The View from G21: watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Given Paul Kincaid and I were pretty much the last people left who hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’m assuming you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, and care about these things, be advised I will be discussing all of it. All of it.

Princess Leia was at the cinema yesterday.

She was a very small princess, but she had a lightsabre, and her hair was perfect.

I couldn’t see what her brother was wearing but her parents seemed to be in 21st century British clothes.

I would have loved to ask her what she thought of General Leia, and of Rey, and Finn, and Kylo. And grizzled Han Solo. And bearded Luke.

For that matter, I wonder what her parents thought, given they looked about the age to have grown up with all this.

That growing up with a film or franchise seems to be important right now. I was struck a while ago by people complaining about how the new Ghostbusters would ruin their childhood because they’d watched it endlessly as children. I saw it for the first time when I was 25; it’s one of my favourite films even now, but I don’t have that kind of investment in it. I noticed people talking about the significance of Labyrinth in their childhood after David Bowie died. (I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth; perhaps I should.) And I suspect there are people who feel similarly about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Galaxy Quest now that Alan Rickman has gone. (You know, I completely forgot about the Harry Potter films. Seriously. I have apparently completely wiped them out of my mind.)

But head and shoulders above all these stands Star Wars. I didn’t see the original film when it came out in 1977, for various reasons involving a boyfriend who didn’t like sf films. I first saw it around 1980/81, in a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I was the last one into the cinema, because there was one seat left and I was the first person they found in the queue who was on her own (I’d married a man who didn’t like sf films).

The seat was high up at the back of the cinema, higher than I normally preferred. I don’t really remember much about either film from that viewing, except that sequence when Luke Skywalker acts as gunner while Han Solo and Chewbacca fly the shit out of the Millennium Falcon. Had I been prone to saying ‘holy shit’ in those days, I’d have probably said that. It was … awesome. (I didn’t say that in those days, either.) Never mind the carnage, I was all wow! explosions! can I do that?!?

I saw Return of the Jedi six times when it came out. At least six times. Lots of widescreen shooty-shooty but mostly, I loved it for that moment when Luke Skywalker suddenly emerged from the shadows, and hey, we were back in business again. What can I say? I was 24, went to a lot of films on my own, and was coming to the conclusion that maybe I didn’t want any longer to be married to a man who didn’t like sf films.

I didn’t watch sf films critically in those days. I consumed them like sweeties, empty calories to fill the void. I found it hard to disentangle myself from the best of them (Blade Runner. Always Blade Runner) and laughed at myself for going in when I emerged from seeing the crap ones (and if you think I’m going to admit to some of the films I saw …)

Return of the Jedi? Good, definitely. Great? Possibly. But it wasn’t Blade Runner. Nonetheless, it offered a fairy-tale narrative of redemption and renewal, and restoration. We could all get through this and find something better. It would be fine. And I’d go and see it again the following week on my afternoon off, just to convince myself again.

I skipped the prequels. Well, wouldn’t you?

And now, here I am, in a cinema, in Folkestone, married to a man who likes some sf films (the man who took me to see Ghostbusters on our very first ‘official’ date – I pretty much had to marry him eventually), and we’re about to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been thirty-three years since I saw a Star Wars film in the cinema. Holy shit, it’s been thirty-three years!!!

I’d got a rough idea of what to expect, from trailer snippets, from things people had written (I don’t lose sleep about spoilers, as you may know, though it turns out there was one thing I didn’t actually know; we’ll come to that later).

First impressions. It’s a Star Wars film. There’s the summary scrolling up the screen. And the music. Oh gosh, the music. This is like coming home, isn’t it? So exciting …

And then there’s this feeling that everything is all a bit … familiar? Haven’t we been here before? I mean, actually. Been. Here. Before?

Well, ok, it has changed, a little. Rather than bumping off a few innocent civilians while looking for a droid with information, let’s annihilate entire settlements, and show the annihilation in progress. ‘Plosions, space ships, storm troopers, fires, people running and screaming, shooting, ker-pow!!! Isn’t this great???

Er, I don’t know? Is it? My younger self remains silent on this issue, though I suspect she might have liked it. Especially in 3-D, had it existed in the cinema then (I mean, really existed) as her eyes were still about as good as they were likely to be and she didn’t yet wear glasses (although as she had no depth-perception even then she needed them).

Me? I’m thinking ‘holy shit!’, and not in a positive way.

And oh dear god, did they really just do that thing with the bloody handprint so you know which storm trooper to follow? Oh god, they just did.

face:palm as we also didn’t say in the old days.

I just don’t know … Actually, I do know, and am busy composing a brisk paragraph in my head about not trusting the audience, making it too easy, and so on.

