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Sherlock - The Abominable Bride

10th Jan 2016

A Man Out of His Time

I thought about doing a review of the Sherlock Christmas special a few weeks ago.  If the search engines are going to send people my way, it’s a good idea to stick some original on content here now and again. What better way to do this than writing about one of your favourite television shows?  Here’s the thing.  I don’t think the Abominable Bride was very good.  I mean, it was alright, it wasn’t abominable, it just wasn’t brilliant.  Not as brilliant as I’d hoped for anyway.

It was well publicised that this outing for BBC’s Sherlock would be a period-piece set in the Victorian era of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.  How were they going to do this?  What was it that allows Holmes and Watson to drag up and romp around the London Streets that the late great Jeremy Brett made his own.  The obvious solution is that they are investigating a very cold case and is to step through it from their respective perspectives in the historical setting in which the crime took place. A vehicle that gets a bit of use here and there.

The obvious environment for all these shenanigans is Holmes’ mind palace, but if that is how all this is made possible, how come Watson is narrating? If it’s a mind palace jaunt, why, after a one minute fifty-two second recap of the previous three series, a technique which I always see as cheap telly, does it kick off with poor Doctor Watson, getting the crap bombed out of him in the second Afghan war?  Does Holmes have a little room in his mind palace where he keeps a terrorised Watson?  Or was that bit contemporary Watson dreaming?  Has Watson got his own mind palace?  A less elaborate lean-to attached to Sherlock’s more grandiose place perhaps.  It was hard to tell until this was fixed much later with a throw away line in which Sherlock noted how he prefered the view himself through Watson’s eyes because he appeared more clever.

The one thing that did peak my interest, sometimes to the point of distraction, was the picture of the skull adorning the wall of 221B Baker Street.  A closer look revealed it wasn’t a skull but a picture of a woman looking into a mirror, the woman perhaps.  If it did mean something there was no explanation.  Not one that I noticed anyway.  Maybe the point of it was all too subtle for my or nothing more than a McGuffin.

London 1895

We enter the London 1895 via this weird reverse pastiche, where scenes from the first series are reskinned into olden days. Before the titles and the representation of the passage of time that is indicated by that cleverest of plot devices, the growing of a mustache. A pastiche with all the subtlety of a scabby cheese and onion pastie.

Half a Conan Doyle

As things get going we subtlety fades further with a series of unclever references to Sir Arthur's canon and the constant rubbing against the fur of his stories.  Without really looking, I picked up the Blue Carbuncle, an ACD Christmas classic, the Hound of the Baskervilles, or the “dog one”, and the Five Orange Pips delivered to Captain Darling… sorry Sir Eustace Carmichael.  Not only is Holmes oblivious to the motion of the planets, he also struggles a bit with artistic license. We also had the “tweeds in a morgue” craic. Edward Hardwicke war a lot of tweed,  so what?

Then we have some less obvious nods. Apparently “my Boswell is learning. They do grow up so fast” is a reference to James Boswell, diarist, biographer and companion of the Samuel Johnson. The bloke who wrote the dictionary in Blackadder.  Are we supposed to be watching this or googling it? Okay, fair enough,  “I am lost without my Boswell” is a line in Sir ACD’s A Scandal in Bohemia, but still as subtle as a fairy’s fart.

I do a fair bit of that in Holmes Volume 1, however I like to think it’s a little less obvious, and certainly more comic, that you found here, or for that matter the examples of this found in earlier episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock.  Being able to quotes of Tolstoy is kind of clever, quoting more popular entertainment like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, not sure. Now and again maybe.  Just not over and over.

A Strand To The Story

These backreferences continue with the contamination of the plot with seeping characteristics from the Strand Magazine stories, such as Mrs Hudson playing the magazine interpretation of herself.  This is not without comedy, but after a while this, and the suggestion they were required to align with the embellishments added by illustrator Sidney Paget, got a bit wearing.  

From a personal perspective there was one aspect of this parody I found interesting.  Some of the early feedback I received for A Scandal in Boro, the first story in Holmes Volume 1, was that Holmes’ landlady Martha Hudson was a little vacuous.  Given the protestations of the Mrs Hudson of this tale, and the inferred criticism of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characterisation, I feel I’m in good company.

