If you don’t like a TV programme, you should probably stop watching after the first episode, rather than keep watching and getting a bit crosser each time. Although, actually, I quite liked the first episode of Sherlock. It was the second, startlingly racist, episode that put me off, but somehow I kept watching, even when the third episode was unsatisfying and then we had to wait a year for number four. I can’t really explain it, except that I kept hoping it would get better.
And it wasn’t awful. There was lots to like about it: the casting is uniformly excellent and everybody does the best they can with the script. It looks good, and it sounds good, and it makes London look better than it does in real life.
But ugh, it’s so pleased with itself! The joy of the Conan Doyle stories comes from how clever Sherlock Holmes is, not how clever Arthur Conan Doyle is. It’s a small, but important, distinction. Sherlock is delighted by itself more than it is by the character, which makes it feel all wrong. I don’t want to be able to hear the programme-maker breathing down the back of my neck when I watch a drama, and watching this show I can feel him looming sweatily over me throughout.
(I’m not talking about anyone in particular here, but he is definitely a “he”. Drama on British TV is currently in the grip of a chummy group of clever-clever, white, middle-class men who are all jolly pleased with themselves and each other for being smarter than normal people. Unfortunately they are all quite good at making TV, damn them, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.)
The problem the programme has, when it gets very overexcited about being clever, is twofold. Firstly, it loses sight of the beautiful simplicity that sits at the heart of the best Holmes stories. This show has more plot in ten minutes than an entire Conan Doyle novel. Secondly, if you’re going to be self-consciously clever, you’d better make sure that you are, in fact, being clever, and this is where Sherlock falls down for me. Quite apart from the dangling plot points and the baffling improbabilities, which flit by so fast that you can mostly ignore them, the show is terrifically excited about Technology, which somebody somewhere in the bowels of the BBC has clearly decided is going to be used as a Metaphor. The problem is, they haven’t bothered to get anyone with an actual grasp of the technology they’re talking about to act as an advisor on the show, with the result that we, the audience, are expected to be delighted by Feats of Technology which in real life are either ridiculously unimpressive or so improbable and unexplained as to be plain silly. Just as The Archers needs an agricultural story editor, Sherlock could have done with a technology advisor. And somebody should have sacked whoever decided to give Watson a “blog”. I put it in inverted commas because so do they, every time they mention it.
But that’s all nit-picking. What I really object to is the idea that the source material needs to be improved upon, when (a) it doesn’t, and (b) whatever description you might want to give of Sherlock, an improvement on the original is not it. At one point, during the entirely nonsensical denouement of last night’s show, Moriarty (wince-inducingly described in BBC1’s preamble as “Holmes’s ultimate nemesis”, as though you can have grades of nemesis) said to Holmes: “…that’s your weakness, you always want everything to be clever”. And I thought: you got it in one.
(I had a separate rant last night at the TV and the beloved about what they did with Moriarty, but since it included the words “postmodern” and “non-linear” I shan’t repeat it here, or we’ll both go away thinking I’m the most terrible kind of wanker.)