A ghastly sense of inevitability begins to impinge.

I’m old, I’ve watched a lot of films in my time, including Star Wars, and it’s actually really not that difficult (mostly) to see what’s coming. Stormtrooper becomes human, decides to rescue captured pilot as ticket out. Escape from the Death Star Mk.II, in one of those cute little ships that looks like a diablo, and … whee, shooty-shooty. Apparently, my inner twenty-something is still big on the space gunnery. Which is handy, as there is going to be more of it. Yee-ha!

Wait! Why are we on Arrakis? Or Tatooine? No, they’re calling it Jakku this time. Was that a sandworm? Whatever, we are back in a marginal desert settlement-thing, allowing everyone to dress up in flowing robes, absolutely not being orientalist, no sir, look, we’ve got goggles and respirators, too, see?

Twenty-something me approves desperately of Rey. Current-me wonders why she doesn’t cover up her lower legs, as though they are magically immune to sunburn, sand burns, bugs, etc. I guess it’s for the climbing scenes.

Finn loses Poe Dameron, his new pilot, who has already lost his cat, sorry, droid (see Inside Llewyn Davis if you don’t get that one; and as Paul Kincaid points out, actually, this time the ‘cat’s lost Poe). Finn finds Rey – are two people incapable of meeting around here without another fucking firefight breaking out? Apparently, they are. Boom. More innocent bystanders shot up.

Let’s fly away. No, that ship’s just been blown up. Let’s fly away and use this ship instead. Holy shit (for real, this time), it’s the Millennium Falcon, hotly pursued by someone who looks remarkably like a remade Bombur from The Hobbit. I’m no longer entirely sure which film I am in.

But this, it turns out, this is what I am here for: this sequence as Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in, out, and upside down, across the face of Jakku, trying to escape Nazis-from-the-Antarctic, with Finn as her gunner. Because I cannot do this in my beloved Peugeot 208, not even on an empty motorway, for reasons involving gravity and traffic regulations. Young-me and current-me have bonded over the joy of watching the Millennium Falcon do handbrake turns all over hyperspace. Sigh.

The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca is almost a grace note but there they are, and it’s all so … sorry, seem to have got something in my eye. Is that a speck of sentiment or is it just something that’s shaken its way out of the air duct? Despite what I might have already said about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it was always about Han Solo for me. And apparently, still is. Older … much, much older … and superbly grey and grizzled.

And being weirdly meta- about the whole thing, as though he is also thinking what I’m thinking. Harrison Ford is certainly not phoning in his performance, but I’m not entirely sure he’s always in the same film as the others. It’s funny but also disconcerting, as though he is not taking it entirely seriously. And he reminds me of someone, and I still don’t know who.

Later, once they’ve got back to the resistance planet, and he and Leia are quasi-amicably bickering, I find myself thinking of Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond. And I’m torn. Because on the one hand, I am thinking that it’s fabulous to have an action movie with older people in it, even if one of them is staying at home rather too much (please give her a gun, later). On the other hand, Hollywood still apparently can only account for older couples on screen by having them estranged/squabbling/testy, and I’m kind of hurt by that. I’m looking to Han and Leia to represent me on screen, and … no, it’s not entirely working, is it? Perhaps I am too old for this. I smile as Chewbacca fusses about Han putting his coat on when they’re wandering around in Antarctica, sorry, on the ice planet, looking for the First Order base, but at the same time, I am thinking that this is like being a thirteen-year-old, reading Lord of the Rings, and identifying with Strider because there is a chronic lack of active women who aren’t elves in LOTR, and not realising that this was a problem.

I see it now. Because I’m a 56-year-old woman who is identifying with a character played by a 73-year-old man, and it’s 2016. Maybe I should identify with Rey, and to some extent I do, but not enough. There seem to be a number of younger visible women – pilots, bystanders, vamps, and so on – but this film gives me, me specifically, Leia, the doctor played by Harriet Walter, possibly Phazma but who knows under that armour, and Maz Kanata, the Guinan de nos jours (also played by a woman of colour, a young woman of colour, and a lot less visible under that than Whoopi Goldberg ever was. And I haven’t got time to stop and think about the mystical person of colour shtick). It’s not a lot to go on, is it? Maybe I can pretend there’s a middle-aged mechanic on the Resistance base.

And, wait, I’m lost now … what were we shooting up in this section? As Maz’s trading post is being destroyed, I suddenly realise I’m done with seeing things explode, masonry crumble and fall, and stormtroopers fly through the air every few seconds. The attrition rate is appalling; no wonder they are constantly recruiting. I’m slightly surprised they’ve not yet taken the orc route and started breeding them, but I can see that might be a franchise too far, and anyway, it’s always a good idea not to cross the streams. Sadly, there is a lot more exploding to go; indeed, the entire film seems to be predicated on blowing things up, including planet-sized weapons. I’m going slightly deaf by this point, and my eyes are suffering from the flashes of light as another person or object goes up in flames. And that includes what is now a mere shell of a plot.

