing is ‘Victorian literature’ but deviations in adaptation are rarely judged as harshly as they are when other Victorian literature is reinterpreted. Indeed, the emphasis on Doyle’s texts in the Granada series (1984-94) was in itself new, as producer Michael Cox convinced executives (who ‘moaned, “Not corny old Sherlock Holmes again”’) that this was ‘the exciting genuine article’.18 Indeed, its early runs including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-85) and much of The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986-88) are spellbinding, and feature Jeremy Brett as the definitive Holmes (and, with both David Burke and his successor Edward Hardwicke as Watson, the definitive Holmes/Watson partnership). Avoiding period cliché did not have to mean modernising, but could facilitate a return to the text: Brett accepted the role of Holmes when he saw this was ‘a dark and mysterious character’, and ‘it wasn’t all pipes and deerstalkers’.19 Cushing insisted that ‘I never had a Meerschaum’ pipe because it’s ‘not in the canon’ but was used by William Gillette on stage.20 Other parts of his popular image derived more from Sidney Paget’s illustrations than Doyle’s prose. The Granada series had a production bible on minor details taken from Doyle’s text, but it’s ironic that one reason this was useful was to keep on top of Doyle’s mistakes! Doyle’s own prose was ‘riddled with glaring errors and inconsistencies’ because his stories were often ‘churned out carelessly’.21 From snakes with improbable hearing and milk-drinking capacities to seemingly getting Watson’s first name wrong22 , Doyle seemed not to ‘keep track of what he had written’ because, according to Miller, ‘although he earned large sums of money, he cared little for the work that did little, he believed, to enhance his literary stature’.23 Doyle at one point argued that ‘In short stories it has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little.’24

A younger Doyle/Holmes - the brilliant Murder Rooms

Longevity has necessarily led many to seek ‘new’ ways of doing Holmes, from the darker approach – see Murder By Decree (1979) written by John Hopkins – to the comedic, including N. F. Simpson’s Elementary, My Dear Watson (1973) to Billy Wilder’s lovely The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1969), on which Wilder aimed to treat Holmes and Watson ‘with respect but not reverence’.25 Whether because the early Bretts are intimidatingly definitive or because of institutional drifts from adaptation, modern British programme makers struggle to sell period versions. An interesting precursor to Sherlock came with David Pirie’s approach to the BBC in 1999 to tackle A Study in Scarlet ‘because I felt that a younger, more “Oscar Wilde” Holmes had never been done’ and an ‘older’ or ‘stodgier’ Holmes had unfairly dominated.26 David M. Thompson of BBC Films rejected the idea of doing Holmes but in search of a new angle proposed something on Doyle’s inspiration Dr. Joseph Bell, resulting in Murder Rooms: the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-2001) which paired Bell with Doyle. The brilliant, successful and mysteriously-cancelled Murder Rooms showed that new angles could still emphasise Doyle’s achievements.

Future visions: Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century
Faithful Holmes: Sherlock Hound

For those who decide that the best way to update Holmes is to literally move him into the modern world, there are many potential pitfalls. Time travel or thawing out a cryogenically-frozen Holmes results in the Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)-type spectacle of an adventurer from the past attempting to use their methods in the modern world, as in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987) or 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993), or the future, as in the animated Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century which shares with Sherlock a desire to revision his stories (1999-2001). Revisioning can also take in different species, as in the surprisingly canon-respecting canine capers of Sherlock Hound (1984).27 Even less apparently outlandish versions see Holmes grasping modern technology: Holmes uses a pocket radio in The Isolated House (1914), has an intercom and records conversations in his office in The Speckled Band (1931) and even gets involved with a car-immobilising ray in Sherlock Holmes (1924). The wartime propaganda service of Rathbone’s Holmes involves a world of Nazis, fast cars and varying technology in several films. David Stuart Davies’s book Starring Sherlock Holmes provides an excellent overview of these and many other productions.

‘There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.’ – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet28

Sherlock is packed with modern technology and updated iconography, but their effect is not anachronistic but is in keeping with Doyle: not simply by playful in-jokes (although there are some) but by sharing Doyle’s ability to put detail at service of character. So telegrams, letters and newspaper small ads give way to smartphones and texts, phone apps replace some text books and Holmes’s smoking his way through a ‘three-pipe problem’ is thwarted by modern London and becomes a three-nicotine-patch problem. Watson’s romantic write-ups for the Strand become an online blog which, embracing the meta-potential of new delivery platforms is available for all at John Watson Blog. Holmes’s monographs become websites, such as another available at The Science of Deduction, which appropriately attracts some odd followers – quite appropriately for Holmes, given that policeman Athelney Jones greets him as ‘Mr. Theorist’ in The Sign of Four.29 Holmes uses a mobile phone, but he insists on texting rather than calling people, which is in keeping with his nature as defined by Doyle (and Watson) and the rendering of his texts on-screen underlines how oddly appropriate modern communication like texts and Twitter are, given the pre-eminence of the written word. Tie-in websites aren’t always particularly essential, but in this case it’s excellent to see such interactivity applied to concepts from Doyle.

It seems to be missing the point, therefore, to see Sherlock’s updating as a weak spot, as the Guardian’s reviewer did, arguing that ‘in blowing away the fog, brightening it up for the 21st century, they’ve done away with the fear as well. It’s slick, and quick, and yes, compelling. But there’s also a sanity about it, a pantomime squeaky-cleanness.’30 Although the reviewer is positive in other ways, it’s a little unfair to compare the episode with Doyle’s ‘The [Adventure of the] Speckled Band’, given that Doyle himself cited that as his favourite story.31 The review risks taking one type of Holmes story and essentialising it as his fixed approach (when Doyle actually differentiated them, hence ‘Adventure of’, ‘Mystery of’), underestimating Doyle’s own sense of pace and fun and the way that Moffat builds a sense of darkness that is more complex than the usual over-reliance on fog machines or grisly deaths. Indeed, Watson defines his practice in ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’: his selections ‘give preference to those cases which derive their interest not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution’.32 A better comparison would be with A Study in Scarlet – and it’s a comparison that makes A Study in Pink even more impressive.

‘Nothing happens to me’: studies in pink and scarlet

A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story written and published, and through Watson’s prose we experience Holmes and his methods through their first meeting – however, despite being the subject of the first full-length Holmes adaptation in 1914, it is rarely adapted, and hardly ever with their meeting scene intact. It was written quickly during March and April 188633 , but Doyle found the story difficult to sell, and it eventually appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in December 1887.34 Although it and its follow-up The Sign of Four were successful, it was the episodic short stories in the Strand, illustrated by Sidney Paget, that cemented Holmes as a household name and form the basis of many adaptations. This essay is long enough without trying to give an overview of Holmes’s long career on film and television35 but it’s worth considering why visual media have so rarely tackled A Study in Scarlet. Partly it’s difficult to replicate the newness of a debut: as Michael Atkinson put it, ‘How utterly peculiar Sherlock Holmes must have seemed to those unprepared readers’, for whom ‘the traits that are now familiar, even endearing’ would have seemed ‘alternately intriguing and appalling – and eminently mysterious.’36 Moreover, there are weaknesses in the plot: Sherlock gets around these in various ways, but even its widespread changes are achieved in a way that singles out some of the original’s most impressive ideas and moments and makes them more central than Doyle did.

Nothing happens: Watson

A Study in Pink opens with Watson having nightmares about his war service in Afghanistan, illustrated by images of modern warfare: although the Radio Times thought this a new development, Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet opens with Watson’s account of how his service in Afghanistan brought him ‘misfortune and disaster’.37 Whereas Watson’s first-person narration allows Doyle to describe having ‘my health irretrievably ruined’, which ‘forebade me from venturing out’ and left him ‘a lonely man’ in the ‘great wilderness’ of ‘cesspool’ London, director Paul McGuigan makes similar points about Watson’s low spirits through dissolves compressing mundane time in his sparse accommodation.38 That repetition captures Watson’s description in the novel of the ‘monotony of my daily existence’.39 Composed against walls, he is adrift in empty frames, particularly in his meeting with his therapist, in which he says of his life: ‘Nothing happens to me.’ It may seem surprising to end the pre-titles with this moment (echoes of Crazy Like A Fox’s title sequence – ‘What could possibly happen?’ – we can leave to my overactive nerdometer) rather than, say, the melodramatic but mysterious addition to the 1968 Cushing A Study in Scarlet (an unseen figure taking the wedding ring, a subsequent clue, from the body of an as-yet-unidentified woman) or the mysterious deaths which follow A Study in Pink’s opening titles.40 However, the Watson sequence is vital: as in Doyle, Watson’s state of mind drives much of what follows. McGuigan’s compositions make a point familiar from Doyle’s prose: Watson, worrying that the reader might think him a ‘hopeless busybody’ for his interest in Holmes, says:

Before pronouncing judgement, however, be it remembered how objectless was my life, and how little there was to engage my attention. […] I eagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion.41