All said and done it's all a bit confusing.  We have the BBC’s Sherlock a contemporary version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, that then regresses to the time of Sir Arthur’s classics to be constantly contaminated by elements of the Strand Magazine in which the stories were originally published.  So the characters have become the characters they were inspired by who are now becoming infected by their literary manifestations.  To me the original stories referring to the magazine in which they were published is enough.  I don’t need any more layers to distract from the story.  It’s all very clever, but a bit too clever.  It’s one joke.  Not one every five minutes. 

Vanity Fare

I’m sorry but it’s all a bit too clever for me.  As Albert Einstein put it “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.”  As the show progressed you could almost see Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat camping around a kitchen table singing “how clever are we”, wearing some of the articles left over in the dressing up box gifted to them by the costume department after this vain foray into Victorian London.  “Now Downton Abbey is finished you might as well have this lads.”  If “fear is wisdom in the face of danger” then this was “clever is conceitedness at the expense of a story”.  

Cumberbotch

Have I upset you yet?  It really isn’t my intention.  I normally love the work of Messrs Gatiss and Moffat.  No?  Reallly?  Okay, there’s time yet, because now, at the risk of having a Holmesian fatwa levelled at me, I want to have a look at the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Benny Boy’s performance in the first three series of Sherlock is brilliant.  He took a character that has been played by the greats such as Basil Rathbone, Ian Richardson, Michael Caine and Jeremy Brett and owned it.  If you discount Michael Caine’s brilliant comic performance in Without a Clue, to me, Cumberbatch is only a shade behind Brett.  I think Jeremy Brett will always be my favourite.  

Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor.  I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in.  My only real criticism would be that his eyebrows are an awfully wide distance apart.  That said it’s no bad this to be diametrically opposed to Liam Gallagher and his monobrow. 

The problem here is that in his time travelling back to Victorian London he seems to have lost something. The Bon Ami with Watson seems to have gone missing in action.  It’s as if he’s attempting some of the tersity of Jeremy Brett but hasn’t realised their was more to the Brettster than that.  Brett causticity was always played with a narrowing of the lips or the jabbing of tongue on inner cheek.  Cumberbatch was also a bit too full on with the with the deduction to the point where you felt like screaming “let one go by” at the television screen.  He also seems to be pretty much the only one involved in the investigation of this Abominable Bride bird.

In my version of Holmes, and apologies for the plug but, Holmes isn’t the only the contributor to solving of the mysteries.  Isn’t that how it should be and was in Sir Arthur’s vision of the character?  If Holmes is some unstoppable storm, what's the point in Watson, or for that matter the criminals.  There were several times when Martin Freeman’s Watson would have been quite within his rights to say “okay, smartarse, sort it out yourself.  I’m off down the pub to drink mead.”

Holmes did have some funny lines: “I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost”,  but these fell flat.  I think because comedy has the prerequisite of empathy with the person delivering it.  Unfortunately Cumberbatch’s attempt at doing a Brett lacked this.  I also didn’t like Mary siding on a nod with Holmes against Watson.  Call me old fashioned but a wife should be patronising her own husband, not joining in when someone else does it.

Then we have the age old debate, discussed by scholars through the ages.  Are fat suits funny? Some people will think so.  Probably the same types who thought the Two Ronnies dressing up as women every week and running a mock with not so subtle innuendo was worthy of a chuckle.  As it turns out this is one of the mechanisms for suggesting that all was not kosher with the world inhabited by the faux-Brett Cumberbatch.  This was further underlined by the suggestion that Mycroft got fatter in a day and the mention of a "virus in the data".  Do viruses live in data?  Surely they live in the code.   “Virus in the logic” would have been far better.  Better still just tell us all this takes place in the mind palace in the first place.  Why not?  Sherlock taking a jolly into his mind palace to have a crack at a cold case, only to find it is infected by a virus in the shape of Moriarty would have been a decent enough story.  Mmmmm, I think I’ll make a note of that.

