Proms 2015: The Sherlock Prom goes inside the mind of the great detective

Fortunately, there was more to this programme than just a lot of TV adaptation soundtracks.

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With the licence fee under threat and charter renewal on the horizon, the BBC is on a mission to remind us why it is worth every penny that we give them. The Proms is a big part of that - now in its 121st season, the world-renowned concert series could only exist in its current form with the emphasis on accessibility and low-priced tickets if underwritten by public money. This is partly why the announcement of every year’s programme sets off a rash of comment pieces debating exactly what kind of music we should be supporting: new compositions and artists, genre-crossing innovations, highbrow and serious performances of major works, or populist programmes that will get new punters into the hall?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. Yet when I saw the inclusion of a “Sherlock” Prom on this year’s programme, I was still a bit apprehensive. The BBC’s Sherlock is one of the corporation’s most on-brand and successful global exports, so I could absolutely understand the desire to do a bit of cross-pollination and remind the Proms audience that there’s more to it than Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones - namely, its Emmy award-winning soundtrack. But as the NS’s Elizabeth Minkel has pointed out in a great essay about the Sherlock fandom, there just isn’t very much of it: “falling for a show with three episodes every two years does terrible things to your mind”, she writes. Unless they were actually going to wheel out Cumberbatch (unlikely, given his current Hamlet commitments) and fill a lot of the time with clips from the show, I just couldn’t see how it would even be long enough.

I was very relieved to discover, then, this was a concert dedicated not to Sherlock, but to Sherlock Holmes in all his various guises. Subtitled “a musical mind”, the programme was filled with a combination of the themes to the various film and TV adaptations as well as the music that Conan Doyle’s original character is said to have an affinity with in the stories. Thus, we got the themes from 1985’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the main title music from 1970’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but also two Lassus motets (upon which Conan Doyle’s Holmes once wrote a monograph) and a movement of the second violin concerto by the detective’s most admired violinist, Paganini.

The programme also served as a useful reminder that in many cases, TV and film music isn’t quite what it was. So while Frank Skinner’s (not that one) spectacular and dramatic suite for 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was thrilling and amusing in its propagandistic, camp way, Hans Zimmer’s rather insipid music for the 2009 and 2011 Guy Ritchie detective films was barely memorable. When we finally got to David Arnold and Matthew Price’s music for Sherlock, I was all soundtracked-out - although it was intriguing to see quite how much percussion their themes require.

Christine Rice. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The highlights of the afternoon, though, came from the non-soundtrack portions of the programme. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, resplendent in a nineteenth century opera gown, gave us two arias that Sherlock Holmes’ “woman”, Irene Adler, is supposed to have sung - “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville and “Ah, Tanya, Tanya” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Her deep tones and smooth delivery brought some much-needed contrast to the mostly-instrumental programme. Jack Liebeck’s Paganini, too, gave a bit of flair to the proceedings. Less successful by far was the inclusion of Wagner’s Ride of Valkyries, in a slightly ponderous and muted version by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

In between pieces, presenter Matthew Sweet and Sherlock co-creator and star Mark Gatiss provided the “musical mind” narrative that linked the music together, as well as short readings from the original stories. Although this was a long way from the full-costume pageantry of the Doctor Who or War Horse Proms of the past, there was a bit of effort made with the wing-backed armchairs the presenters occupied when not speaking and their velvet and tweed costumes. The glee of Sweet and Gatiss, clearly visible throughout, reminded me just why Conan Doyle’s characters have endured the way they have, to be adapted and remixed by every successive generation. As Laurie Penny has pointed out, Sherlock, its latest TV reincarnation, “doesn’t just engage with fan fiction - it is fan fiction”, created by lifelong fans of the Holmes canon. Judging by the knowing chuckles from the audience at all the nudge-nudge-wink-wink references in this programme, quite a lot of their peers were in the hall yesterday afternoon.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.