With Watson ‘leading a comfortless, meaningless existence’, he has everything to gain. Martin Freeman combines an understated mournfulness with an eye for the moments when Watson sparkles. He shares that with David Burke and Edward Hardwicke from the Granada series (and, slightly out of our jurisdiction, Michael Williams’s excellent characterisation in the BBC radio series), which stand as excellent examples of getting Watson right. Getting Watson wrong is often associated with the famous performance of Nigel Bruce, which is unfair on Bruce in that the Bruce ‘silly ass’ Watson is tied to the actor’s screen persona and the cinematic tone of its times, which shape other versions in different ways. There are worse Watsons than Bruce, but the general idea that it’s hard to imagine a genius like Holmes sharing adventures with such a crass blunderer has become a yardstick for judging Watsons. After all, in Doyle’s writing, Watson’s everyman observation and Doyle/Watson’s prose grounds Holmes’s activities, as was marked by Doyle arriving at the name (after considering Ormond Sacker)42 because, as Lycett puts it, ‘like his monicker, he was anonymous – a foil’ to Holmes43. Turning Watson into a character rather than narrator loses much: just as trying to ‘read as Watson reads is to appreciate Conan Doyle’s craft’, and to become ‘aware that there is something about the genius of the creator that always eludes us’44 , so we can look between the lines of Watson’s first-person prose for a sense of his motivations. A few adaptations have reflected his damaged past, and how Holmes and Watson gain from each other, but A Study in Pink foregrounds it.

After witnessing a series of mysterious deaths involving pills, and realising that they are random (but with the mystery being present not in potential suspects – as in the Cushing version’s largely faithful dramatisation of Doyle45 – but in a sense of something happening just outside the frame of each incident, which is confirmed by explanatory flashbacks later). Stangerson, Drebber, Charpentier, Utah: inter-related aspects from Doyle that are replaced by this seemingly random killer – I’ll come back to their absence, and Moffat’s alternatives, later.

Foregrounding Holmes and Watson involves a sequence of events that have hardly ever been dramatised: realising Watson needs someone to share accommodation with, Stamford takes him to meet Sherlock Holmes, who is experimenting at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. For a long time, ‘the only filmed version of the meeting’ at Bart’s came in the 1953/54 Guild Films series starring Ronald Howard, and even then in a different pilot, ‘The Case of the Cunningham Heritage’.46 Holmes has already chronically misread a woman’s desire for coffee, condescendingly assuming she was offering to get him one: quite consistent with The Sign of Four, when Watson as ever notices that a woman was attractive and Holmes replies, ‘Is she? I did not observe’, leading Watson to consider him ‘positively inhuman […] an automaton – a calculating machine’47 Holmes observes – her changing lipstick in his presence – but does not deduce. He is instead battering a corpse with a stick, as in Doyle’s original, whose influences include Joseph Bell’s 1839 paper on medical jurisprudence which ‘described beating corpses with a heavy stick in order to study the effects of bruises produced after death’48 or Christison’s intervention into the Burke and Hare case. That latter investigation into ‘suffocating […] victims without damaging them physically’ used ‘experiments into the bruising of corpses’ which ‘helped secure Burke’s conviction’.49 When Watson meets Holmes, he is enthralled by the same thing as us: Holmes’s instant deductions.

The ‘best superpower ever’: deductions

‘Sometimes you can’t read fast enough – but I’ll tell you what, it wasn’t the gaslight; it wasn’t the hansom cabs or the fogs or any of the things I’d be told, years later, were SO important to Sherlock Holmes. It was the deductions. No, that’s too dull a word. Let’s call it what it was when I was ten. It was the best superpower ever! Sherlock Holmes glanced at Dr Watson and deduced he’d been to Afghanistan – and, talk about superpowers, Arthur Conan Doyle made me wait pages to find out how he’d done it.’ – Moffat.50

Depictions of Holmes stand and fall by the quality of Holmes’s deductions: the reading of clues (or semiotics – ‘the study of signs in a social context’).51 The modern-day setting seems to present greater challenges to the dramatist – even Doyle was stretching credulity by taking Joseph Bell’s real-life ability to note where patients had been owing to types of clay on their shoes in a small part of Edinburgh and extending that to the whole of London, a credulity which Nigel Williams relates to the reassurance implicit in containing this sprawling city.52 The gentlemen and ladies of Doyle’s London could often be traced by markers of individuality marginalised or lost in an age of mass production: specially-made hats, distinctive cigar ash, the re-soling of boots. There are signs here and in episode 2 that some can simply be updated: identifying an airline pilot by his left thumb or an IT designer by their tie (or, during A Study in Pink, ‘something in the media’ from garish nail varnish). However, comparing A Study in Scarlet with A Study in Pink, Moffat’s Holmes is at least as compelling at deduction, and in places sharper. Holmes’s observation that Watson was in Afghanistan, a vital deduction since it intrigues Watson, is problematic in Doyle’s original. Miller argues that ‘it hardly stands up to much scrutiny’ with Watson deduced as an army doctor because he is ‘a gentleman of the military type, but with the air of a military man’, but those deductions aren’t explained further.53 Jumping from Watson holding his arm ‘in a stiff and unnatural manner’, via his tan, Holmes identifies Afghanistan rather than (as Miller suggests) South Africa. In A Study in Pink, we can at least join the deduction, informed by Watson’s haircut, his comment to Stratford and his leaning against a stick – indeed, the way he leans against that stick attracts a diagnosis of psychosomatic illness which is not only plausible but vital: it’s all the more intriguing for Watson if Holmes has glimpsed some secret, especially if Watson himself isn’t yet aware of it. He must be won round; he’s more overtly critical in the book, describing Holmes developing ‘the theory of some arm-chair lounger who evolves all these neat little paradoxes in the seclusion of his own study’54

