It was hard not to grin like an idiot watching the updated Sherlock Holmes on the BBC on Sunday night. Updating an icon is a little like defusing a bomb – cut the wrong wire and it’s curtains.
Instead, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss successfully remained true to the spirit of the original while updating Holmes and Watson from Queen Victoria’s London to Boris Johnson’s.
It’s not the first time Sherlock Holmes has been updated, of course. The marvellous Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies were updated to the 1940s for reasons of patriotism and they worked, because the character stayed the same. There was nothing eminently Victorian about Holmes – he is the timeless archetype of the man who can figure anything out. He transcends eras in that sense.
How, then, to make Sherlock Holmes work in 21st Century London? The great city herself is a start. London looked wonderful in the first episode of Sherlock, and certain iconic London landmarks are used with great skill, not least the house at 221B Baker Street itself.
An Spailpín made it his business to pay it a visit on a trip to London once, being a fan of long-standing, and it was just wonderful to see Holmes and Watson fly out the door into the recognisable 21st Century night on Sunday.
Stephen Moffat has a gift for casting. After the triumph of Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor Who, Moffat has hit the jackpot again with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. The tense, coiled spring presence of Cumberbatch is reminiscent of Jeremy Brett, and no greater praise exists.
Watson is a triumph. Watson represents the plodding mortal against the Sherlockian superman, viewing Holmes with our eyes and ears. Martin Freeman’s glum, stoic and impossibly, glorious British Doctor Watson is a triumph. He is the mustn’t-grumble Britisher that took Quebec and held Rourke’s Drift. And he gets some terribly droll lines too.
The writing is another triumph. The dialogue crackles and, while the plotting was a little weak in the first episode, the primary goal was to establish the characters and these are now already carved in stone as a truly great Holmes and Watson.
The sublime nature of Mycroft Holmes’ entrance leaves little room for doubt that the next two episodes will be of sufficiently fiendish cunning that even the Sunday Game itself will have to take a back seat to the rejuvenated bloodhounds of Baker Street. The game is very much afoot.