Wednesday, 6 January 2016


I was turning cartwheels over the New Year's Day Sherlock Special, but my mum 'couldn't make head nor tail of it.' Therein lies the rub...

It got weirder. (Image copyright: BBC)

We’re five days on from the first day of 2016, so I don’t think I’m giving too much away in outlining the plot of the Sherlock New Year’s Day Special. On a private plane, inside his ‘Mind Palace’, our favourite consulting detective imagined himself and Watson investigating a crime in the 19th century, in which the so-called ‘Abominable Bride’ apparently survived death. It was a tactic to discover how – at the end of the last series – Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty had seemingly done the same.

Happily for me and other people who enjoy a good genre mash-up, the story wasn’t presented straightforwardly. It was put together in perhaps the most joyously, outrageously, self-aware collision of styles that I’ve ever seen. I love this sort of thing; have done ever since I saw The Prisoner playing around with Western and spy fiction conventions and archetypes to great, surreal effect in ‘Living in Harmony’ and ‘The Girl Who Was Death’.

‘The Abominable Bride’, however, took this approach to a whole new level of complexity. Like those two Prisoner stories, the Conan Doyle-style strand wasn’t there as self-indulgence, but as a story in its own right: the reveal of a clandestine suffragette order behind the bride’s killings was refreshingly authentic to the 19th century setting. It also served as the modern Sherlock’s way of discovering how the contemporary Moriarty ‘cheated’ death: ‘once the idea exists, it cannot be killed.’

Watson and Holmes. the real thing?
(Image copyright: BBC)
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s genius is that they weren’t content to leave it at that, gleefully drawing attention to the artificial nature of what was going on. Among the witty nudges was Mrs Hudson (the ageless Una Stubbs) commenting that she was Holmes and Watson’s ‘landlady, not a plot device,’ while Watson ‘had to grow [a] moustache so people recognise me,’ as the illustrator of his Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine had drawn him that way. Throw in the anachronistic phrase ‘the virus in the data’ and, if you’d been watching carefully, you could anticipate the jolt back to the 21st century Holmes waking up in Mycroft’s private plane half way through the Special (a scene which, I suspect, was at least partly there to inform casual viewers what was going on). By the time Holmes and Moriarty (the brilliant Andrew Scott) were playing out their Reichenbach Falls duel – ‘It’s always you and me at the end’ – both narratives had intertwined to the point that Watson could say, ‘I’m a storyteller: I know when I’m in one.’ I was punching the air by that point.

On top of all that, if you were a Sherlock fan you could have a lot of fun discovering what the 19th century versions of the supporting characters were like. The most striking were an obese Mycroft (Gatiss himself), one pudding away from expiring in the Diogenes Club, and Molly Hooper (the underrated Louise Brealey), a suffragette disguised as a man so she could work in the police force. I might have been imagining things, but among all this fun and games, it looked to me like Mrs Watson (Amanda Abbington) was dressed like Leela from the Doctor Who story ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’. As Moffat and Gatiss both work on that series, there’s a good chance the similarity was intentional. For me, this was all self-aware bliss.

Mind you, if you were looking for some obvious, comforting, post-hangover New Year’s Day pipe and deerstalker shenanigans in the classic Sherlock Holmes style – as the publicity suggested – then chances are you’d have been confused and, quite possibly, annoyed. One viewer on Facebook frothed about his family either ‘falling asleep’ or getting ‘very angry’, while my mum, tactful as ever, observed ‘that Mr Cumberbatch is very nice, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.’

The problem is, mainstream British TV drama rarely does this sort of experimentation with narrative form any more. The most recent example was Ashes to Ashes, and that finished in 2008. Before that, you have to go back to when Dennis Potter was alive to find a writer who played around with the conventions of TV drama, most notably and successfully in The Singing Detective (1986). Television has shrunk from when it could comfortably incorporate theatre, surrealism and songs in one production. Today, nearly all TV drama looks like a Hollywood film: impressive, but often unadventurous. Significantly, the only series still playing around with form and structure in the way that ‘The Abominable Bride’ did is Doctor Who, and that’s written by both of the Sherlock Special’s authors – it’s also classed as science fiction, where this sort of thing is permissible. Back in the day, that didn’t bother Potter. He employed the same techniques to social drama, thrillers and autobiography as he did to fantasy.  

So, the expectations of the transmission time and a disappearing form of television may have nobbled ‘The Abominable Bride’ for some viewers. Just as significantly, the Special expected you to remember what had happened in a series last seen two years ago on BBC1, something that the recap at the beginning didn’t really cover. This Sherlock was written very much as the fourth episode of the 2014 series: a treat for fans, then, but hard work for people not in the know.

I loved it, though.

The arguable misfire of showing ‘The Abominable Bride’ on New Year’s Day aside, I’d like to think productions like this will pave the way for more challenging television in days to come.

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