‘I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath – do your research.’ – Sherlock, A Study in Pink

Gregson, Watson and Lestrade near 'rache' in the Cushing Holmes version of A Study in Scarlet (1968)

Our first crime scene shows the story’s mixture of respect and playfulness. The female victim here is in a similar position to male victim Drebber in A Study in Scarlet: the bare room, the scrawled ‘rache’, the significant wedding ring. However, the cigar ash and mysterious blood are removed, and moments that Doyle did not develop – analysis of the body itself, or the ‘rache’ detail that is ultimately a red herring – are now developed. ‘Rache’ is not helpfully scratched by the killer on the wall at his own height but is scratched on the ground by the victim. Holmes’s disagreement with the police over ‘rache’ is inverted – this time he dismisses the German translation for revenge in favour of Rachel – and the wedding ring, rather than fortuitously falling from the body (an indictment of a clumsy killer and incompetent police), is the victim’s ring. The ring leads clues about her character – these are dazzlingly compiled in quick bursts of text on the screen, culminating in the brutal labelling (Holmes’s mind) of the corpse: ‘serial adulterer’ (a later character will similarly be labelled ‘DYING’). In truth, Doyle had not yet developed Holmes’s deductive powers to their later extent: much is explained via a simple telegram researching names found on the body, the killer helpfully not changing their name, and details filled in by the killer’s lengthy backstory. In place of luck and the killer’s mistakes, Moffat’s crime scene provides clues, some deduced by Holmes (her lifestyle and clothing provoking awareness of absent items), and some provided by the victim. When dog cart splashes are replaced by pink suitcase tracks, and that item is found to be missing, we are into playfulness: Holmes and Watson are immediately onto a case. Whilst Doyle named his story after a turn of phrase, the ‘scarlet thread of murder’,55 A Study in Pink shows Holmes studying pink.

Options suggest themselves...

We are told in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet: ‘So swiftly was the examination made, that one would hardly have guessed the minuteness with which it was conducted’.56 To show the minuteness of the crime scene examination, A Study in Pink moves into a different time register, akin to the ‘bullet time’ in which movies slow action scenes to concentrate on detail. In print, Holmes’s deductions are seen through Watson’s eyes: Watson notes Holmes’s behaviour, notes deviations from standard behaviour (albeit sometimes with helpful observations of Holmes deviating from his own standard behaviour), but presents us with conclusions with the step inbetween left hazy until later. It’s difficult to portray on screen without Watson seeming stupid (merely by asking the questions we’re asking or making credible suggestions), with the occasional solution of Watson helping to apply Holmes’s methods. Through graphics, the relative cleanliness of the inside and outside of the wedding ring first produce observations (clean, dirty) then deductions about their wearer’s marital state. In Tom Sutcliffe’s phrase, Sherlock ‘visualised his thought processes […] so that his inspirations tag the crime scene like an internet word cloud’.57

From observation to deduction...

Far from being gimmicky, the graphics interact not only with characterisation – Holmes’s head-shaking dismissing the rache/revenge angle by shaking it off the screen – but also with shots and compositions. Visual pleasure in Holmes can be a thorny subject: for instance, the Granada series declined when the production team was instructed to ‘cut out the talk and concentrate on the visuals’.58 Detail, pace and character make the deduction scenes as enthralling as action scenes. In this way, Sherlock tackles something that Doyle himself worried about in the early 1890s: how to dramatise Holmes’s deductive process:

‘I am well convinced that Holmes is not fitted for dramatic representation. His reasonings and deductions (which are the whole point of the character) would become an intolerable bore upon the stage.’ – Doyle.59

That seems unthinkable now – and partly motivated by Doyle’s feeling that the detective story was an ‘elementary’ form,60 and a performed version would represent his ‘weaker work’, a public emphasis which ‘unduly obscured my better’.61 Doyle praised stage Holmes William Gillette for making ‘the poor hero of the anaemic printed page a very limp object compared with the glamour of your own personality which you infuse into his stage presentment’.62

The same could be said of Benedict Cumberbatch – Doyle’s stories often brought out Holmes’s contrary nature as cold-blooded calculating machine and a perpetrator of theatricality with a love for the centre-stage – after deductions Holmes ‘bowed as if to some applauding crowd conjured up by his imagination’63 – and (often tactically-applied) charisma. Brett achieved that, sensing that ‘Men find him fascinating because he is so self-contained and totally in control, while women see him as a challenge: they want to break that icy demeanour and reveal the real emotion beneath.’64 Cumberbatch achieves this too, and is a magnetic, brilliant Holmes. Female reviewers have stressed his sexiness too – before that causes any great distress, Doyle knew the value of that quality too, when confronted by Paget’s illustrations: he had not imagined Holmes as being so handsome but ‘from the point of view of my lady readers it was as well’.65

A further deductive joy comes with Holmes’s deductions from Watson’s mobile phone. Reworking a sequence from The Sign of Four neglects its darker undertones: the playful punchline here – Holmes deduces a brother when Watson has a sister – misses prose Watson’s anger about the alcoholism judgement, which critics have related to Doyle’s concerns about his declining father.66 However, it is a superb updating of the deduction, with Cumberbatch’s high-speed, intense delivery sharing Moffat’s love for Doyle’s explanations. Moffat recommends reading the first chapters of The Sign of Four, in which Holmes ‘takes Watson’s pocket watch and only deduces his brother’s entire life and death!!! […] How clear, how brilliant. A genius writer making exposition (the curse of plot) into a living hero on the page.’67 For the young Moffat, ‘the best thing ever’ about Holmes’s superpower was that he ‘explained’.68

Sherlock steps out from behind his more brilliant brother Mycroft, Granada's 'The Greek Interpreter'

To arrest my galloping word-count I’ll pick out a couple more moments but skip over other joys such as Watson’s encounter with a mysterious figure (although his deductive brilliance and loaded phrases surely made his identity obvious to Doyle fans), Mrs Hudson, and Holmes and Watson setting up home (unlike Doyle, Moffat has Holmes moving in first and rushing the deal, which continues the sense that he has made a deduction about Watson). As the plot develops, the improvements to Doyle are clear: Doyle rarely wrote ‘whodunit’ plots of the Agatha Christie type, and A Study in Scarlet is particularly guilty of withholding information that we need to gauge the brilliance of Holmes’s deductions (while marvelling at his observations). A Study in Pink, however, presents clues and builds to moments whose impact depends upon our own rate of deduction.69

A chase around modern-day London shows that Holmes still knows his streets and transport details and can use these to his advantage. Again, leaps of logic are depicted through graphics over shots: street maps as mental satnav, and traffic signals from several streets away lending urgency to Holmes and Watson’s journey. They stop a suspect taxi in a moment that, as in so many other Moffat scripts, seems light but in retrospect is heavily loaded. It is a comic scene – stopping the wrong suspect, performing the kind of cheeky (overzealous cops) volte-face that Spike and Lynda used in Moffat’s Press Gang, then fleeing the police themselves. It is also fun that the suspect is dismissed for being American, if you know the causes of the killings in A Study in Scarlet. But the scene has serious beats: the misdirection by which we neither see nor consider the taxi driver (significant given his later words) and the fact that the seemingly injured Watson has sprinted around without his crutch, with no harm. I’m reminded of prose Watson’s description of how he ‘eagerly hailed the little mystery’ of Holmes, which in itself sounds like hailing a taxi.70 This partly shows the synthesising of elements from The Sign of Four: there, Holmes asks Watson to take part in a six-mile ‘trudge’ and asks ‘Your leg will stand it?’ (Watson replies, ‘Oh, yes’).71 Here, Holmes considers Watson’s experience of suffering in Afghanistan then asks, ‘Want to see some more?’, to which Watson replies, ‘Hell, yes’. After all, in Doyle’s original, Watson says he is ‘not strong enough yet to stand much noise or excitement. I had enough of both in Aghanistan’ but then dives into the story.72 Holmes’s diagnosis of psychosomatic injury is a lovely in-joke about Doyle’s textual inconsistencies. His injury changes from his shoulder in A Study in Scarlet to his ‘wounded leg’ which ‘ached wearily at every change of the weather’ in The Sign of Four.73 Later in A Study in Pink, Watson admits his injury was in his shoulder. There are other in-jokes in Moffat’s script, but then Doyle loved an in-joke himself. In The Sign of Four, Holmes chides Watson’s (therefore Doyle’s) write-up of A Study in Scarlet for stressing romance over cold deduction: Lycett observes this as Doyle’s ‘in-joke about his own craft’.74 Further examples include ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’ (1892), which opens with Holmes querying Watson’s writing style: ‘Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.’75 Sherlock is not the first to play along: Brett episode The Copper Beeches ends with Watson then reading the ending of his/Doyle’s version and receiving Holmes’s apparent approval along with an unseen raised eyebrow.