I’m getting impatient with the film, which seems to be getting impatient with itself. There’s none of this nonsense about training to be a Jedi. In this generation, Rey can lay hands on a lightsabre and immediately start hacking away at Kylo Ren with considerable aplomb. Of course, she’s used to fighting, as is Finn, and though neither was trained to skewer things they do quite well. Kylo may be trained to fight but to add to his general woes, he’s not that good at it, which is unfortunate, and to compound things, Rey is naturally ace at doing things with the Force as well. Damn. At least he’ll be in demand for his Snape impersonation.

I’m being facetious now, because, really, there is little else left to do. Other than to debate the one thing I didn’t know about. The death of Han Solo. He has to come back, right? Though given the way things have been so far … Paul did express disappointment that Han Solo didn’t cry ‘Fly, you fools’, as the Balrog got him, sorry, as he fell into the void, but I have already warned you about the dangers of crossing the streams. But seriously, does he come back? Logic demands that he must, because the logic of film franchises like this is that no one named ever really dies, unless they die, and he hasn’t died yet. Not properly. I mean: like the White Witch, you can always get them back if you really want to, and probably with more success than resurrecting her. Rather as we’re fairly sure that we’ve not see the last of Kylo Ren, might we hold out some sort of hope for the return of Han Solo? At least so he can get his revenge on Emo Kylo for stabbing him through the heart with a lightsabre (a move that is incidentally used at least once too often, taking an element of surprise out of it)? Or was that it?

I admit, after that, I lost a certain amount of interest, even when Rey goes off to find Slavoj Žižek, sorry, Luke Skywalker, who appears to have gone to ground on Skellig Michael, presumably because he can. Take that, New Zealand!

I did enjoy The Force Awakens up to a point. But only up to a point. I like that there is another Star Wars movie in the world, that includes things I enjoyed about the originals (ok, the Millennium Falcon doing handbrake turns – so sue me, I’m shallow) but I look at it now, and all I can think of is how thin, how stretched, how  like butter scraped across bread this plot is. How this film is really one long series of nods to its predecessors, with very little in the way of newness. Some adjustment of gender roles, to be sure, and some foregrounding of actors of colour, all at long last. And I will just say here that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both outstanding actors. Along with, Harrison Ford and Chewie, they are the most watchable things on the screen. I love the moment when, having evaded the First Order, they’re excitedly dancing around, talking over each other. I love that Rey is so good a pilot she can match Han Solo. I love the giddiness of Rey and Finn falling in love. It reminds me of …

And that’s my problem, right there. It reminds me of … well, it reminds me of things I don’t feel inclined to talk about right now, but if you knew us then, knew us well, back in the day, it reminds me of that. And that takes me back to the hurt I feel about Han and Leia. We can be reminded of, but we can’t actually be …

But back in the cinema, the film was over. Princess Leia was on her way home. She’d obviously had a good time. In the foyer there was a man with learning difficulties, bouncing up and down excitedly, asking us all if we’d enjoyed seeing the film. I enjoyed his enjoyment.

As for me, it was time to go home. I felt hammered by sound. My ears were tired, my eyes were tired, my brain was curled in a foetal ball, screaming ‘enough with the self-referentiality, already. You have ticked every single fucking box, and pleased everyone by recalling their special memory of first Star Wars. Please stop it now’.

On the plus side, there were, thank god, no Ewoks.

‘he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women’ – the Sherlock Christmas special

If you have not seen the Sherlock Christmas Special as yet, and are worried about finding out how it ends, I suggest you go and watch it before you read this. If you’re not worried, read on.

[Mrs Hudson] stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Dying Detective

‘What exactly is the point of you?’ Sherlock Holmes to Mrs Hudson

Steven Moffat – His Last Vow (Sherlock, Season 3)

I mostly abandoned Sherlock at the beginning of series 2, because I found it so irritating, and at the time I had too little patience with things that irritated me to set about finding out why they irritated me. I suspected back then it might have something to do with the shows being insufficiently canonical, which probably meant that I was actually being a bit too stuffy about the whole thing, and that was the kind of self-examination I wasn’t really prepared to deal with just then.

So, new year, better attitude: I decided to watch ‘The Abominable Bride’, the Sherlock Christmas special. The premise looked intriguing and, I admit it, I was curious about the fact the show would be set in Victorian London. Foolishly, I had assumed it was a genuine one-off show, an honest-to-god Christmas special, a return to the textual taproot, so to speak. You would think I would know better than that by now, but I apparently still have much to learn about the Way of Moffat.

