The Baker Street sleuth's latest incarnation impresses Sophie Elmhirst.


It was, perhaps, too much for one day. But Sunday was bookended by watching the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on The Andrew Marr Show in the morning and then, about 12 hours later, seeing them again in the new version of Sherlock Holmes (25 July, 9pm). Marr, eager as ever, seemed very excited about the whole thing, despite forcing poor old Freeman to mutter about The Office, a show he was last in seven years ago. Doing something outstanding early in your career must be such a burden. It's the only thing anyone wants to talk about, even when they've invited you on to their sofa to talk about something else. You could almost hear Marr, in that jaunty way of his that makes you want to retreat rapidly to bed, whispering at Freeman as the lights went down: "So, you and Ricky Gervais, you still friends?"

But the matter in hand is Sherlock Holmes. In many ways the updating of his story to a modern setting worked well. That Holmes would be a serial texter makes total sense, as does Watson being a military doctor injured in Afghanistan who suffers from phantom limb syndrome and various psychosomatic disorders. It's as if they've gone through the manual for 21st-century signifiers: inappropriate war in the Middle East, check; ineffective psychotherapy, check; references to the destructive social conservatism of the Daily Mail, check.

The best bit of this "Look how modern we've made it!" stuff was the gay undertones. On Marr, Cumberbatch and Freeman talked about how there had always been theories about the precise nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and how they'd drawn on that in their portrayals. So there I was, eagerly awaiting a subtle, downplayed enactment of unspecified sexuality, but instead, about ten minutes in, got Watson insisting to a landlady that he and Holmes weren't going to share a room and then, about ten minutes after that, saying with a look of blind panic on his face, "I am not his date!" to a waiter who had implied otherwise. As if that wasn't enough, Watson then told Holmes that it was "all fine" whether he was gay or not. Oh, for ambiguity.

Aside from the in-your-face elements - yes, they live at 221b Baker Street - it was fine Sunday-night entertainment: a rollicking serial-killer plot plus laughs and excellent acting. I wish they had let the actors do more of it, though. The director for some reason seemed to think it was a good idea, while Holmes was mid-deduction, to flash words on to the screen so that we could read his thoughts. Imagine if in Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio's thoughts had popped up as he drew Kate Winslet: "Attractive! Will now seduce." It would have ruined the magic. And so it was with poor Holmes. We weren't allowed to miss anything, or, God forbid, think for ourselves.

Still, Cumberbatch did a fine job - all mannerisms and angular jaw, moving in the way I always imagined Peter Mandelson did around the corridors of power - as though on wheels, gliding at pace and disappearing mysteriously when convenient. Freeman, next to Cumberbatch's melodramatic hand-waving and smart-arsing, was likeably downbeat. I'm not sure who else can balance a sense of genuine inner sadness with perfect comic timing like he does. He was quiet and understated and carried off the rather onerous task of having to translate Watson into a post-Afghanistan loner admirably well. Maybe he can finally put the Tim-out-of-The-Office character type to bed. Not, however, if Andrew Marr has anything to do with it.

And while we're there, can I just make a plea about The Andrew Marr Show? The opening titles. People have probably complained about them before, but I have absolutely had it with watching Marr arrive at the BBC in his silly blue car, pick up his post from some poor colleague with a look of affected surprise and then stride in to a lift - all accompanied by a saxophone that should have been strangled in 1982. What do you take us for? Seriously, on behalf of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sunday-morning Viewers, this has got to stop.

Rachel Cooke is away

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy