There are a hundred reasons to love Mark Gatiss, so talented and so clever, but Sherlock is not, I fear, one of them. I’ve never taken to his Holmes reboot (Sundays, 9pm), and not only because I cleave to Basil Rathbone’s comparatively motionless impersonation of the great detective (though in truth I’d rather read Conan Doyle, my first grown-up literary love, in an edition illustrated by Sidney Paget, and leave it at that). Still, I was surprised by how little I liked The Six Thatchers (New Year’s Day), an episode inspired by Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Six Napoleons”. Its frenzied plot felt too contingent. Is Gatiss wearying of Holmes? The word is that he’ll shortly kill him off. Meanwhile, getting his eye in, he did in Mary Watson (played by Amanda Abbington) instead. She died at the London Aquarium, killed by a bullet rather than the murderous price of a ticket. Luckily the attraction, like the city itself, in this series, was bafflingly empty, and the sharks remained safely in their briny tanks, oblivious to the unbounded silliness on the other side of the glass.
John Watson (Martin Freeman) arrived moments before his wife’s death, which gave them the chance to have a brief conversation: the gist was that they’d made each other very happy. Meanwhile, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) looked on, resembling more than ever a porpoise in human form, his elongated face gleaming in the blueish gloom. One of Sherlock’s themes is the emotional stupidity of intelligent people: Holmes can solve a complex crime in three seconds flat but his empathy has long since gone missing, if it was ever there at all.
Nevertheless, above the animal keening of Watson, my batlike ears picked up another sound: the cracking of ice. Compassion, it seemed, was rising in Holmes, like mercury in a thermometer brought suddenly indoors. Soon afterwards, he was sitting with a shrink, struggling to make sense of his loss (not only is Mary gone but John won’t speak to him). Dear me. Touchy-feely is going to be no use at all in a world where assassins appear at the merest flash of an Oyster card. Low as my investment in this series is, I do hope it will be Moriarty who pushes our hero metaphorically off Tower Bridge, rather than the irrational ideas of Dr Freud.
In other news, ITV is back on the Downton hunt. This time, the trail – I picture desperate ITV executives sniffing a hankie scented with Mitsouko, or Jicky, at their planning meetings – has led to a London hotel, the Halcyon. Handily, it is owned by a toff, Lord Hamilton (Alex Jennings), whose wife, Priscilla (Olivia Williams, wearing lipstick the colour of expensive chocolate), likes to live there when she’s in town. But being a hotel, it comes with staff, so the upstairs-downstairs structure is present and correct. Should things get boring – and how can they when it’s 1940 and air-raid sirens are sounding? – the writers (Charlotte Jones, Jack Lothian and Sarah Dollard) can always invite a guest. Everyone knows what fun lies in The Crazy Things People Do in Hotel Rooms.
Unfortunately, this is writing by numbers. The Halcyon (Mondays, 9pm) is a facsimile of a facsimile, as lacklustre as pearls that haven’t been kept next to a woman’s skin, as lifeless as a dress hung too long in an attic. It makes Julian Fellowes seem like John Galsworthy, and John Galsworthy seem like William Thackeray, F Scott Fitzgerald and Daphne du Maurier rolled into one. Plus, they killed the most interesting character, the Nazi-sympathising Lord Hamilton, at the end of the first episode, which is a disaster, given the want of charisma in the younger members of the cast.
So, what part will Hamilton’s Munich-loving mistress, Charity Lambert (Charity Wakefield), play? Where once she was able to wreak tight-smiled havoc over the breakfast kippers, now Lady H and her soppy sons will simply exile her to the 1940s equivalent of a Premier Inn, with only rationed butter for company. Eager as I am for a new Downton out of which to take the mickey, this series is about as likely to be recommissioned as the Germans are to win the war. Expect it to sink without trace. If not, the kippers are on me, silver-domed and steaming hot.
Now listen to a discussion of Sherlock on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain