Paul Rixon, Roehampton University

Sherlock: Critical reception by the media


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 In this proposed chapter, I will explore the critical reception of Sherlock by the British national press. In particular I will focus on the work of identifiable TV critics, columnists and more soft news styled coverage, analysing how they covered this series. While such critics, and public commentators, are not all important in how audiences and readers understand or come to value such programmes, they are important voices in the public debate. They are able both able to articulate particular cultural viewpoints about television and its programmes on a regular and high profile basis, helping to create meaning frameworks. In this chapter I will explore the different types of journalistic writing appearing about Sherlock, the underlying cultural values at work, the style of coverage, the references used, the connections made to other television work in the area, the role of publicity material from broadcasters send out to critics and the way such media discussions link with wider debates about the nature of television and to that national culture and identity; in particular debates about how such a programme represents such an iconic character from the past.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 In the summer of 2010 a rare thing occurred, almost all the major television critics writing for the British national press came to laude the new BBC series, Sherlock (BBC/ Hartswood Films 2010-). Here was a programme that simultaneously excited the critics working for both the quality press and the tabloids. In this chapter I will explore the coverage these writers and reviewers gave to this series. At the same time I will make the argument that their critical discourse, while often side-lined by academics focusing more on analysing the programmes or perceptions of the audience, is important. It is part of the public mediated debate, in which broadcasters also play a role, helping to frame the programme for the viewer and, at another level, shaping and guiding debates about the nature of television and wider cultural debates about popular culture. As I explore the discourse of the broadcasters and critics around Sherlock, I will seek to identify some of the main themes and tensions, such those as relating to modernity and British identity, which ran throughout the critical mediated debates around the series; themes and tensions that are important in understanding the way a shared cultural and social understanding of such a programme develops. While this is not the only place where such discussions are going on it is, as I will argue, an important one because of the high media profile of these writers and critics and the easier accessibility of this printed form of discourse.

The role of television critics

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Critics are not just cultural judges, as in a way we can all be, but are also public arbiters of taste (MacDonald 2007, 54). They play a role in shaping public debates around what constitutes good or bad television, and assisting in maintaining or changing the cultural consensus. However, they do not stand above or outside of society; indeed, media critics operate within a cultural field where certain values are in dominance. Depending on their social background they will tend to be positioned differently within this field. Some, with more cultural capital, will align themselves with the dominant cultural values, others, with less, might take on a more subservient position while a few will take up more radical positions (Bourdieu 1984, 234-235) .

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 However, we must also understand that they work at a discursive intersection, one where television, which they write about, meets that of the newspapers, who they write for, which occurs within a wider cultural discourse about television, popular culture and the mass media (Poole1984, 41-61). As the wider cultural, political and societal circumstances change, and as media industries over time transform, so the relative discursive positions will also change and, along with this, the coverage of and debates about television. For example, in the 1950s, British quality newspapers initially saw television as a threat both commercially and culturally, so they either provided little coverage or were fairly critical of this new medium, only as newspapers saw it in their interest to provide more detailed coverage, to help them compete to attract readers from competitors, did the discourse became more encompassing and supportive (Rixon 2011, 55-59).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The mediated discourse of such critics tell us something of these cultural debates about popular culture and the different perspectives that dominant about television at any particular time; it also tells us something of the nature of the newspaper and broadcasting industries and the wider culture values. Such reviews and associated critical articles provide an insight into how a society values, reflects on and struggles over the meaning of television as a cultural medium, and how these relates to wider ideological, cultural and social questions. As part of this struggle we must also take account of the attempts by broadcasters and other capitalist concerns, such as producers, to shape the mediated image of programmes through the use of press releases and preview tapes which, until now, have primarily been used to engage with media critics. Through this interaction, between various parties such as advertisers, broadcasters and critics, images or meaning frameworks for programmes and series develop in the public arena. While we might not know whether these images or frameworks are accepted and taken up by viewers, the critics do play an important role in how they are formed and mediated. This chapter will now explore the development of the public mediated discourse around Sherlock focusing on the role of the broadcasters and their press releases and the discourse of the critics. As I do this I will attempt to delineate and highlight some of the main issues, themes and tensions around which these debates occur, including that of British identity and questions of modernity.

