Television can be a great motivator of literary good. It was the Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry series Jeeves and Wooster that took me to PG Wodehouse (to my everlasting gratitude) and it was Jeremy Brett’s turn as Sherlock Holmes in the 80s that brought me to the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Of course, I knew of Sherlock Holmes long before the Granada series was made. Holmes had been a pop culture fixture since the late 1800s after all. He was surely the first ‘show’ revived after nominal ‘cancellation’ (ACD killed him off in The Final Problem because he wanted to write serious fiction) partly because of passionate activity from fans. (This was probably also an early example of ‘if there isn’t a body, we won’t believe he’s dead!’)
But the Holmes and Watson I knew from popular culture were a bland pair. Holmes was an avuncular smart arse, hanging around with his stupid friend. I couldn’t think well of a man who kept an idiot in tow just to make himself look smarter. He was tame, he was predictable, he was, to borrow a phrase, BORING.
But the Granada series opened my eyes to something new, because David Burke’s Dr John Watson was a fit, reasonably intelligent everyman to Jeremy Brett’s acid, snarky, biting Sherlock Holmes and the combination was fresh and exciting. Watson’s warmth and Holmes’s coolness worked well, and their friendship was expressed in so many unspoken ways. When Edward Hardwick later took on the role of Watson, the elements of their long friendship became more delightfully explored in actions and expressions rather than words.
Curious, I turned to the stories and found that snark (on both sides), acid wit, outrageous manners, Watson not putting up with all of Holmes’s crap and Holmes actually appreciating Watson’s qualities as a friend and partner-in-shenanigans weren’t invented for the show. It was all canon!
What was more interesting was how much smarter Watson was in the books than he usually appeared on screen. As narrator, he often made a good number of deductions (especially in later stories, having been trained in Holmes’s methods) though Holmes’s genius was always required for the bigger leaps. He was braver and more physically capable than he had frequently been depicted too. But, as the storyteller, his job was to shine a light on the genius of Sherlock Holmes – so much so that even the readers seemed to forget that Watson actually did so much more as Holmes’s right-hand man than ask questions and make incorrect deductions.
For a law abiding citizen and former soldier of the realm, John Watson partook in a surprising amount of larcenous activity for the sake of justice, or at least because his best friend asked him to. On at least one occasion, he insisted on accompanying Holmes on a spot of house-breaking, threatening to report Holmes to the police rather than let him tackle the villain on his own.
What’s that line about best friends? They not only know where the bodies are hidden: they helped you bury them? In canon, Watson never had to help Holmes bury a body, but you know darned well his first question would probably have been ‘how deep?’.
And for his part, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just a rather bright and slightly arrogant toff. No. He was mecurial, brilliant, unpredictable, as likely to forget the social niceties as to be unexpectedly kind. He was an uncomfortable, not always likeable man, whose admirable qualities were best seen through the eyes of his not-quite-conventional friend. But Holmes was someone to admire, if not always to like, and the fact that he liked John Watson softened some of his sharper edges.
The pair of them were bohemians, looking for the outre, the strange, the grotesque in life, and not worrying much about what might be considered ‘normal’.
I have since read every one of the ACD stories multiple times. They, like Wodehouse, are my literary comfort food. I generally delight in variations on canon now, as long as there is some nod to the core of what is enduring and endearing about the original material: the cleverness of the mysteries, the sharp and unsentimental characterisation, and the epic friendship of these two very different men.
The latest BBC series, Sherlock, set in modern London, is a fine addition to the celluloid interpretation of the Holmes books, and you can tell it’s made by people who love the original stories. The series is full of little references and nods to the stories, and it maintains the heart of what appeals to me about them.
I love that John Watson admires but is not intimidated by Sherlock’s intellect: that he is confident enough in himself that he doesn’t have to feel belittled by the great detective’s insights. I love that he calls Sherlock on his crap, and that Sherlock is delighted that somebody calls him an idiot, because he can be, about some things.
I love that Sherlock is driven and socially awkward and struggles to become more human just as John works to become more analytical, the two balancing so well, playing off and learning from each other. I love the cleverness of the mysteries, of course, but above all I love the story of this amazing friendship.
I know that Sherlock is sending people back to the original stories in the same way that the Brett series once did for me. Actually, it’s exciting and a bit strange to find people who’ve never read them before and I find myself trying not to give spoilers for stories first published over a hundred years ago!
I remember my first time reading some of those (and many other) stories. The joy of encountering something for the very first time and not knowing how it ends, and reading until 3 in the morning because you just have to know how it ends! And it doesn’t matter if that story was written last month or four hundred years ago. Everyone has their first time encountering a classic; it’s a joy and a delight if you can encounter it fresh, just as the first readers would have done.
And there’s delight in discovering the source material for things you think you know, and discovering how much better, fresher, more thrilling and so much more amazing those stories can be than the sometimes watered-down, domesticated versions we get later.
Thank you, Jeremy Brett, for driving me to one of the eternal loves of my life: the original Sherlock Holmes. Thank you BBC Sherlock for giving my love affair with Baker Street a whole new series to take to heart.
Next post: the top twelve things Tim and I have learned from Sherlock Holmes.