Friday 27 April 2018

Television: Too clever by half, this Sherlock is far from elementary viewing

If the cap fits: Benedict Cumberbatch has made the role of Sherlock Holmes his own
If the cap fits: Benedict Cumberbatch has made the role of Sherlock Holmes his own

John Boland

The second season of Sherlock (BBC One) ended with the Baker Street sleuth jumping off a high building to his apparent doom. And the third season, which began with various teasing explanations (take your pick) of how he'd managed that stunt, concluded this week with him surviving an assassin's seemingly lethal bullet to the chest.

You couldn't make it up, though screenwriters Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt have been having enormous fun in doing just that with their contemporary take on the Holmes stories. And viewers have clearly been having a ball, too -- the show has been a huge ratings success, both in these islands and in the ultra-competitive American market.

Yet I remain in two minds about it. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch was inspired casting as the hyperactive and borderline autistic Holmes, his manic tics counterpointed by the quiet decency of Martin Freeman's immensely likeable Watson. And yes, the dialogue has often been very amusing and the plot twists cleverly ingenious.

Too clever by half, though, or am I the only viewer who, dizzied by speed-of-light editing and rapid-fire dialogue, has frequently wondered what had just happened and has found the supposed explanation somehow wanting. Why, for instance, did Watson's new wife need to shoot Holmes in this week's finale? Certainly the reason that was given, or at least that I think was given in a hurried throwaway, left me unpersuaded.

And I have a lurking suspicion that this enjoyably nonchalant but flashily mannered updating of the Holmes character and milieu may come to seem so much of its moment as to date rather badly -- something you couldn't say of the best earlier Holmes interpretations, notably those featuring Basil Rathbone in the late 1930s and early 1940s and Jeremy Brett from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

These received detailed attention in Timeshift: How to Be Sherlock Holmes (BBC4), an absorbing documentary that was full of interesting facts -- I never knew, for instance, that the sleuth's familiar cape and deerstalker hat, unmentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, were the invention of an early illustrator; or that it was studio boss Darryl Zanuck who insisted on the mention of Holmes's drug habit, much to the chagrin of the censors.

And the film fondly recalled a variety of Holmes interpreters: Peter Cushing in the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the melancholy Douglas Wilmer in a 1960s BBC series, a foppish Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and an anguished Nicol Williamson in the little-seen but intriguing The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The arresting Cumberbatch, in other words, is in equally impressive company.

I was less at ease in the company of Fiona and Sean, who were at the centre of Her Body, Our Babies, an RTÉ One documentary which accompanied the couple to Mumbai, where Sean's sperm and an anonymous donor's eggs were placed in the womb of Shobha, a poverty-stricken young woman who was receiving €5,000 for the nine-month ordeal.

Fiona and Sean fretted about this in passing but didn't see it as a reason to cancel their plans. And they also fretted when the Mumbai clinic decreed that, from the three embryos they'd requested to be placed in Shobha's body, one subsequently had to be killed in the womb ("foetal reduction" was the chilling phrase used). But as they'd already been aware of the clinic's rules about triplets when they asked for the implanting of three rather than one or two embryos, I remained unmoved by their regrets. Indeed, you didn't have to be a passionate anti-abortionist to find this outcome quite disturbing.

In the end, they were the recipients of two lovely babies and I wish them all well, though lack of regulation both here and in India means that Fiona, who has no genetic connection to the twins, hasn't any guardianship rights over them. That's to be regretted, though as she has two sons of her own and Sean has one by previous relationships, I felt quite detached from a predicament brought on themselves by their own determination to have more children by whatever means.

Nor was I enamoured by the first instalment of Ireland's Fittest Family (RTÉ One), brought to us by the makers of Celebrity Bainisteoir and involving 12 families who, in the excited words of presenter Mairead Farrell, were participating in a competition that would "push them to mental and physical extremes on some of the toughest adventure courses in Ireland".

This "gruelling test", which would entail "the four key elements of endurance, power, speed and agility", would be overseen and judged by four coaches, among them former Ireland rugby maestro Eddie O'Sullivan, who helpfully opined that "the point of a competition is to win", and Clare hurling wizard Davy Fitzgerald, who acknowledged that "the perception of me is that I'm a lunatic".

Clearly the producers are hoping he'll confirm that perception. Meanwhile, Mairead had "OMG!" emblazoned across her sweatered chest, which was my sentiment entirely.

I'll leave Paisley: Genesis to Revelation (BBC One) to the political correspondents, who've already been having a field day with some of his pronouncements to interviewer Eamonn Mallie. For myself, I've been listening to this man sounding off for all of my adult life and I've no wish to spend any further time in his company.


US drama is a hostage to fortune

In the first instalment of Hostages (Channel 4), rogue FBI man Dylan McDermott breaks into the home of top surgeon Toni Collette and promises that he and his gang won't slaughter her family if she agrees to kill the US president when she's operating on him the following morning.

This daft scenario is accompanied by dialogue best suited to a Jim Abrahams spoof movie, most of it uttered by the scowling McDermott. "Follow my instructions and no one will get hurt," he snarls. "We have eyes and ears everywhere," he threatens. "Sometimes you have to do a bad thing for a good reason," he muses.

Homeland it ain't and how they're going to spin this out for 14 more episodes is a mystery to me.

Irish Independent

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