Sherlock – a high functioning sociopath!
July 27, 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion biographer Dr John Watson first appeared in print in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

Subsequent adventures drew popular acclaim and by 1891 a series of short stories and serialised novels regularly featured in The Strand Magazine. By the time the last of these appeared in 1927 the detective consultancy operating out of 221b Baker Street had become a national institution.

Through the stage adaptations, films and TV series that followed, Holmes and Watson have  proved to be the most enduring of literary characters. The Guinness World Records has listed Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character,” having been played by 75 different actors in over 211 films.  

The instantly recognisable image of Holmes as a pipe smoking sleuth clad in frock coat and deerstalker, peering through a magnifying glass, is taken from the original illustrations by Sidney Paget which accompanied the stories.     

In the 1940s Basil Rathbone’s monochromatic Hollywood performances famously drew on these and his portrayal of Holmes set the standard for those that followed, although I don’t recall ever seeing one of these films in its entirety.

When I was young my Mum used to work at the local Byron Cinema and received a weekly entitlement of complementary tickets. I consequently became a bit of a film buff at quite an early age.

My first encounter with Holmes and Watson was therefore through the big screen in Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1959 film in glorious Technicolor, with Peter Cushing taking the lead role.

However as far as I’m concerned the definitive Holmes, to date, was splendidly played by the late Jeremy Brett in the Granada TV series which originally ran for ten years from 1984 and even now is frequently repeated.    

More recently a 2009 film starring Robert Downey Junior received mixed reviews for its unconventional portrayal of the Victorian crime buster and his relationship with stalwart companion Watson, played by Jude Law, but I haven’t seen it and will therefore suspend judgment.   

Each of these actors has brought something different to their interpretation of this most celebrated of detectives but the setting has until now always remained as smoggy Victorian London with its attendant gas lights and hansom cabs.      

On Sunday night we were treated to something different, the first of a new three-part BBC series called Sherlock in which Conan Doyle’s characters inhabit present day London. The show has been created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, both well-known as writers for the highly successful Dr Who series.     

It might be argued that there was something of the Doctor in Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock; the world’s only consulting detective and a master of modern technology in solving crimes. 

The essential intellectual brilliance, logical reasoning, and aloofness of Conan Doyle’s original character remain but there is an added dynamism and urgency about 21st century Sherlock.

He is very much a man of our times. The three pipe problem has been replaced by the three (nicotine) patch problem, he advertises his services on a website and his favoured form of communication is the text message.   

The dialogue is slick and witty, as illustrated by Sherlock’s riposte to an antagonistic policeman, “I am not a psychopath I’m a high functioning sociopath!”        

Martin Freeman’s John Watson is also seemingly very contemporary, recently discharged as an army doctor  and returning wounded from a traumatic posting in Afghanistan, but amazingly this is exactly the background created for the character by Conan Doyle back in 1897!         

The first episode A Study in Pink was reviewed in the Guardian as being strong on characterisation but thin on plot. It was however quite clearly based on Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet.

Much of that book is given over to providing background information about Holmes and Watson prior to their meeting through a mutual friend. Its title is derived from Holmes’ description to Watson of the murder investigation in which they are involved as his “study in scarlet”.

He explains, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”          

A Study in Pink owes its title, more simply, to the colour of the dress worn by a murder victim and her missing matching suitcase!

However the murderer remains a London cabby (but this time not the hansom variety) with limited life expectancy due to an aortic aneurism. His modus operandi is also faithful to the original. He offers his victims a choice of two pills, a game of Russian roulette, one being harmless and the other poisoned!

I am usually rather a traditionalist when it comes to film and TV adaptations but I thought Sherlock was fresh and innovative whilst maintaining the spirit and integrity of the original.

I look forward to seeing the next two episodes and I suspect a further series featuring the dynamic duo from way down on Baker St.