Following Up: Downton and Sherlock

“Following Up” is a kind of semi-rerun that I do from time to time: freshening up an older post with just a bit of new content or reflection. This one goes back to late February 2013:

Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle, the location where Downton Abbey has been filmed – Creative Commons (JB+UK_Planet)

If you’re like me, you emerged from the Christmas special that served as the final episode of the third series of Downton Abbey with two questions:

1. What kind of a tacked-on, half-baked ending was THAT?!?! I’ll never watch again! (aloud)

2. When does the next series start? (unspoken)


1. It’s Christmas show tradition, says Downton abbot Julian Fellowes.

2. Presumably January 2014 for those of us on this side of The Pond.

It’s been nearly a year since last I blogged about my two favorite British miniseries, in a post suggesting Downton Abbey-related ways for fellow fans to bide their time till it returned for a fourth series in January 2014 — the last suggestion of which was “to invest a few hours in” Sherlock, calling it an “impossibly entertaining series, which is anything but nostalgic for the past and cares nothing for the proprieties of social class.” The mystery series makes its own long-delayed return here in the States just two weeks after the costume drama.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch
Freeman and Cumberbatch – Creative Commons (Saschaporsche)

Now that the moment is almost here, I can’t say I’m even a fraction as excited to view the next chapter in the lives of the Granthams and their servants as I am to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman leave Middle Earth and return to 221B Baker Street. For while Downton Abbey seems to have all but exhausted its storytelling potential, Sherlock seems all the more exhilarating for having to return with everyone knowing exactly what’s going to happen — Sherlock Holmes didn’t die after all and will reveal himself to Watson — but not sure how it will happen.

I have absolutely no doubt that co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss will pull it off, especially after watching a one-hour behind-the-scenes special already available online from (though not, I’m afraid, embeddable in WordPress) in which interviews with the two reiterate that their project is animated by two seemingly paradoxical commitments:

First, to remain faithful to the canon (the Canon, to some diehards) of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose literary achievements with Holmes they think have been somewhat undervalued. (Moffat: “Have you any idea how good this is?”) Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft) gives dramatic readings of selections from Holmes novels and short stories, often in close proximity to clips from the show that borrow most closely from the original.

But second, to make the stories contemporary — to “blow away the Victorian fog,” Gatiss says at one point in the special. And one way they do this, as I’ve noted before, is to regard “Everything [as] canonical.” That is, to draw freely not just on Conan Doyle’s sixty originals, but on later adaptations for film, television, and other media. As a huge fan of the Basil Rathbone Holmes, it was especially fun to hear Moffat and Gatiss praise those movies and even point out some of their quotations from them (e.g., the way that Sherlock and archenemy Jim Moriarty first encounter each other in a tense scene at Baker Street is partially lifted from a similar scene in 1945’s The Woman in Green).

They even argue that Nigel Bruce’s intentionally buffoonish performance in the fourteen Rathbone-as-Holmes movies, though bearing little likeness to the original characterization, was the first on film to make Watson an essential character, to the point where Freeman is a “co-lead” on Sherlock.

At times, the everything-canonical approach can be a shade too clever for its own good, as in a scene from the 2nd series “The Hounds of Baskerville” when Sherlock bemoans how he had let his emotions overcome his reason. “Alright, Spock,” snaps Watson, “Just take it easy.” (Allusions to previous Sherlocks, great. Alluding to another pop culture icon clearly inspired by Sherlock while simultaneously having some fun with another of Cumberbatch’s gigs… Clever, but a bit too meta.)

But that’s a small complaint. And it seems we’re likely to see more and more attempts to reimagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, since a federal judge has ruled that the fifty original Holmes stories published before 1923 are in the public domain. “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world, and this ruling clearly establishes that,” said plaintiff Leslie Klinger (editor of a collection of new Holmes stories). “People want to celebrate Holmes and Watson, and now they can do that without fear.”

2 thoughts on “Following Up: Downton and Sherlock

  1. I, too, am eager to see the next season of Sherlock, but being a Whovian as well, I have a little less faith in Moffat now after the fiasco that was the Doctor Who Christmas special and Matt Smith’s send-off as the 11th Doctor. Check some of the chatter on the episode and you’ll see what I mean. Hopefully Moffat’s heart is in Sherlock more than it was in the most recent episode of Doctor Who.

  2. Jeremy Brett played the quintessential Sherlock Holmes in the British series shown in the U.S. on PBS during the late 1980s and early 1990s (now on DVD). Brett is unrivaled in portraying Holmes–before or since. I, for one, do not want the Victorian fog blown away; it should always remain where Sherlock Holmes is concerned. I began reading Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in sixth grade and have returned to them numerous times since. Only Brett’s performance does justice to them. (All the other actors in the series are outstanding as well.) As for “extra-canonical” Holmes stories–the only one that strikes me as authentic is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. That could have been written by Doyle. As for Downton Abbey–I was a big fan until the political agenda became undeniable. The writer and producers must hate men. All the men are weak, ineffectual, old-fashioned blow-hards with the possible exception of “Tom.” We have to see what they will make of him. All the women are strong, competent, compassionate, progressive and effective. As one commentator said, on Downton Abbey “Behind every strong man stands a stronger woman.” I’m still looking for any strong men.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.