The first thing to recognise, perhaps, is that anything I might know, he will know better: he will know anything better than me. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian by any means – I don’t possess that obsessive character quirk that appears to mark the genuine fan of anything– but I’ve read, watched and listened to the stories in various adaptations enough times to have a decent working knowledge of the canon, even if I don’t have a minutely detailed recall of every actor who has so much as sneezed in one frame of film.

However, two things in particular I have learned over the years. One is that while Sherlock Holmes may not particularly like women, as a rule he behaves well towards them and listens sympathetically to their problems. Conan Doyle states this most clearly, through his mouthpiece, John H. Watson, in ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’, but one sees ample evidence of this elsewhere. One might cite, for example, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, in which Holmes several times praises the resourceful Miss Violet Hunter, who takes a post, aware that something is amiss, and takes the precaution of contacting Sherlock Holmes before leaving London. One might note his behaviour towards Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four, or any number of other examples throughout the texts, up to and including the landlady in ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ or ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’. Holmes is canonically far more sympathetic than people realise.

The other thing I know is that Conan Doyle himself created the metafictional aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Holmes regularly making disparaging observations about Watson’s prowess as a writer. ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ is recounted by Holmes himself in response to Watson’s urging.

For a long time he has worried me to write an experience of my own. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidily to facts and figures.

‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ seems to emerge from Holmes’ need to record a peculiar case at a point when Watson is not there to be his amanuensis. ‘Thus I must act as my own chronicler.’

Radio 4 took up the metafictional aspect of adapting Sherlock Holmes well before Steven Moffat came on the scene, and with much more subtlety. Those familiar with the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams Holmes and Watson productions will be aware that the fact of Watson writing about Holmes was a frequent topic of discussion in the narrative frame, and not just Holmes disparaging Watson’s flair for melodrama. Think of it more as an ongoing low-key examination of the nature of fictionality, to the point where the narrative raises some very interesting philosophical points about identity.

Cut then to ‘The Abominable Bride’, and to Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, complaining to Watson about the paucity of lines for her in his stories. This is actually entirely true – in the canon, Mrs Hudson is mentioned a bare 13 times, yet somehow she seems to be more present than that, a fact that has seeped into tv and radio productions, where she often has more lines than she ever did in the originals.

But then, as we have been reminded constantly, what is the point of Mrs Hudson, of Mary Morstan, Molly Hooper, and the various other women who have drifted through three series of Sherlock, other having to put up with Sherlock’s petulance and rudeness? Unlike their counterparts in Conan Doyle’s stories these women are rarely accorded respect by Sherlock Holmes, whom we must, I fear, regard as Moffat’s mouthpiece.

Moffat has been called out on this constantly over three series yet has pretty much stuck his fingers in his ears and gone la-la-la to indicate how he doesn’t mind, in between throwing tantrums whenever he feels a little too beleaguered by the fans’ failure to appreciate his ongoing wonderfulness in delivering up this amazing show. Like his creation, Moffat lacks respect; he lacks respect for a good percentage of his audience while being complicit with the other portion, who of course appreciate his laddish witticisms. But this has all been said before so I am hardly bringing anything new to the table.

I think, though, that ‘respect’, or the lack of it, is perhaps key to understanding what Moffat does, or doesn’t do, and almost the main reason why he gets up my nose so much. He may love Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation with an unreasoning nerdy joy, and that’s fine. There is a place for someone to hold all those little fragments of information in their head and trot them out for our edification as the circumstances allow. But Moffat does not respect the idea of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and that’s a whole different thing.

And by ‘respect’, or lack of it, I don’t mean the playing fast and loose with the canon, but the manner of that playing fast and loose. It’s one thing to insert knowing references to ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ or ‘The Five Orange Pips’, and a slyer reference to ‘The Greek Interpreter’ (which I spotted immediately, so go me). It’s another thing to take the canonical figure, move it to contemporary times, and then effectively trash it simply because you can. Because it seems to me that this is what Moffat does every time he puts a woman into Sherlock and silences her or demeans her in some way.

While contemporary Sherlock Holmes has a range of skills available to him that are different to those of his nineteenth-century counterpart, he is nonetheless still Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s character. Except that Moffat has entirely stripped him of his humanity because he apparently doesn’t have the skill to read the deeper character. Or rather, he may think he does – because it’s all about Irene Adler, isn’t it? – but I don’t think he does. He might even argue – maybe he has and I missed it – that his Sherlock Holmes is intentionally the complete antithesis of the original – except that I don’t believe this either. Moffat’s Sherlock doesn’t seem to me to be a radical departure from the canonical figure so much as an excuse for a badly behaved Millennial to rampage around London with impunity. Or to put it another way, you don’t get to label yourself as a sociopath; that’s a job for others. And if you are going to be openly misogynistic, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing it – Irene made me do it doesn’t count.

To judge from the Christmas episode, however, it would seem that word has finally reached Moffat’s brain that women are not pleased with him. That, in fact, they are really displeased, and given they form a significant chunk of the fanbase, it has become clear to him that he must do something. The Abominable Bride could be read, therefore, as some sort of attempt to address past deficiencies, an attempt to ask oneself as writer how one could have let it get so bad. Mrs Hudson could indeed ask John H Watson why she had so few lines in his stories. Mary Morstan could find her way, heavily veiled, to 221b Baker Street to ask John Watson why the hell he hasn’t been home lately. His parlour maid could ask John Watson why he never mentions her in his stories. Poor John – everyone wants to know why he’s being so nasty to them, and of course he has no answer, because he can’t really say ‘the scriptwriter made me do it’.

Sherlock Holmes remains silent, because it is not his department. He’s got a dead body to worry about. The body of Emelia Ricoletti, who the previous afternoon blew out her brains before a large audience of bystanders, only to re-appear later the same day, armed with a shotgun, to blow two large holes through her husband. It was the Ricolettis’ wedding anniversary, Emelia was dressed in her wedding gown, and killed her husband outside a Limehouse opium den, again before witnesses, before vanishing into the fog. By the time Holmes and Watson reach the morgue, her body is lying chained down on a mortuary table, because, apparently, her fingers are smeared with blood, and someone has used that blood to write ‘You’ on the wall in rather shaky letters (see ‘rache’, in A Study in Scarlet), all of which suggests that the corpse of Emelia Ricoletti committed the murder of her husband.

Naturally, the highly rational Holmes will not have any of this. Nor will he accept any of Watson’s faintly ludicrous explanations, such as that Emelia Ricoletti has a secret twin. It is never twins, he says firmly, and indeed it never is. But as he surely knows himself, it doesn’t have to be a twin, just someone who looks similar. As in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, say, though canonically that hasn’t happened yet, as it’s five stories after ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, which provides the anchor for this story. Or, say, as in a story of a man who fakes his own suicide at the end of Series Two of a tv show at some point in the future.

And here I have to say that whatever else I feel about ‘The Abominable Bride’ the little nugget of actual story was gorgeously done, one of those moments when you think to yourself, ‘thank god, they do actually know what they’re doing’, even though you know you’ll inevitably be disabused of that notion a few scenes later. I assumed the sensationalism and melodrama of it all, complete with an outing for one of my favorite stage effects, Pepper’s Ghost, was a nod to the original Holmes’s regular complaint that Watson dressed up his stories with flagrant disregard for the actual facts. If so, this was, I think, far further over the top than anything Conan Doyle’s Watson could have dreamed of. I was really quite excited about it.

A string of murders follows – Holmes not unreasonably dismisses them as copycat murders – and then Mycroft directs Holmes and Watson to take on a case from one Lady Carmichael, concerned for her husband, Lord Eustace, who has received five orange pips in an envelope in the post, which apparently signifies his death. Later, he sees the Bride in the grounds of his house. Lady Carmichael has come to Holmes, asking him to protect Lord Eustace.

In directing the case to Holmes, Mycroft comments ominously that they will be battling an enemy who lurks constantly at their elbow: Watson rattles off a shopping list of nineteenth-century concerns (read Conrad’s The Secret Agent if you want a sense of London at this time), all of which Mycroft dismisses. Watching a second time, you get a very clear sense of what Mycroft is hinting at, something that both Holmes and Watson have so far failed to grasp in their various ways. Holmes has apparently failed to notice that Hooper, the surgeon at the mortuary, is in fact a woman. Watson has spotted this, and kindly lets Hooper know that he is aware, making a snide comment about the things people do to get on in the world. Our first view of the doomed Sir Eustace includes him making snide remarks about his wife’s plans for the day, assuming she will either do embroidery or visit her milliner, when clearly she has two children, a husband and a house to take care of, at the very least.

To protect Sir Eustace, Holmes and Watson stake out the house, waiting in a convenient conservatory until something happens. This is the stuff of so many of Conan Doyle’s stories – waiting under cover of dark for something to happen – but here Moffat decides to fill in the gaps by having Watson try to persuade Holmes to open up about his past. It is, of course, painful bromance stuff, and this viewer at least shared Holmes’s relief when the ‘ghost’ showed up and they could do some running around.

