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Not even Sherlock could solve life's greatest mystery. Why am I still watching it?

The last episode where Sherlock and John just solved a crime was five years ago. How did such a brilliant show go wrong?

This contains spoilers. You have been warned.

"Sherlock started in 2010, seemed good at first, became shit - but you stick with it cos there's nothing better on," a Labour friend texted me last night.

"Remind you of anything?"

Indeed. We've been trying to convince ourselves that the show's writers know what they're doing – that there's some Long-Term Sherlock Plan at work – but every time anyone bothers to pay attention to what they're actually doing, the whole thing falls apart. It looks glossy and plausible, but none of it makes any sense.

Still. Showing it on on New Year's Day did at least provide a helpful reminder that 2017 was not the promised land and that this year is almost certainly going to be at least as bad as no I'm already depressed by that metaphor. 

So what actually happened in last night's fourth season opener? It started in MI5, cleaning up some threads from the last season (which was back in those carefree days of January 2014, so you could be forgiven for having forgotten). It then moved through a sort of montage of a series of mysteries, none of which we saw enough of to care about, and to spice things up a bit it threw in a baby for John and Mary Watson.

It looked momentarily, at the half-hour mark, like it was going to give us an actual locked-room mystery, which was by far the best bit of the show. But that lasted all of five minutes before Sherlock solved it and declared that another story in which someone was going round smashing busts of Margaret Thatcher was far more interesting, which unfortunately it wasn't. After that the whole thing turned into a dreary James Bond knock-off about John's wife Mary's former life as a government assassin, which ended with a minor character from the opening scene shooting her dead. This was a relief, in its way, but does mean we're probably going to be treated to another two episodes of the leads angst-ing at each other rather than actually solving any bloody crimes.

Oh, and John almost had an affair, but it wasn't immediately clear why (at least, if you discount the obvious reason). And there were quite a lot of shots of some sharks which might be a metaphor, but then again might just have been some sharks. And Sherlock kept repeating this fable about Death wandering the markets of Mesopotamia, which is presumably meant to be about the fact Mary's been on the run from her previous life, but for all I know maybe that was actually about the sharks or maybe John's affair of Mrs Hudson's mascara or who the hell even knows any more.

(You may have noticed that I've not bothered constructing an argument to connect my thoughts in any way here, instead presenting them as a collection of essentially random observations with nothing to bind them together. To which my response is: if it's good enough for Sherlock, it's good enough for me.)

None of this was really a radical departure for the show. Its first two seasons – which, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones, account for its huge international audience – were spectacular, each episode presenting a bunch of compelling mysteries and letting some incredibly watchable characters run around solving them.

The last episode to fit that pattern, though, was literally five years ago now, and in the intervening half decade the whole thing's gone weird on us. In the third season, the detectives-solving-some-crimes bit of the Holmes and Watson relationship took a bit of a backseat, and the show instead focused on their relationship. How would John deal with Sherlock being back from the dead? How would Sherlock deal with John getting married? What would the two of them be like drunk?

Last year's New Year's special was even more gimmicky, showing us what the 21st century re-imagining of theses characters would be like if they lived in the 19th century, which you might recall is where they came from in the first place – not so much a twist as a straighten – and then Sherlock woke up and it was all a dream. There was probably some plot in there too, but 12 months on I'll be damned if I can remember what it was.

As brilliant as Sherlock once was, it's now been pretty consistently disappointing for five years, which is longer than many shows even last. And yet, I'm still watching it, and I'll watch the rest of the season, too, even though it's almost certainly going to annoy the hell out of me.

The response to this on Twitter suggests a lot of people blame Steven Moffat for the show's decline. This is not entirely fair, partly because he must take much of the credit for making the show so successful in the first place, and partly because this particular episode was the work of co-creator Mark Gatiss. (Indeed, my main takeaway from the episode is: thank god they're not putting Gatiss in charge of Doctor Who.)

But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Sherlock's real problem is its format. It launched as a series of three, 90 minute episodes – TV movies, essentially – and has stuck to this religiously. The show may not be on often, but every time it is, it feels like an event.

This, though, has its downsides. For one thing, when you’re only doing three episodes every two years, there’s no room left for any filler: every one has to feel important. For another, it's apparently quite difficult to come up with mysteries worth stretching out over 90 minutes, so the show has increasingly opted to rush through half a dozen poorly-developed plots rather than giving us one properly-thought-through one. It's started to feel oddly like a clipshow of itself.

The other downside is less of a problem for the BBC than it is for the audience. It's this: because it's event television, we'll all still watch it. Watching three long episodes, even mediocre ones, feels like less of a commitment than watching a full length series of shorter ones. So, the ratings won't suffer, and I'll probably be back on Twitter whining about it again next Sunday night.

Why don't I just stop watching it? It's a mystery.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Sherlock on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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