School’s out in Westminster and there’s nothing good on telly, so everybody seems to be talking about Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the BBC. And since everybody’s talking about it, and since it’s a terribly clever update of a traditional British adventure with saucy gay innuendo and phones that do the internet, Sherlock has become rather more important as a cultural barometer than 90 minutes of Sunday-night crime drama would normally suggest. Most of the commentariat has decided that Sherlock is a good thing, but I beg to differ.
It’s not that Sherlock is a bad show. It’s beautifully shot, with a lovely suggestive rapport between Martin Freeman’s cantankerous Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s rakish, manic Holmes, who seems so taken with his own genius that he can barely keep his balance. Gatiss and Moffat clearly have a great deal of affection for the original books, and the scripts are stuffed with the sort of throwaway quips designed to please Sherlockian geeks, of whom I happen to be one – as a child, I read every Holmes story over and over again until my charity-shop paperbacks disintegrated. Nonetheless, the series has failed to make a case for why yet another dramatisation of the exhaustively adapted Holmes tales is really worthy of BBC licence money, only six months after the latest big-budget Hollywood retelling, much less a version implausibly set in modern London.
On a number of levels, the adaptation simply doesn’t work. The real fascination of Holmes and Watson’s puzzles was always that they could only be solved by rigorous forensics, by using reason over superstition, a method that set Conan Doyle’s icy protagonist at odds with the law enforcement of the day. The notion that today’s force would need the help of a wayward genius to solve forensic puzzles is more than a little clunky.
This is just one of the reasons why Sherlock Holmes doesn’t belong in the 21st century. Ultimately, the decision to have him dashing around texting his sidekicks, slurping frappe lattes and looking broody under the London Eye was misplaced, because substantial thematic elements of the original stories simply refuse to be rehabilitated. Like a lot of excellent fiction from previous centuries, Conan Doyle’s writing is scarred by ugly cultural assumptions about race, class and gender, and while there are many stories from the 19th century whose dodgy sexist, racist or imperialist undertones can be excused on the basis of being incidental to the plot, Sherlock Holmes is not one of them.
In the books, the maverick detective’s deeply felt superiority to women, to people from other nations and to the “criminal classes” is an intrinsic part of the stories, as is the fetishisation of the British empire as a place full of bristling, hostile natives, rum deeds and murder most foul.
Sherlockians have a choice: we can acknowledge and try to understand the racism and sexism implicit in our beloved detective’s adventures, or we can try to pretend it’s not a problem.
Gatiss and Moffatt seem to have gone for the latter option. Cumberbatch’s Holmes retains his disdain for women, who are there merely to provide two-dimensional foils for the protagonists’ character development, presuming they are lucky enough to survive to the end of the episode. Sunday’s show, moreover, was less of an update than a direct transposition of British Sinophobia in the late-Victorian period.
In précis, the plot of The Blind Banker was booga-wooga yellow peril exotic chinky slaughter emporium: an exhilarating romp through nearly every hackneyed orientalist cliché going. There were improbable and sinister circus contortionists, ersatz torture devices, yellow-themed cryptic writing, keepers of dusty Chinatown shops attempting to peddle curiously significant pieces of ethnic tat, a submissive and inevitably doomed eastern maiden pouring tea in traditional dress, and even, for Christ’s sake, ninjas. As the British-Chinese blogger Anna Chen observed:
Sherlock morphs into Nayland Smith (hero of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books) . . . and it’s all Black Lotus, Tongs, drugs and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? Unaccountably, they omitted the Limehouse opium den scene, but there are some Victorian values which should be locked in a hansom cab back with the swirling pea-soup fogs.
The description of the mysterious Chinese assassin, Spider, all broad brow and smouldering evil eyes, had a worrying resemblance to the following uncomfortable passage from the opening scene of Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Three Gables:
The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room. He would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific . . . his broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us to the other . . . “I’ve wanted to meet you for some time,” said Holmes. “I won’t ask you to sit down, for I don’t like the smell of you, but aren’t you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?”
“That’s my name, Masser Holmes, and you’ll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip.”
“It is certainly the last thing you need,” said Holmes, staring at our visitor’s hideous mouth.
The racism, sexism and imperialism that are fundamental to Conan Doyle’s stories do not mean we should dismiss Holmes out of hand, but they do raise the question of why, precisely, Sherlock Holmes still means so much to us, and why we’re so anxious to rehabilitate him to the modern world, as it’s highly unlikely that this will be the last BBC dramatisation of the books.
Holmes has enduring appeal because he’s the original brilliant outsider, the lone maverick who wins every time, simply by being cleverer or braver than everyone else. The formulation appeals particularly to teenagers — all of whom are brilliant outsiders — and remains an enormously important part of pop culture, particularly in crime fiction and especially in Britain, where we just love an oddball. Harry Potter, Gene Hunt, Jonathan Creek, Inspector Morse, John Constantine, even Doctor Who — all are brilliant outsiders with rich interior lives. They are all also always male, always white and always western.
I’m getting bored by stories about posh white men and how much cleverer and more special they are than everyone else. I’ve been hearing that story, in one form or another, since I was old enough to listen. I want to hear about other lives, new adventures. Adaptations are all very well, but it’s long past time we updated our myths for good, rather than struggling to rehabilitate the past.
If we want to avoid cultural implosion, it’s high time for the British to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.