Perhaps the most spectacular moment comes when, as Holmes is in the house, Watson stands guard by the window they have smashed to gain entrance, and the ‘ghost’ appears behind him. We know, of course, that the ghost must be corporeal, but we might feel a certain sympathy for Watson when he legs it in search of Holmes. There was a genuine frisson of fear at that moment. I savoured it, little realising that things were about to go seriously off the rails.

Or maybe I had noticed already. Because, at this point in the proceedings, I couldn’t help noticing that, with half the show still to run, we didn’t exactly seem to be going anywhere. There was the odd detail of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade suddenly finding a note on the corpse of Sir Eustace where there had been none before. And had I seen all of Series Two and Three it might have made more sense to begin with. And what about Mycroft?

Conan Doyle’s Mycroft is described thus by Watson, when he meets him for the first time in ‘The Greek Interpreter’:

‘Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.

‘I am glad to meet you, sir,’ said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal

Fat, yes, but not a glutton, so far as we can tell. Conan Doyle’s Holmes notes that Mycroft leads a very sedentary life, moving between his home, his work and the Diogenes Club, whereas MoffatMycroft seems to owe more to the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, revelling in his gourmandising. And Mycroft draws attention to his increasing girth when Holmes visits him again the next day, and to something else when he describes Holmes as the virus in the data, words that simply don’t belong in Victorian London. Something is not right here.

Indeed, a lot of things are not right. And I don’t just mean in terms of Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes being his usual obnoxious self, rather than being on his best Victorian behaviour. Back at the beginning, Mary Morstan receives a note which is signed ‘M’. There are two possibilities – Moriarty, who is dead, to begin with, or Mycroft, who most certainly is not (nor likely to be as he is played by Mark Gatiss, and it seems unlikely that Moffat and Gatiss will be writing out Gatiss’s character any time soon). At this stage, I can’t tell if this is Moffat attempting to misdirect us – oh my god, Mary’s conniving with Moriarty, who is not dead after all (or has Colonel Sebastian Moran been brought into play) – or whether he’s assuming we’ll assume the obvious, because, well, it’s obvious. Is he playing mind games with his audience, or is he just being an incredibly clumsy storyteller? Could it be, could it actually be that …

Given Moffat can never resist throwing the entire rack of seasonings into almost any story he writes, it’s reasonable to surmise that both Moriarty and Mycroft are involved (and for Sebastian Moran to be there too, for all I know).

And that is the last we see of Mary Morstan for over half the show. Her absence is marked chez Watson, when Watson is having trouble keeping the maid in order (it is, after all, Mary’s job to supervise the household staff, not Watson’s), but Watson himself is irritated rather than puzzled by this. It is an inconvenience rather than a cause for concern. Does this happen all the time? What a remarkably modern marriage, we might think.

So it’s hardly surprising when Moriarty, still dead, at this point, appears in Holmes’ rooms as he tries to puzzle out the business of the Abominable Bride. Hold on, let’s run that past me again. Moriarty is dead and yet here he is, large as life, not quite twice as natural as he seems to have a large hole in the back of his head …

At which point we come to realise that we are not in Victorian London, in a one-off Christmas special, as we thought, and never were, but are in fact in MoffatSherlock’s memory palace, which is of course set up to look like Conan Doyle’s Holmes’s world. And we have just been summoned back to the twenty-first century to appreciate the cleverness of all this. The sense of disappointment I felt at this moment is difficult to convey. Primarily, I felt cheated of the entertainment I had been promised, because yet again Steven Moffat had felt the inexorable desire to disappear up his own fundament and get ludicrously metafictional on his own arse, and that will always, always, always trump any instance where he might have done some good storytelling.

The clues pointing to the fact that Moffat and his creation are locked in some sort of battle to the death within an infinite regress are all there if you remember that Moffat has, essentially, only one subject, and that’s Sherlock. Or rather, as the estimable Abigail Nussbaum pointed out this afternoon on Twitter, insofar as Sherlock is a show about making a show, it is really all about Moffat’s efforts to turn Sherlock into Doctor Who. So, actually, it’s really all about Steven. Again.

We’ll come back to why Sherlock is in his dolls house, sorry, memory palace, in a moment. First, we need to go back to Victorian London and those murders, and luckily Sherlock is able to take us there. By this time we have probably accepted that we are not going to get a straightforward solution to the murders, except … wait, Sherlock surmises how it was done – with the use of a substitute dead body (never a twin), enabling Emelia to murder her husband later that night. Then Emelia herself must die, but that’s ok, because she is making a sacrifice for the cause, and has consumption so is going to die soon anyway. So that’s alright. I guess

This is me giving Moffat the side-eye for that one.