‘I’m in shock – look, I’ve got a blanket’: catching a cab

As in Doyle’s original, the culprit (albeit with a different identity here) is a cab driver who presents people with a choice of two pills – one fatal, one safe – and takes the other himself. However, his discovery and capture are superbly developed by Moffat. Doyle has Holmes advertise the dropped wedding ring and hand it to someone who fools Holmes disguised as an old woman – the killer later calls him a ‘friend’ and refuses to incriminate him (if unknown to Holmes, why would he need a disguise?), thereby sparing Doyle from providing convincing detail. The 1968 Cushing episode at least gives Holmes the skills to trace the impersonator: a hired actor unaware of the ring’s importance.76 Sutcliffe notes the ‘slyly oblique’ touch by Moffat: here, the ‘lost ring’ is converted ‘into a lost “ring”, a mobile phone that can be used to contact the killer directly’.77 In both versions, there are police at 221B Baker Street as the cabbie arrives. In Doyle’s version, to everyone’s surprise Holmes grabs the cabbie and unveils the murderer. In Moffat’s version, Holmes is the one surprised. As the GPS tracks the suspect phone to Baker Street, and characters work through the plot so far, Moffat’s mastery of plot pacing helps us to realise the implications before the cab driver’s appearance is almost casually noted, and spookily disembodied in the dark frame. (Is it just me or was Watson’s reminder to the police that the suspected Holmes can’t have the mobile phone because they earlier got a text reply from the killer a piece of post-sync dubbing? Was this added because it was missed as the plot became too involved, or had an explanatory scene been cut?) The resolution comes at the same point as Doyle, but is restricted to rapid explanatory flashbacks as Holmes works it out. In Doyle’s original, the arrival of the killer marks a tailing-off of narrative and dissipation of tension. In Sherlock’s version, it marks an escalation of plot and a test of its lead characters.

In A Study in Scarlet, the murders are explained via a long flashback (the story’s second half) to the events which motivated them, in a Mormon community in Utah. This is often seen as the story’s weakness: ‘crudely divided into two halves’78 to produce a ‘melodramatic’ section in which ‘Holmes is entirely absent and sorely missed’.79 We shouldn’t dismiss the split between sections out of hand – Michael Atkinson for instance contrasts the changes in narrative position, prose style and sympathy to argue that ‘the American saga relates to the London frame narrative as the unconscious relates to the conscious mind’.80 Also, it’s interesting that Doyle’s description of the American section echoes how we first find Watson: barrenness, inhospitality, a ‘land of despair’, a wilderness with a seemingly dying man, ‘complete and heart-subduing silence’.81 However, it explains filmmakers’ reluctance to tackle the story. The 1914 film A Study in Scarlet – with John Ford’s brother Francis as Holmes – opts to restructure it chronologically, but ‘Holmes becomes almost a supporting character, appearing fairly late in the proceedings’.82 The 1933 A Study in Scarlet – complete with erroneous 221A Baker Street – uses only the title and none of the plot.83 The Cushing episode is very faithful but lacks the Bart’s meeting (unsurprisingly, since the episode was late in the series) and lets brief dialogue replace the Utah section.84 Similar scaling-back occurred with Sherlock Holmes & A Study in Scarlet (1984), even though it was an animated feature and so didn’t have to consider overseas locations.85

Whilst Jefferson Hope in Doyle’s original provided a choice of pills to mete God’s justice in revenge over two specific people, the killer in Sherlock has provided a choice to four random people for a reason that does not directly concern them (it would seem a bit Saw or Dark Knight if it wasn’t in Doyle’s original). If the explanation is less psychologically grounded, it is also more compelling as a threat. The random nature of the killings builds up an undeveloped but compelling Doyle idea: for Hope, a desire for revenge pre-dated becoming a cabbie – ‘what better means could he adapt than to turn cab driver’.86 In Doyle’s version, we know there can’t be any more killings, but here we have a sense of continuing threat. It cranks up the plot, of course – hence Holmes’s excitement early on when he realises there is a serial killer at work: ‘Love those – there’s always something to look forward to’. In Doyle’s own terms, it adds to the mystery and our sense of Holmes’s skill: as Holmes says in ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty’, ‘The most difficult crime to track is the one which is purposeless’.87 Faced with the choice between handing over the killer – who admits he would meekly accept arrest – or understanding what had happened, Holmes leaves the safety of 221B, then containing Watson and many police officers, to place himself in danger. What preoccupies him is another brilliant idea of Doyle’s that he didn’t build up but A Study in Pink foregrounds: ‘How could one man compel another to take poison?’88