The wider cultural context

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As others have noted in this book Sherlock is part of a long line of radio, filmed and televised adaptations of Conan Doyle’s infamous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Some of these have been made in Britain for television, film or radio, while others have been produced abroad, such as by Hollywood usually aimed at an international audience. Such a global media presence has provided Sherlock Holmes with an international image and fan base, and indeed his fictional home, 224B Baker Street still attracts many foreign visitors (see: http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Through such adaptations each generation creates its own Sherlock Holmes, for example, in the 1940s and 1950s Basil Rathbone was the eponymous Holmes and Nigel Bruce his colleague, Dr Watson, while the 1990s had Jeremy Brett as Holmes with David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke as Dr Watson. For audiences around the world, and at home in Britain, Holmes and Watson seemed to offer an image of two British gentlemen at the service of law and enforcement (Redman 2009). They offered, in many ways, a particular view and understanding of British identity and culture, one, initially, defined in terms of the British relationship to Empire, and then, later, in terms of the post-colonial world. Indeed, they have, over time, become ingrained into British culture and psyche, offering many a nostalgic view of a world where Britain still ruled the waves, where British identity seemed more knowable and the middle-classes seemed more secure. However, increasingly, a modern viewer might feel that these characters inhabit a world that is increasingly remote from their own, the empire is no more, British identify is going through a crisis and redefinition and the middle class feels as if it is under attack. Indeed, the London of Sherlock Holmes, which is dirty and smog ridden, is no more; London, appears, for many, to be a modern city made of glass and concrete.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 British broadcasters have, in the past, tended to reinforce this representation using period sets, with which they excel, to create a detective series mixed with a period drama, such as with the Jeremy Brett series made in the 1980-90s. Such programmes reproduced the cliché of London being a-smog ridden Victorian styled city. Such imagery has been good for programme exports, pleasing critics and the international audiences alike, helping to create and sell a traditional view of Britain, the Victorian period and Sherlock Holmes. Something the broadcasting industry has been happy to perpetuate. However, over time, the cost of creating such sets has increased; likewise the constant looking back to such Victorian creations has become less in tune with modern Britain and modern audiences, who are attracted towards more contemporary types of television drama (Cooke 2003, 174-79). Increasingly historical drama programmes, often supported by international sales, are competing with modern and slickly made programmes, such as Skins (C4/ Company Pictures 2007-) aimed at the youth audience, Spooks (kudos/ BBC, 2002-) providing a modern view of London and the role of MI5, and American series like, CSI (Alliance Atlantis/Jerry Bruckheimer/CBS 2000–) and House (Heel and Toe/Bad Hat Harry/ Universal 2004-) that are well written, fast paced and contemporary. Against this backdrop, as the new series of Sherlock was announced some, including the critics, questioned the need for another Sherlock Holmes series.

Sherlock the BBC’s pre-image

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 All capitalist industries seek to protect their product, not just in terms of illicit copies, but also in terms of the brand, how it is spoken of, reported on and written about. Businesses know that, in this modern world we live in, it is not need that drives sales but desire which is created through the discourse around a product. In a similar way, when any new programme is produced broadcasters seek to engender and engage with the public debate around their programme. By creating a press release they seek to shape the pre-image that will appear in the media (Rixon 2006, 126). The Sherlock press pack (from this point this will be referred to as SPP) was originally released on the web on the 12th July 2010 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/07_july/12/sherlock.shtml). The main web page includes a trailer for Sherlock, background information on the fictional character Sherlock Holmes and the books by Conan Doyle, and information about the new Sherlock series, its writers and the cast. There is also information about who commissioned the programme and where it was made. There are then three linked webpages which provide more information on and interviews with Steven Moffat (executive producer and writer along with Mark Gatiss), Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (who plays Dr John Watson). The last link is to a page providing a short synopsis of the three episodes, A Study in Pink (ASiP), The Blind Banker (TBB) and The Great Game (TGG). Other links are provided that take you to an earlier press release announcing the filming of this series and to others about two new drama series, The Silence (BBC/Company Pictures 2010), described as a thriller, and Dive (BBC 2010), about a couple falling in love. There are also links to the public aimed Sherlock web pages on the BBC’s website, to BBC drama, BBC One, BBC Wales, to a TV blog post by Mark Gatiss and a link to the production company that made Sherlock for the BBC, Hartswood Films though, interestingly, there is no link to the pages of co-production partners, WGBH of Boston.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Throughout the five linked pages that make up this press pack, and the trailer provided with it, a number of key themes are established and repeated. This suggests that there are a number of views that the broadcaster feel are important which they highlight for the press, and especially for the television critics. For example, there is constant linkage between the writers, creators and actors to past series and programmes they have worked on or been in; a form of intertextuality is being used here, making connections for the critics between different texts. For example, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are linked to another BBC success Doctor Who (BBC 1963-), as well as, for Moffat, Couplings (BBC 2000-2004) and Gatiss, The League of Gentlemen (BBC 1999-2002). While Benedict Cumberbatch is linked to Small Island (BBC 2009) and Starter For Ten (BBC Films/ HBO Films/ Neal Street Productions 2006) and Martin Freeman to The Office (BBC 2001-3) and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Touchstone Pictures/ Spyglass Entertainment/ Everyman Pictures 2005). This is team of writers and actors that have pedigree and have worked for the BBC before, which is constantly highlighted through this press pack.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The press pack also touches on the original stories by Conan Doyle and how this series, while trying to be faithful in some respects to his characters, has updated them. This version is set in modern day London. All the interviews and background pieces talk about the classic nature of the original books and how the essence of this is maintain. As Gatiss notes:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer of genius and it’s worth trumpeting that point …. His short stories, particularly, are thrilling, funny, lurid, silly, strange, wonderful pieces of exciting adventure which lend themselves incredibly well to a modern setting (SPP).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Sherlock even plays homage to Conan Doyle, as Moffat notes, with the first episode, A Study in Pink, playing on the Conan Doyle story, A Study in Scarlet (Doyle 2005). Throughout the press pack there are numerous mentions of the fans and the Sherlock Holmes Society, an important group of viewers the broadcasters want to attract and please. The press release appears to be trying to balance the idea that this is a Sherlock Holmes series, one that has a linkage to the original, which, at the same time, has been updated; it is now modern à la Dr Who. This is a world where the old fashioned forms of detection and technology are replaced by new ones, such as the mobile phone, the internet and GPS, all of which Holmes uses. Creating, what Coppa calls in her chapter in this volume, a cyborg styled character, one that escapes the confines of the body by linking his mind up to the web. Gone, so the press release argues is the dirty Victorian city which is replaced by a shiny new London which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson rush around in a black cab.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The release also highlights, through the interviews, its focus, as the original stories also did, on the relationship between the two main characters, Sherlock and John. This it does both by writing about the on screen chemistry and by showing how the actors bonded on and off screen. As Martin Freeman says of his fellow star, ‘I’d never met Benedict, but I’d liked his work as a viewer. Benedict looks like you’d imagine Sherlock Holmes should be and he can really act’ (SPP).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The press pack also links this particular series not just with the original text, Conan Arthur Doyle’s books, but also with some of the later incarnations of Sherlock Holmes in film and on television. Moffat talks of Guy Ritchie’s film, Sherlock Holmes (Warner Brothers 2009), and of having watched the 1940s films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman both mention Basil Rathbone and also Jeremy Brett, who played Sherlock Holmes in ITV’s series in the 1980s-90s. The press release is situating this new production in relation to the huge number of adaptations, and especially in relation to the two important ones noted above, but at the same time suggesting that this one stands out as it has contemporised Sherlock Holmes, brought it up-to-date while still maintaining its integrity and linkage to the essence of the original stories. But, as I will argued, there is something of a tension here. This white, middle-class gentlemen detective, who once in some way typified a particular view of Britishness, now lives and works in a multicultural city, one where Britishness is being struggled over and redefined. The broadcasters through their PR suggest that, the new series manages to redefine the old image of Sherlock Holmes for the new age, for the modern London, but, as Basu in her chapter argues, Sherlock in many ways seems tied to the past, it is not fully able to present a modern view of London or Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, though living in the modern city, is still linked to the fictional detective of the Victorian period; and by being show as such he links the old identity of Britishness to this new era. Perhaps, in a way, the character of Sherlock, moved into the modern era, helps to problematize the question of British identity at this time, one that has connections with a past, another time, and a future, which are hard to reconcile.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 One can argue that the press release is not merely providing information about the programme, but starting to provide a pre-image; providing a way of thinking about and evaluating this new production. As it does this it tries to paper over the cracks, to lessen the tensions, to present a stable text. Those writing the press release are articulating a particular way of thinking about their programme, which indicates how those working in television want others to write about television. For Poole, the broadcasters’ discourse, in a similar way to the critics, tends to uphold a dominant literary tradition (1984). Therefore, both, in a similar way, focus on the text, on the creative talent that has made the series, the actors are spoken about in terms of the characters they play but also in terms of their off screen relationships; and, while programmes are contextualised, in relation to the social, cultural and political context and in terms of other programmes, films and other means of production, there is little about the scheduling or wider problems faced by the industry. The hope, for the broadcasters, is that the critics will take up these points and issues and, thus, in the broadcaster’s eyes, will provide the right kind of copy for the programme. I will now move on to consider how the media critics working for the British national press, while engaging with this industry produced pre-image of the programme, wrote about the series, what kind of consensus or meaning framework began to appear and what tensions or themes are present.

The meaning framework: What the critics wrote

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The coverage in the national press of the Sherlock was fairly high profile and lasted for a number of weeks, starting before the airing of the first episode, ASiP, on the 25th July 2010 and continuing a little after the last episode, TGG, which was screened on the 8th August 2010. This media coverage took a number of forms: television critics previewed and reviewed the series while columnists wrote more generally about the programme and the state of British television; some of the articles and reviews focused on the programmes, some on the background of the actors and characters, some wrote about Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the actors that have played him in the past; some of the stories might be considered as part of soft news provision, often more dominant in the tabloids, focusing for instances on the personal lives of the stars, while others might be categorised as more serious and part of the hard news form of critical coverage, found mostly in the quality papers. I will now explore and analyse this coverage, seeking to delineate the narrative image that the media created about this series, highlighting some of the common themes and issues, their connection to the broadcasters’ attempts to shape the pre-image and the different dominant values at work in the way television is evaluated. One aspect I will focus on is the way critics wrote about the issues of British identity and questions of modernity which, as I note above, appear as moments of tension within the critical discourse around the series.

Linkage to the literary Sherlock Holmes

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 As Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character based on literary work by Conan Doyle, it would seem obvious that much of the coverage by TV critics would mention or at least utilise this as a way of talking about or assessing Sherlock. And this connection is something which the BBC, as noted above, included within their publicity. It could be assumed that some critics took note of this publicity as well as using their own knowledge of the literary work when assessing this new adaptation. As Victoria Segal notes, writing for the Sunday Times, ‘[s]tick a deerstalker on a melon and it is instantly recognisable as Sherlock Holmes’ (2010, 60). It would appear that, however much this character and stories are adapted or changed for the modern era; this is still Sherlock Holmes and is recognisable as such. If it was changed too much, one would assume it would not be identifiable as an adaptation of the Victorian novels.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Indeed, in some reviews, critics wondered what Conan Doyle would think about this new Sherlock Holmes, as Sam Wollaston wrote, this was ‘[a] Holmes that Conan Doyle would possibly approve of’ (2010, 25). Or, as David Stephenson asks, ‘is he [the new Sherlock] better than the original Sherlock, given that he also has forensics and technology at this disposal. Well, no he’s not. The original Sherlock was at the cutting edge of science’ (2010, 60-61). A view explored further by Basu elsewhere in this book. As a number of critics suggested, Sherlock takes from, and adapts elements of the original stories but, as we shall see, with a modern twist, such as where Conan Doyle’s Holmes in A Study in Scarlet deduces various observations from scratches on Watsons watch, it is now done in relation to a mobile phone (Grant 2010, 29).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 As noted earlier, while some of these observations and criticisms made in comparing the literary work and this new Sherlock Holmes series would be an obvious angle, it could be argued that some of this has been framed by the information given out by the BBC. The publicity is an attempt to feed into, to seed and to shape the discussions around the programme. Such publicity can be useful for the critics, providing some background and initial thoughts about a series they might not yet have seen fully, as they write a pre-view or review, often in some haste. It provides a ready built framework, an easy short hand, for the critics (Himmelstein 1981, 30). However, as touched on, sometimes the critics will focus on particular tensions within the programme, those the broadcasters try to ignore or paper over, such as Sherlock no longer standing at the forefront of developments in forensics.

A contemporary twist

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In the publicity given out by the BBC, it would seem that one of the most important points of the series was the updating of Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it is connected to the original, it is about a detective called Sherlock Holmes, who lives in London, but the London, at first glance, is now a contemporary city with all the modern things that come with it. The critics are able to read such publicity material and to deduce these points from watching the series. As Euan Ferguson for the Observer states, ‘Cumberbatch’s fabulous Sherlock may look a little Victorian, admittedly, but there’s no easy time shift device: he is utterly 21st-century man, just with a very fat brain’ (2010, 27). And as Richard Arnold noted in the People, Cumberbatch is ‘a souped-up 21st Century Sherlock Holmes’ (2010, 35). Most critics thought this twist, this modernisation of the stories and character, worked. ‘The idea of modernising it, bringing him up to date, was clever, and Benedict Cumerbatch is a darkly interesting Sherlock’ (Gill 2010, 14-15). The critics touch on the way this modern London is depicted, the shiny glass buildings and slick black taxis, as well as the new technologies that have, in some ways, changed the world we live in, and the one Sherlock Holmes originally inhabited. This was a world where Sherlock had ‘abandoned the fabled pile and deerstalker for nicotine patches, a mobile phone and a website called The Science of Deduction’ (Hoyle and Foster 2010, 10). While some of the critics saw Sherlock Holmes being modernised by changing him in some way, others wondered how much it was about placing the character in a modern situation, to see what happens. For Harry Mount, ‘Holmes is an extraordinary invention, because he is more than a creature of his time. He is man for all television season… any character with universally desirable quality – like Holmes’s powers of deduction – remain eternally attractive’ (2010, 18). Unlike most, Mount argues that Holmes is universal character, able to transcend his time and media forms.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 One could take up these discussions, to suggest there is a tension around this issue of Sherlock and his modernisation. He is of another time, but is now living in modern London. This is no longer the London once easily recognisable from earlier Sherlock Holmes outings. This is London inhabited by modern people, it is a shiny city with sky scrapers, trendy cafes and bars. This is the new Britain, where what it is to be British has and is changing. No longer can Britishness be defined in terms of the Empire, of the Other, but must now include all those living in Britain and London, some of whom came from the now long gone Empire. Perhaps, in a way, Sherlock is the embodiment of this, he is both of the past and now, he is part of the old idea of Britishness, but is now part of the new London and the new idea of Britishness. And it is this tension, or who is Sherlock and how does he keep this identify while being transferred to the future, which critics keep coming back to. Perhaps this is also part of the draw of the programme, here on the screen the very nature of the past, current and future face of British identity is being explored.

The canon of adaptations

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 A number of the reviews, in a similar way to the press release and its attempts to provide intertextual reference points, highlighted some of the other Sherlock Holmes productions that have appeared over time, on stage, film and television. Indeed, many noted the then current stage production and the recently released film by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes (Warner Brothers 2009)). Such a work of fiction, that has been produced many times and has become an iconic part of British culture, is now made up not only of the original written stories but a wide range of adaptations and other forms of media development (see: Redman 2009). And it is to this ’canon’ that critics, in different ways, compare this new production. How does it stand up against the, so identified, greatest versions of Sherlock Holmes? Also, how does it compare to contemporary versions, such as the concurrent stage production and the latest film?

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Throughout the reviews a number make reference to, what are described as, two of the best known adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, those starring Basil Rathbone (1940s) and Jeremy Brett (1980s-90s). ‘Gone are the deerstalker hat and the Meerschaum pipe favoured by his gentlemanly predecessors, Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett’ (Sunday Times 2010, 19). Seemingly attempts are made to compare like with like, to use a familiar and relevant touchstone, which is offered by other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. While a few go back to the original literary work, most tend to focus on the way the majority of readers would have experienced Sherlock Holmes, through television series or films.

The creative talent behind Sherlock: producers and writers

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In the BBC’s publicity the creative team behind Sherlock is often highlighted, with one web page put over to a discussion between two of the producers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (SPP). Indeed, on the main page where their names appear, reference is made to some of the other programmes they have been involved with. Throughout the reviews and related pieces on the series, these two writers and producers are mentioned, often linked to their past record of successful productions. Indeed, Dr Who, with which they have both been connected, though Steven Moffat more so, is mentioned a number of times. For some of the critics the linkages between the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Who go beyond these writers, as noted by others, such also noted by Harrington and Basu in this work. These are two characters that are closely linked to popular British culture, they are both idiosyncratic figures, much loved and, in their own way, unique. Indeed, some make the link rather obvious: ‘It [Sherlock] was created by the Doctor Who team and, if I’m not mistaken, that’s why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s formerly Victorian hero is a carbon copy of the guy in the Tardis’ (O’Sullivan 2010, 23). As Jim Shelley writing for the Mirror suggests, Sherlock ‘is somewhere between Guy Richie’s super-slick blockbuster and Steven Moffat’s new Doctor Who, Sherlock was good fun’ (2010, 21).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Part of the media discussion focuses on the way the creative team has reenergised Sherlock Holmes to create a new exciting series, which succeeds on television. ‘Somehow Moffat and Gatiss have sewn old and new into a very modern, very human drama, and what fun they must have had doing so’ (Ferguson 2010, 27). These are writers who have already proved themselves elsewhere; these are writers who have shown themselves able to produce modern popular programmes that seemingly are in tune with the zeitgeist:

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The character of Holmes as reworked by writers Mark Gatiss (the multitalented League of Gentlemen comic) and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who’s new supremo) is a conceited, sociopathic ass whose genius ranges somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but who nevertheless possesses a sense of humour (Davies 2010, 27).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Critics, in this way, focus on the oeuvre of the creative talent behind a programme, using this to assess whether this has continued in the new productions, they use it to help make linkages the public would understand, from programmes they have already seen. As these critics often note, this is Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, not the BBC’s or even Benedict Cumberbatch’s. Which might suggest that the widely held view that behind any artistic form is an identifiable creative agent, also holds true in relation to this series. The role of other talent, the crafts people that shape and make such a collective cultural enterprise as television, are not highlighted. In this way, the television critic continues to uphold a traditional way of viewing and judging art, partly by focusing on the author or artist behind the production rather than exploring new ways of understanding television. A critical approach to television which some have argued needs to change, to become one more able to treat television as television (McArthur 1982; Poole 1984; Rixon, 2011).

The talent in Sherlock: actors

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 In a similar way to how the BBC highlights the creative talent behind the series, the critics also focus on the main actors appearing in Sherlock. In particular, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as John, however, they also mention a number of others including, Rupert Graces, Detective Inspector Lestrade, and Una Stubbs, as the old housekeeper. For each they mention some of the main programmes and films that they have been in and, in this way, try to show some type of pedigree that might attract the interest of the reviewers or critics. Critics, in their turn, focus heavily on the main actors appearing in the production, as well as the characters they play.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 For example, a number of critics are interested in the choice of Martin Freeman to play John, partly as he is an actor who is usually associated with more comic roles.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 One of the surprises is Martin Freeman, as John Watson: crippled not, as so boringly usually, by a light weight intelligence but by an actual limp, psychosomatic though it may largely be, and by Afghanistan trauma… and Freeman caught this whole subtle new persona with magnificence, and this part might deservedly free him, finally, from The Office… (Ferguson 2010, 27).

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Though others saw it differently, ‘Martin Freeman, as Watson, was indecipherable as a piece of casting… Freeman had a limp that was supposed to be combat stress psychosomatic, but was it really just bad acting’ (Gill 2010, 14-15).

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 In a similar way many of the reviews focused on Cumberbatch as Sherlock, often, conflating the two: his on-screen and off-screen existence. Many saw Cumberbatch ‘born to the role of Holmes’ (Sunday Times 2010, 19). Seemingly he is, ‘perfect for the role’ (Heal 2010, 60). How he is perfect is harder to understand. For some it seems to be his looks, the way he interprets the part or his background. As one critic wrote, ‘[h]e looks amazing – as odd as you’d expect The Cleverest Man in the World to look. Eyes white, skin like china clay and a voice like someone smoking a cigar inside a grand piano’ (Moran 2010, 14). It would seem that ‘Cumberbatch had the makings of a rather good Holmes’ (Preston 2010, 35) and that, ‘Benedict is a darkly interesting Sherlock… the new crop of leading young men are all sort of emo, pale and interesting, androgynous, with a lick of gothic’ (Gill 2010, 14-15). For Coppa, writing elsewhere in this book, he appears as a kind of Byronic figure.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Much of the focus of the reviews is on the relationship between the two main actors and/ or characters. For some this is what made the programme. The programme has, ‘two lovable central performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson (or Sherlock and John in this unfusty [sic] adaptation)’ (Segal 2010, 60). The programme is viewed not only as solving crimes but ‘it also movingly examines their relationship’ (Connolly 2010, 2-3). As David Lister argued, ‘[h]owever good the writing and direction, the real secret of this series’ success is the chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who play Holmes and Watson… It might be going too far to say there’s almost a sexual charge’ (2010, 40). Indeed, the ambiguous nature of their relationship is highlighted by many of the reviews, often pointing out moments in the programme where the housekeeper or restaurant owner mistakes them as a gay couple (Dyke 2010, 3). But, as the two actors note in many interviews at the time, ‘there is no suggestion they are more than just friends’ (Cumberbatch ctied by Tim Oglethorpe 2010, 60). Almost all, however, felt that ‘this new Holmes-Watson partnership has some mileage in it’ (Ward 2010, 32).

Sherlock as ‘must-see’ television

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Because of the comparison critics always make between programmes and the wish to highlight those that are worth seeing and those that are not, Sherlock gets positioned in a wider debate about programme quality. Many of the reviews enthused about the production, seeing it and writing about it in a similar way to what some have called ‘must-see’ programmes such as Dr Who and The Office. This standing in the eyes of the critics is in some ways reinforced by knowledge of the creative team behind the programme and actors involved, which was also highlighted in the publicity around the programme. Critics and broadcasters alike seem to share a view and wish to write about these programmes as part of a new or on-going British wave of quality ‘must-see’ programmes, ones which depicts and show Britain in a new light. This is a development in television that the critic wants to be associated with, as it is one that can do nothing but help their standing.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 So, for Richard Arnold, writing for the People, ‘the scene is set for what promises to be the best drama this summer – unsurprisingly given the scribe is Stephen Moffat, the Dr Who supremo who has turned Cumberbatch into the crime solving doppelganger of Doc, Matt Smith’ (2010, 35). Many pointed to the dark edge of the programme, ‘[t]his fantastic new drama series created by Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss gives us a dark and glittering Holmes’ (Harvey 2010, 37). Seemingly, for these writers, this production is, ‘a must-see for Sunday nights, and it is a long time since we’ve had one of those’ (Mount 2010, 18). Indeed, Mark Lawson, critic of the Guardian, suggested that with ‘[t]he overwhelmingly positive response to Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s drama Sherlock… it will be a strong contender when it comes to this year’s TV prizes’ (2010, 19). And, it is interesting to note, that Sherlock duly did come to win the BAFTA for the best television series in 2011.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Others, however, were less taken with the production. ‘[T]he London in Sherlock didn’t look remotely like the city Londoners know or live in… the show must be a co-production with Americans’ (Gill 2010, 14-15). Indeed, it was co-produced with WGBH Boston for its Masterpiece anthology series, though it is doubtful that the American broadcasters had too much direct input in to the series. This London is not one we know, it is not one that really exists. The programme, as Basu argues, is presenting a retrofuture, a future that does not exist; a kind of parallel future. It is a construct, trying to present a coherent view of what it would be like for Sherlock Holmes to exist in the modern world. This ‘modern’ London, this modern Sherlock, is one created by the producers, to provide a contemporary setting for the series which, it is hoped, will provide the right kind of background for a contemporisation of this Victorian detective. It is also creates a view of London that would appeal to international audiences, one that blends a view of London as a modern exciting city still with a hidden Victorian past. For many of those taking a more critical view, it was the first episode’s case that let the otherwise excellent production down (Heal 2010, 60). As Kevin O’Sullivan wrote, ‘while this film-length crime drama succeeds in characterisation and atmosphere, I conclude it is badly let down by a silly serial suicide saga that makes no sense’ (2010, 23). Others felt that the chemistry between the characters did not work on screen, the stories were a little slow and the adaptions did not work well and this iconic character should have been left alone. He is ‘a national treasure, fixed in late Victorian time, and they shouldn’t mess about with him’ (Routledge 2010, 33).


38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Whether or not the BBC knew it had a hit on its hands, it did try, in the publicity material to take note of the existence of the fans. And while it focused on Sherlock Holmes fans, one could also suggest that it was aware of those also of Moffat and Gatiss, fans of programmes such as Dr Who. If it could link this series to the original books and to these other programmes it might attract the support and interest of these important readers and viewers. Many of the critics, in a similar way, also make reference to the fans and the viewers. For example, Harry Mount, writing for the Daily Telegraph, notes that fans will get pleasure for the adaptation, ‘in spotting how that modern moulding is done. When Cumberbatch is consumed by a case, it’s not a “three-pipe problem” but a “three-patch problem”’ (2010, 18).

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 After the first episode many of the critics mentioned the popularity of the programme, noting that its initial outing attracted 7.7 million viewers, who are not just the diehard Sherlock Holmes fans but also viewers attracted by the publicity of an interesting or good television series (Hoyle and Foster 2010, 10). Seemingly the old fashioned idea of millions of viewers watching the same drama still happens, even in the summer when many people are on holiday. This was news. Indeed, it was reported that a BBC worker had noted that, ‘the top brass are made up by the Holmes ratings… [t]hey really want to do more so the question is not really if, but how and when can we do them’ (Robertson 2010, 1).

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Some go further reflecting on which viewers the programme will attract and why. So, for example, Euan Ferguson of the Observer, suggests, ‘men love it because of the clevers, and the clues, and the chases. Children, even, will get echoes of that bloody boy-wizard thing… [w]omen will love it because of the clues… and more possibly, because of Cumberbatch’ (2010, 27). Indeed, the special attraction of Sherlock Holmes, and similar characters that exhibit particular intellectual abilities and repressed emotions, to women is something explored further by Coppa, in another chapter in this book, who suggests that is the ‘mind-body conjunction’ which attracts them. For Ally Ross, ‘[i]t’s also one of the few dramas the Beeb hasn’t aimed purely at women and could turn out to be one of the best things Auntie 1’s done since Occupation’ (2010, 13).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 While the critics are often reflecting on their own experience of the series there is some attempt to engage with, to think about who the programme is aimed at and who might be watching it. Part of this debate is linked to the nature of Sherlock Holmes and his typical appeal, the types of programmes Gatiss and Moffat are associated with, in particular Dr Who, and the attraction of Cumberbatch. However, with Holmes’ large fan base, there is also some attempt to identify what his fans might like, or not, about this modern version of their hero.

Linkage to the wider debates about the BBC and television

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The reviews, and associated coverage found in the British press at the time of Sherlock’s release, do not just focus on the series. Some articles, moving away from the pre-image developed by the press release, also touch on the financing, commissioning and scheduling policy of the BBC. In some respects this move towards the wider context is a development that Poole and McArthur have argued public television criticism needs to do. It needs to shake off the influence of the literary textual approach and create a more televisual approach that can take the supra text and contextual elements more into account (Poole 1984; McArthur 1982).

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 So, for example, some critics raised a question about why only three episodes were commissioned and whether the BBC will, ‘succumb to the clamour to extend Sherlock Holmes into a full series?’ (Sunday Times 2010, 19). One article noted that, ‘in the House of Commons Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, called it “a very good example of the BBC at its best, investing in programming”’. It, however, went on to also point out that Moffat used the programme to support another view, that ‘Sherlock [provides]… evidence of why the BBC should be defended from a mooted licence fee cut’ (Hoyle and Foster 2010, 10). These writers connect the success and popularity of the programme to a wider debate about the role of the BBC, its financing and what it is commissioning.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Others debated the scheduling of the programme. Why, as Ally Ross at the Sun wrote, ‘throw it away at the end of July, when everyone’s naffed off on holiday?’ (2010, 13). This is a time when ‘British television, run by deputy executives while the real ones holiday in Tuscany or Cape Cod, traditionally resorts to repeats and rejects?’ (Lawson 2010, 19). Perhaps, as Lawson suggests, they didn’t know they had a hit, that there were no good slots left, because of the World Cup and general election, or if it was ‘deliberately placed in this unfashionable period in the hope of challenging the still-pervasive idea that there is a calendar of validity in the arts’ (2010, 19).


45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 The public mediated debate about Sherlock, is an area where a number of discourses overlap. The broadcasters, keen for the media to focus on their programmes, rather than on any wider failings, provide publicity material about the programme directed at the reviewers and critics. They hope that such material will allow them to shape a pre-image of the programme, to provide background material that all journalists, and critics, will use. The broadcasters do not invent material and background stories, but they can select what they focus on and provide. They try to point out connections and linkages. Also, as cost and time pressures increase in journalism, many journalists, including television reviewers, increasingly rely on PR releases or publicity material for their copy (Manning 2008, 262-271).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 As shown above the critical and popular debate about Sherlock took up from some of the themes presented by the press release while adding some of their own. As Poole argues, the broadcasters and critics share the same values, and therefore often view television in a similar way, and it is only the worth of the programme, of what is good or bad, where they might differ (1984). For example, one of the themes that appeared in such a debate was focused around the pedigree of those making the programme, the talent and creative forces behind it. Another theme related to the relationship of this series to others, to the canon of Sherlock Holmes. Another important and reoccurring theme was the modern form the adaptation took. While, for some of the reviewers, this was a risk, and for a couple of them did not work, for most it helped bring Sherlock Holmes into the modern age. Many saw this as successfully bringing the character of Sherlock and John up-to-date allowing a form of Dr Who treatment by Gatiss and Moffat. The drama produced was of this time, and, for many, it was able to escape the usual form historical reproduction, of looking back through rose tinted glasses at the Victorian age. By bringing the series into the contemporary age it allowed the character of Sherlock to highlight the huge developments that have occurred in Britain, he can provide a quasi-Victorian perspective to look at change, for example, when the series touched on the now common day acceptance of gay men living together and being seen in public places, such as restaurants.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 However, running throughout the mediated discourse it would seem that by changing Sherlock Holmes in this way, by updating the stories, a tension has been created. On one hand Sherlock Holmes has a traditional linkage to a certain type of Britishness, but he is now modernised and living in C21st London. While he is still quirky and strange, appearing as a quasi-British gentlemen with a certain education and upbringing, he is now also modern and technologically savvy. In a way Sherlock seems to highlight the problematic nature of British identity, one that is trying to balance up the traditional white, English centric view of being British with a more multi-cultural view of British identity. Perhaps, this is why the programmes works, it is not presenting a modern face of London cut off from the past, but one exploring the relationship of the new to the old. Maybe such a programme is cathartic, allowing a problem or tension to be treated in a non-threatening way, allowing a form of societal release. The reaction of many critics was, initially, that the premise of a modern Sherlock Holmes, seemed strange, but in the end it seemed to work. For many this was where the ‘genius lies in the willingness to adapt Sherlock to modernity’ (Ferguson 2010, 27).


48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Arnold, Richard. 2010. “Fab Baker Boys”. People. 1 August: 35.
Robertson, Colin. 2010. “Holmes: I turned down Dr Who job; 7.5m See Sherlock Tvbiz Exclusive”. Sun. 27 July: 1.
Connolly, Lucy. 2010. “Holmes was not gay…he and Watson had the first bromance”. Sun. 24 July: 2-3.
Cooke, Lez. 2003. British Television Drama. London: BFI.
Oglethorpe, Tim. 2010. “Sherlock’s Got Sexy!”. Daily Mail. 23 July: 60.
Davies, Serena. 2010. “Meet the new Sherlock: an electrifying sociopath”. Daily Telegraph, Features. 26 July: 26.
Doyle, Conan Arthur. 2005. “A Study in Scarlet’. In The new Annotated Sherlock Holmes, ed. Leslie Kinger. New York: Norton.
Dyke, Peter. 2010. “Sherlock HOMO; Fans in fury as BBC camp up famous ‘tec”. The Times. 23 July: 3.
Ferguson, Euan. 2010. “Hi honey, I’m Holmes…”. Observer Review. 1 August: 27.
Gill, Adrian Anthony. 2010. “More join-the-dots than the art of deduction; Television”. Sunday Times. 1 August: 14-15.
Grant, Olly. 2010. “21st-century Sherlock”. Daily Telegraph: Review. 24 July: 29.
Harvey, Chris. 2010. “What to watch”. Daily Telegraph: Review. 31 July: 37.
Heal, Clare. 2010. “Case of a new Holmes cracked”. Sunday Express. 1 August: 60.
Himmelstein, Hal. 1981. On the Small Screen: New Approaches in Television and Video Criticism. New York, NY: Praeger.
Hoyle, Ben and Patrick Foster. 2010. “Sherlock’s TV creator hails it as reason to save licence fee”. The Times. 31 July: 10.
Sherlock Holmes Press Pack: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/07_july/12/sherlock.shtml, published 12th July 2010.
Lawson, Mark, 2010. “Running on empty: Sherlock got rave reviews this week, and looks set to win awards. So why is it going out in the dog days of summer?”. Guardian, G2 Arts. 29 July: 19.
Lister, David. 2010. “How quickly holier-than-thou turns into dog-eat-dog; The Week in Arts”. Independent. 31 July: 40.
MacDonald, Ronan. 2007. The Death of the Critic. London: Continuum.
Manning, Paul. 2008. “The Press Association and news agency sources”. In Pulling Newspapers Apart: Analysing Print Journalism, ed. Bob Franklin, 262-271. London: Routledge.
McArthur, Colin. 1982. “Point of Review: Television Criticism in the Press”. Screen Education 35 (summer): 59–61.
Moran, Caitlin. 2010. “Sherlock is so good, if BBC funding is ever called into question, I’ll pay for it myself”. The Times: Saturday Review. 31 July: 14.
Mount, Harry. 2010. “The riveting riddle of the enduring detective; The timeless appeal of Sherlock Holmes is due to Conan Doyle’s powers of observation”. Daily Telegraph. 27 July: 18.
O’Sullivan, Kevin. 2010. “The Sleuth Truth”. Sunday Star. 1 August: 23.
Poole, Mike. 1984. “The cult of the generalist: British television criticism 1936-83”. Screen 25: 2: 41-61.
Preston, John. 2010. “Sherlock’s elementary failings “. Sunday Telegraph, Section Seven. 1 August: 35.
Redman, Christopher. 2009. Sherlock Holmes Handbook. Toronto, Canada: Dundurn Press.
Rixon, Paul. 2011. TV Critics and Popular Culture: A History of British Television Criticism. London: I.B.Tauris.
Rixon. Paul. 2006. American Television on British Screens: A Story of Cultural Interaction. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, Macmillan.
Ross, Ally. 2010. “Random TV irritations: The BBC”. Sun. 27 July: 13.
Routledge, Paul. 2010. “Who Gives A Tinker’s Cuss”. Daily Mirror. 30 July: 33.
Segal, Victoria. 2010. “Critic’s Choice”. Sunday Times, Culture. 1 August: 60.
Shelley, Jim. 2010. “Masterchef’s celebs overcook the drama”. Daily Mirror. 26 July: 21.
Stephenson, David. 2010. “The fab Baker St boys”. Sunday Express. 25 July: 60- 61.
Sunday Times. 2010. “What fun, Watson, whipping a corpse….. ”. 1 August: 19.
Ward, Mike. 2010. “It’s a Doc Whodunit!”. Daily Star. 26 July: 32.
Wollaston, Sam. 2010. “The weekend’s TV: Sherlock has a great new take on the characters – but what happened to the plot?”. Guardian, G2. 26 July: 25.

Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/transmediasherlock/paul-rixon-3/