It’s at this point that Holmes and Watson receive word from Mary Morstan – remember her? She has been absent for almost the entire drama so far – who has apparently tracked down the people responsible for the murders and asks for their help. She is, according to Holmes, now in mortal danger. Which is how we find ourselves in the crypt of a (very badly CGI’d) half-ruined church, witnessing a peculiar ceremony with a lot of flaming torches, Latin chant and people parading in hooded costumes. Either they’re penitentes or a hitherto unknown English branch of the Ku Klux Klan (I assume Moffat drew this from ‘The Five Orange Pips’, where the Klan was involved). Maybe Moffat has been reading up on the English folk-horror movement lately.

At which point Holmes reveals he knows exactly what is going on (and doubtless has done all along) and breaks into an impassioned explanation of how these mysterious costumed people are women who have been wronged in various ways by their menfolk and who have decided to act for themselves, murdering the men who have treated them badly. So Emelia Ricoletti, the Abominable Bride, is a symbol they can utilise. Anyone can be Emelia (I’m Emelia; no, I am) as and when needed.

So this is it. This is the culmination of all the odd comments about silent women, powerless women, Watson worrying about suffragists and overly perky housemaids. Mrs Hudson feeling overlooked, Lady Carmichael being slighted by her husband, Emelia Ricoletti murdering her no-good man, Molly Hooper having to conceal her gender in order to get the job she wants. I mean, look, it was Mary who practically solved the case by finding out where the ceremony was happening. But not to worry. Sherlock is here now, to mansplain how badly women are being treated. There, everything’s better, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well, what do you think?

What I did think was that this might be Moffat’s attempt to try to make amends for his past cock-ups in the feminism department. He’s acknowledged how women are so often demeaned and silenced in his stories by having everyone comment on how they are demeaned and silenced. And then, like a deus ex machina, Sherlock makes a speech – during which he demeans and silences women all over again by reminding them of how they are demeaned and silenced. That is, he speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. And yes, I did notice that Mary’s investigation is conducted entirely off-screen, and we only see it at the end, when Sherlock arrives to take over. I have no idea whether or not that was intentional, but if it wasn’t, and even if it was – you begin to understand why the women are assuming the identity of the Bride and offing their annoying spousal units. (And were I Sherlock Holmes I’d lock my bedroom door at night, just in case Mrs Hudson got an idea or two.)

Nor has it escaped my attention that this is supposedly all Sherlock’s rancid drug-addled imagining anyway, so it would be very easy to dismiss the entire thing out of hand if necessary. Except that I think Moffat really believes he is using Sherlock as a feminist force for good as the laydeez get a decent crack of the whip in this show. Which is, of course, to miss the point entirely, as Moffat so very often does.

And anyway, in case we haven’t realised, all this is a distraction; a grand guignol hammer with which to crack the considerable nut of Sherlock’s ongoing affair with his beloved nemesis, Gentleman Jim Moriarty – how did he kill himself and live to fight another day. This is why Sherlock is sitting in his mental wendy house. For this he has reached back into time to exploit the death of a woman, who shot herself in order to provide other women with a way of dealing with the men who oppressed them, to scratch his unrequited urge to figure out how Moriarty did it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you feminism the Moffat Way. Because everything must always be about Sherlock Holmes; that is, everything must always be about Steven Moffat. This is not an apology for ignoring women, mistreating them, exploiting them. Perhaps Moffat thinks he is acknowledging those concerns with his oh-so-amusing metafictional criticism, having Mrs Hudson go on strike in the name of satire, or having Mary Morstan vanish to solve the case. Perhaps he thinks he’s done a good thing by having Sherlock speak up on behalf of downtrodden women. He may think that but let’s not forget the pay-off. Mary, it turns out, was indeed summoned by Mycroft, and asked to keep an eye on Sherlock, because Mycroft worries about him. Yes, thoroughly modern Mary Morstan is effectively working as a superior sort of nursemaid. Either that or someone got hold of a box set of Elementary and knew a good idea when they saw it.

And as if this weren’t enough, at the very end we are led to believe that it was indeed all a dream. Again. Except this time it was VictorianSherlock speculating on what a future Sherlock might be like. Self-referentiality taken to its furthest extreme and all done up with a red ribbon. Plus an added side of further disrespect as he suggests calling the story the Adventure of the Monstrous Regiment. Oh, how I did not laugh.

