My Thoughts on the Great Sherlock Holmes Debate.
When this debate was first announced, it was a two-way contest between Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, with the question being something along the lines of which of them had done most to encourage interest in the Canon in the 21st century. This seems like the sort of question which could in principle be answered, although it would take a lot of work: one would need to poll large numbers of people who had watched one or other of these and see how interested they had become as a result. Of course, quantifying interest is difficult; and in the case of people who had watched both, it would be hard to disentangle how much of their interest was caused by one rather than the other. In fact nobody is likely to do any such research, and the real question that people are answering is “Which do you like best?”
The debate has been complicated in recent days by the introduction of a third team, for people who like traditional adaptations in general, and those featuring Jeremy Brett in particular.
About a month ago, before the third team was thought of, I posted this comment on the debate’s Facebook page:
“I wish that there was the option to say ‘both’ as well as ‘neither’. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. I thought that the first episode of Sherlock was marvellous, for, example, but the second… not so much. Likewise there were some things in the movie that seemed more like Hollywood than Baker Street, but also many things to delight a Holmesian viewer. If one must choose, I’d have to go with the movie, because it was in period, and I think that Holmes only makes sense in his own time, as a pioneer of scientific detection. It seems rather absurd to imagine the modern Metropolitan Police seeking advice from a ‘consulting detective’, although the brilliance of Steve Moffat’s writing can make one forget that.”
On the basis of that, you might expect me to be joining the third team, but I don’t feel inclined to do so, largely because I never cared much for Jeremy Brett’s camp, neurotic Holmes. To my mind, the most faithful adaptations were those which I watched in the 60’s, starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock – but there isn’t a team for the Sherlock Holmes of 1965!
My considered opinion, anyway, is that Sherlock Holmes is a legendary figure after the fashion of King Arthur or Robin Hood, and different people are entitled to make different representations of him. I didn’t like the Granada series, but a lot of people loved it. I rather enjoyed the cartoon, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, which wouldn’t have pleased many of the purists. Conan Doyle himself let William Gillette take various liberties in his adaptation for the stage, including the addition of a romance and a marriage for the Great Detective. Likewise in our own day, Robert Lee Hall has re-imagined Holmes as a genetically-enhanced time-traveller from the future, and Charlotte Anne Walters has made him into a brown-eyed Priapus. While neither of these versions of Holmes was really to my taste, there have been plenty of readers who enjoyed them – and who am I to say that they shouldn’t? As a hypocritical Chinaman once said: “Let a thousand flowers bloom!”
So if there were a team which I could support in this debate it would be a hypothetical “team four”, with the motto: “It’s all good!” If the question is “What kind of Holmes would you like to read about, or see on the screen?” my answer would have to be “The kind of Holmes that I wrote about in A Case of Witchcraft” – i.e., a Holmes who is not only a credible human being but also a credible intellectual of the late nineteenth century. To me the most interesting thing about Holmes is that he was a genius: perhaps the first convincing depiction of a genius in English literature. Other people have other interests, and they are perfectly entitled to write their own books — or indeed create their own movies or television programmes — to explore those interests.