Sherlock - A Scandal in Belgravia

4 stars

Ed Williamson

2nd January 2012

(*chants*) Sherlock's got a girlfriend, Sherlock's got a girlfriend! (*ages by five years*) Sherlock's a virgin, Sherlock's a virgin! (*ages by fifteen years, clears throat*) Good evening. Here is a serious review of Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, which was transmitted by the British Broadcasting Corporation last night.

Owing to a lack of proper shut-eye the night before, I slept on and off through the second half of Sherlock on New Year's Day. This is not a remark on its ability to keep a person awake; just a pre-emptive excuse for the fact that this review might contain commentary on plot aspects that were in fact my own dreams. The bit where Benedict Cumberbatch drove a train made of marshmallow towards me while my former headmaster sternly admonished me as a failure was definitely in it though, right?

It's been a long time coming, this new three-part series. A critical exhibit in the recent evidence that the BBC can make - and is prepared to fund - excellent drama when it chooses to, Sherlock has high expectations to meet.

"I am investigating the mystery of next-door's cat shitting in our flowerbeds, Watson. Fetch my violin: I may be some time."

I'm generally against new literary adaptations that have been done before. As much as I'm sure last week's Great Expectations was ... well, great, and as good as the idea of Ray Winstone as Magwitch sounds, my argument remains that it's a safe option: the BBC should be spending money on trying to create exceptional new drama, not just lazily throwing it at well-trodden stories with a built-in audience they know will watch it. I make an exception in Sherlock's case, however. Why? Because they're entirely new scripts that use Conan Doyle's stories only as a basis, and because they take the trouble to reinterpret the character, not just repeat what's gone before but stick an iPhone in his hand and call it a "modern retelling".

A lot of time having been spent in 2010's first series establishing how brilliant Holmes is, there's little mileage left in Watson being flabbergasted at him, or pointing out his autistic tendencies, so the introduction of Irene Adler is a welcome way to dig deeper into Sherlock the man. Just as in the books, she's a worthy adversary for him, and here there's a sexual frisson injected to keep the Cumberbitches (that's a thing, apparently) happy. The plot - hard to follow in places, incidentally - involving blackmail against the Royal Family and some rogue CIA types, is window-dressing, really: the character is what we're here for.

"I deduce, Miss Adler, that you had marmalade at breakfast, you enjoy tennis, and your grandparents are lamentably all dead. Oh, and you're a slag."

Cumberbatch continues in the same vein as before, striding into rooms and owning them instantly, rapid-fire dialogue shooting from his mouth. Martin Freeman is deservedly picking up praise for his role as Dr Watson, too: a straight-man role it is, but his contribution is much weightier. There are few British actors who think in such a considered way about how to deliver dialogue. See the quickfire scene where Watson's girlfriend leaves him and think about the choices Freeman made in it. Sorry, that sounds a bit like homework. While you're at it, discuss the key themes and the use of symbolism.

So little appreciation is given to British TV directors (mainly because they are never given enough leeway or budget to try anything new) that Paul McGuigan should be singled out for his work here. The idea of text messages floating through the screen was originally his, and it's become a staple feature of the show, as well as the primary means by which we understand Sherlock's quick deductions about anyone who enters the room. It's also paved the way for him to make it even more heavily stylised this time around. In a scene that reminded me of the House season one episode 'Three Stories', Sherlock outlines a case to Irene, and we are transported to the flashback itself, with the characters in it standing statuesque and Holmes and Adler observing and discussing. This is a directorial flair you never see outside US TV screens.

Stand against the wall in an Indian restaurant long enough, they'll give you a free onion bhaji just to get rid of you.

There should be more of this. If it weren't for the fact that Martin Freeman's about to become obscenely famous through The Hobbit and couldn't sign on for it anyway, I'd be banging on the BBC's door demanding to know why they aren't taking notes from their recent HBO collaborations and starting to turn shows like Sherlock and Luther into series of twelve or thirteen 40-minute episodes. They've proved they can make great mini-series; with a bit of ambition maybe they can go even further.

Watch Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia on the iPlayer.

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