Great Scott

So after over an hour of hints, tips and suggestions, that had nada to do with the case, it becomes apparent that Holmes’ interest in the case of the Abominable Bride is due to its analogy with the apparent resurrection of Professor Moriarty.   Hence the breadcrumb at beginning the of “Sometimes to solve a case you must first solve another”. Despite the reminder at the beginning, I’d forgotten the good Professor had shot himself in the head.  I somehow thought he’d fallen from a rooftop. Well it was two years ago and perhaps the recap washed over me a bit.  Maybe if I’d avoided this lapse the Abominable Bride would have been a much different experience.

The good news is that this sees Andrew Scott pitch up in the form of Moriarty.  The diamond and saviour of the day.  Over an hour of Cumberbatch and Scott brings more to the piece in just a few minutes.  Let’s hope he can recover from blowing his brains out at the end of Series 3 to return in Series 4.

The Unabominable Ending

As it turns out the solution to the case of the Abominable Bride was quite a clever one.  I’m not sure if anything lead us to it, but I may have been distracted by cringe.  The Pepper’s ghost thing is something seen previously Jonathan Creek and I wasn’t sure about the “it’s never twins” thing. It was twins in the Case of the Silk Stocking where Rupert Everett played Sherlock Holmes brilliantly.  The solution was clever, it just took a little too long to get there with little ground covered in it’s direction. At which point the Moriarty metaphor fell apart.  Why would two people surviving a point blank shot in the head be similar that any other respect than they’ve both got banging headaches anyway? Messrs Gatiss and Moffat seemed to have dropped the ball there.

Alongside all this generated confusion of the setting of the piece and the case in point, we have this sidestory and “war we must lose” against a bunch of women dressed up like the Klu Klux Klan.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gender equality, equality as a whole really, but it did seem a bit of a disproportionate response.   Sir Eustace met Emilia Ricoletti in America, promised her the world, had his wicked way with her, and then made a sharp exit.  This is clearly not behaviour to be condoned, but is it funny-looking knife in the chest stuff?  Old Mr Ricoletti seemed a bit of a git too, but was it enough to deserve finding himself at the tasty end of a double-barrelled shotgun?  Talk about a woman scorned...

If there was supposed to be some sort of moral in there, it looked to be no more than a bit of man-bashing.  Has the whole of mankind been a bunch of bastards to the point they must lose a war they didn’t know they were fighting? Now that they’ve banned fox hunting it seems that the human male is the only fair game available. I await the next collaboration from Gatiss and Moffat, which I expect will be entitled something along the lines of “the atonement of the white hetrosexual male for all the shit that went on before they were born.”  Perhaps I’m not deserving of a view on this, having being encumbered with an unrighteous set of genitalia, but there are examples of diabolical behaviours although history perpetrated by one section of society or another.  I admit, mainly the male of the species, but grandma used to be beaten by the nuns at her school. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna go bitch slapping Julie Andrews.  Better to look forward or around the now, I think.

There’s a place for highlighting injustice.  It’s not the Sherlock Christmas special, and I really didn’t like that poor Martin Freeman had to portray Watson in such a sexist manner. Watson is supposed to be the nice cuddly one.  It would be difficult for him to ring a dinner bell in a more pretentious manner than he managed, and the interaction with the maid was just weird.  Her cocktail of subservience and sarcasm, odd.  But that’s okay because it’s olden times.  Except it wasn’t.  This was all the creation of Sherlock Holmes’s superbrain.  So what does that say?

In the end it was all dream within a mind palace with in a dream within whatever you want.  It turns out mind palaces have revolving doors and you can be in and out of them like a fiddler's elbow. It all had an element of the  “I woke up and it was all a dream” scenarios that helped you navigate the time constraints placed by secondary school English tests, and kept Bobby Ewing in the shower for the slack-end of a year.  How wrinkly must his extremities have been, not to mention the size of water bill? 

It could be that the Sherlock set in contemporary times is the imagined one and the props department will be wanting their dressing up box back when Sherlock returns to our screens in 2017.  How Bobby Ewing would that be?  If it brings Andrew Scott back, why not.

If I haven’t put you off completely, Sherlock - The Abominable Bride is available now to buy on DVD and Blu-ray, however you’d be far better spending your Christmas vouchers on my book, Holmes Volume 1.  It’s better, at least I think it is.


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