Still Holmes's London: Sherlock opening titles

Holmes can still work out where a journey has taken him within London – as he does in a cab in The Sign of Four.89 The climax quite rightly takes place at a college of further education as Holmes has much to learn and his would-be killer addresses him on subjects close to his own worldview: ‘Why can’t people think? […] I know how people think’. Holmes’s flirtation with taking the pill just to see if he has called correctly, or to engage with the killer’s fascinating conundrum, renders in dramatic form something which Doyle raises in dialogue but does not substantiate. In the novel, Stamford muses that he can imagine Holmes administering the latest vegetable alkaloid to someone, ‘not out of malevolence, but […] just to determine the effect’.90 The resolution, and Watson’s role in it, demonstrates Moffat’s compelling ability to take moments from Doyle and foreground them, integrate them into the plot and shape our understanding of the characters. There is also room to incorporate the unseen crime figure Moriarty, giving the series what, since I’m writing on a website, I should probably call a ‘Big Bad’ or ‘story arc’. Again, the Guardian’s reviewer was unimpressed by this (I’m probably returning to this review a lot because most were so uniformly positive), and it could recall a weakness of the Rathbone films – Moriarty’s many returns, untroubled by trivial details such as his own death in previous films – but there is a strong precedent for it in the Granada series, when Moriarty popped up in The Red-Headed League to build up the importance of the showdown to come in The Final Problem.

The work of the opening episode is underlined as the leads stride off together towards the camera in slow-motion, and Mycroft portentously proclaims them ‘Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson’. They are united at this point as the climax underlines what they need from each other and their similarities. Mycroft was right about Watson: ‘You’re not haunted by the war, Doctor Watson. You miss it. Welcome back.’ Freeman and Cumberbatch have proved themselves an impressive Holmes and Watson, with light and shade. There is playfulness at the implications of two bachelors sharing a flat: ‘of course we’ll be needing two’ bedrooms; Mrs Hudson consoles Watson with ‘My husband was just the same’; the restaurant misunderstanding as Holmes says, although ‘flattered’, that ‘I’m married to my work’, at which point Freeman allows himself a rare sitcom reaction. Jokes about their marital status are hardly a postmodern phenomenon: Doyle was himself so concerned that he married Watson off at the end of the second story, The Sign of Four (the subsequent shift to episodic short stories revealed this to be a format-troubling development, and TV versions such as the Brett and Cushing avoid it). Sherlock’s second episode, The Blind Banker, similarly sees Watson finding some romantic interest. The darker aspects of the partnership are also well developed. Freeman adeptly brings out qualities that are again consistent: in Granada’s version of The Crooked Man, David Burke brought out just how much Watson enjoys being back amongst soldiers. Holmes avoids questions by gripping a form of crutch – ‘I’m in shock – look, I’ve got a blanket’ – which is funny because he has already noted its uselessness, but also reminds me of Watson’s walking stick, the need for which is soon addressed again (by contrast, The Sign of Four has Watson calling himself ‘an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker bank account’).91 Watson was alone in the frame at the start, apart from his crutch, but now has Holmes – and Holmes has him: as Holmes says in Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘I am lost without my Boswell’.92 How reliably Watson fulfilled that function is open to question – he (not Doyle) has been cited as an ‘unreliable narrator’93 – so his own contradictions as a character are revealing. I wonder if those contradictions and evasions will colour Watson’s blog?

As in Doyle’s original, we are presented with two very different men – ‘an arrogant, unashamedly narcissistic misogynist, a cold, calculating, analytical ascetic who admitted to few emotions’ and ‘a warm, loyal, salt-of-the-earth chap with a weakness for […] pretty women, utterly in thrall to his friend’s brilliance’ – but who form ‘a symbiotic and timeless friendship’.94 This equally applies to this version. Without any Young Sherlock Holmes revisionism, this is a partnership of equals starting their journey and with great potential. In a sense they have indeed returned to source. Wanting to do this is hardly a new desire for television – the makers of the 1953-54 series Sherlock Holmes were aware that:

‘In A Study in Scarlet, when Holmes and Watson first meet, the two men are in their twenties, and yet Holmes is almost always portrayed on screen as being middle-aged, with Watson racing toward senility.’95

It is almost as though Sherlock has been less about ‘updating’ the original text and more about addressing the habits that film and television versions of Sherlock Holmes have fallen into, scraping away the accumulated errors of people who found Doyle’s approach so difficult to adapt. If the Holmes stories were an ideal combination of the short detective form and Doyle’s style, necessitating ‘rhythm and control’, ‘sufficient pace to entertain’ and ‘labyrinthine plots’, the series is ideal.96 In line with adaptation theory, Sherlock succeeds by focusing not on fidelity to every last detail but in a synthesis of source prose and television techniques to produce a ‘third text’ – the fact that the result is more faithful to the spirit of Doyle’s Holmes is a worthy paradox. Adaptations can be too faithful – the 1921 Hound of the Baskervilles was said to lack ‘pace’ by having ‘too much “dialogue”’, and radio adapter Bert Coules observed that ‘Dramatisations have to be dramatic, and what is dramatic in a book is not necessarily dramatic on screen or radio’.97 Doyle himself replied to William Gillette’s query about whether he could marry Holmes off by saying he could marry, murder or do anything he wanted with him.98 We often have to apply this caveat to revisions and adaptations of Holmes. However, A Study in Pink doesn’t need that apology. Like Moffat’s revisioning of another classic – Jekyll (2007) – it invites reconsideration of the sources as well as standing on its own. Whether the rest of the series lives up to its brilliance is another matter, but on its own merits this is one of television’s greatest responses to Arthur Conan Doyle.99

The Doctor goes Sherlockian in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'

P.S. Another aspect of modernisation is inevitable – changing methods and tastes in film and TV – and whilst those are beyond this essay, reviewers have been so interested in connections with one particular contemporary programme, Doctor Who, that I’ll comment on that briefly. As a child, Moffat felt that ‘if Doctor Who had been a detective, clearly he’d have been Sherlock Holmes’100 and the happy dovetailing of Sherlock with Moffat’s show-runner role on Doctor Who can’t escape attention. The stylish camerawork taking Holmes’s point-of-view on significant information recalls the stop-frame sequence in which the Doctor tries to work out which significant detail he’s barely glimpsed in Moffat’s The Eleventh Hour (2010). Some dialogue has jumped across: Holmes’s ‘It’s Christmas!’ appears in similar circumstances in The Vampires of Venice (2010), while ‘What is it like in your funny little brains, it must be so boring’ echoes ‘Funny little human brains, how do you get around in those things?’ from Moffat’s The Doctor Dances (2005). Given Moffat’s playful referencing of lines from his other work in various pieces – Coupling, Press Gang and others have cropped up in Who – we can look forward to a version of The Sign of Four given that it features a bloke with a missing leg (one for Moffat fans). Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes’s enthusiasm and turns of phrase (‘Love those!’) inevitably echo similarly-scripted Who moments for Matt Smith. Neil Gaiman, the author of A Study in Emerald (2004), another audacious reworking of A Study in Scarlet, is writing for the 2011 season of Doctor Who. As for Holmes’s influence on Who, we’d be here all day. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) is steeped in Victorian literary and cultural references, paraphrases Holmes dialogue, features a deerstalker and an uncontrollable diminutive assassin (The Sign of Four) and presents a variation on the ‘untold’ Holmes story ‘The Giant Rat of Sumatra’. Tom Baker, the Doctor at the time, later appeared as Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982). Was TV movie 1994: Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993), with the young hero reborn to try out deductions in San Francisco, an inspiration for the Doctor Who TV movie (1996)? Holmes and Watson meet the Doctor in Andy Lane’s New Adventure novel All-Consuming Fire (1994), with detailed Holmes fan ideas including the presence of brother Sherrinford, about whom Sherlock refuses to talk (other texts incorporate Doyle himself and Mycroft). Watson’s diary is interspersed with passages from the diary of the Doctor’s companion Bernice Summerfield. A sample of Watson’s account in All-Consuming Fire: ‘I embarked upon another account of my adventures with Holmes: The Sign of the Four. To my surprise (and, if truth be told, to Holmes’s chagrin) the public rather took to these little amusements, and so I began to write more of them. I composed A Scandal in Bohemia in shorter form as an experiment, and found that its popularity far outstripped either of the two longer works […] My medical colleague and co-author, Arthur Conan Doyle, became well known to the public.’ Holmes’s response: ‘Write the book, let the doctor friend of yours pretty it up for you, and then lock it away somewhere.’101

Originally posted: 3 August 2010.
11 October 2015: added Crime Writers and Wilmer images and accompanying text; two very minor revisions.
August 2010: minor corrections and addition of endnote relating to the rest of series 1.

Addition, May 2012: the 1979 Russian television interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is discussed here at the blog Lady Don’t Fall Backwards.