I’ve said a couple of times recently that it seems to me that Gatiss and Moffat, despite being almost my age, continue to behave like a couple of rather clever sixth-formers, showing off their cleverness. Which is cute and excusable in sixth-formers, but rather less desirable in almost fifty-somethings. I don’t deny for a moment that they love Sherlock Holmes, and all the hopelessly geeky stuff (and yes, guys, I did notice the name Vernet written in Mycroft’s diary, below Redbeard – I know, Vernet is the name of Sherlock’s French grandmother.) but I contend again that they don’t really ‘get’ Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. That is, they cannot take the character and make something of it in the way that Brett, Merrison, Rathbone, and the writers of Elementary have done. They keep referring back to the original perhaps because they lack the confidence to make it their own, or because they simply don’t have the ideas. I mean, what is all this Moriarty/Redbeard stuff but Bad Wolf all over again? (And to be honest, the way I feel about Sherlock right now, nothing would delight me more than to discover that Moriarty has godlike powers.)

The thing is, you can only do so much standing around being amazed that you get to work on these characters you’ve loved ever since you were old enough to be aware they existed, and showing off how powerful you are because you are now in charge of their stories. Sooner or later, if the stories you are telling are shit – and they are – and you are incapable of acknowledging the existence of half the human race except as a useful peg on which to hang your half-arsed attempt to pretend you hadn’t fucked up on that point in all the other episodes – and you did fuck up, royally – you will be found out. Be you doctor, consulting detective or script-emperor, sooner or later enough people will notice you have got no clothes on. And in fact, lots of us have been noticing this for a long time.

Don’t you think Steven Moffat looks cold?

Watching Harry Price Ghost Hunter

After reading Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, time to watch the ITV adaptation, Harry Price Ghost Hunter.

(Though first, because of some mysterious scheduling hiccup, I found myself watching half an episode of Jekyll and Hyde. Admittedly, I didn’t have the sound up, but I don’t think having dialogue would have helped. Seriously, what the hell was that I was watching, other than Grade One scenery-chewing and actorly gurning? )

But back to Harry Price Ghost Hunter, the new ‘one-off’ drama with ‘pilot’ written all over it. Actually, it really wasn’t bad. I could probably watch a whole series if it maintained the standard of last night’s episode. It was very spooky and atmospheric while all the time playing with ideas of how we maintain rationality, accept fraud and deception, and a slew of other things, and did all of them well enough to be interesting.

Like his historical counterpart, this Harry Price is a ghost-hunter, determined to find a rational explanation for everything if at all possible. Like his historical counterpart, he is interested in using scientific apparatus to record temperature and movement, to take photographs, and so on. He does the research too. Unlike the real Harry Price, at least so far as we know, the fictional Price comes with a lot of emotional baggage. In the novel Spring tried to give his Harry emotional baggage by having him conceal the fact that he was a) married, and b) running a paper-bag supply business. In reality, Price apparently made no big secret of either, though he did allegedly fudge details of his birth and upbringing to make himself seem a bit grander than he actually was.

Fictional Harry Price, however, has a wife who was incarcerated in a mental asylum by her family, and also started out life as a medium himself, deceiving people himself before moving on to debunking paranormal phenomena. The story opens with a young man accosting him on his own doorstep, thanking him for making clear the meaning of being at peace and then shooting himself tidily in the head, to join his dead brother. Unsurprisingly, this puts a bit of a crimp in Harry’s work but then he is asked to investigate an alleged haunting at a large house, formerly a work house but now the private home of a prospective parliamentary candidate and his wife. The wife has been troubled by strange dreams and occurrences; most recently, she found herself naked in a street with no recollection as to how she came to be there. Her husband and his political mentor are very anxious to have the problem solved so as not to cause problems for the PPC’s burgeoning career.

And so we see Price go to work, eliminating the impossible to see what’s left. So far, so Sherlock Holmes. On Price’s first visit to the house, to meet the PPC and his wife, strange things happen. The servants bells ring although the wires have been cut (a detail lifted straight from the investigation of the Borley Rectory haunting) and a canary sings in an empty room even though it apparently should only sing when there is someone there. According to the PPC’s wife, she often has a feeling there are people around her when she is on her own, and she finds herself in places with no clear idea how she got there. Subsequently, when Price wanders through the cellars of the house, he discovers a mysterious chemical spilling from a bottle, and a pile of rotting apples (the presence of the chemical again echoes the investigation of Borley Rectory, when Rev. Smith describes finding a bottle of sugar of lead in the cellar when he arrived – lead acetate, a poison, but a sweet-tasting one). There is also a photograph of the children from the workhouse.

So, at this stage, the story could go one of several ways – a genuine haunting, or attempted murder (perhaps by the husband, eager to get rid of a wife who might be getting in the way of his political prospects, either by his own design or at the insistence of his repellent political advisor). Or the wife could be faking it because she hates living in the house, hates politics, or she is genuinely ill. Given the way that children seem to feature in the haunting, there is also the possibility that she has lost a child, or wants a child. Interestingly, her husband refuses to get medical treatment for her, because he is concerned that she will be locked away, something he feels would be wrong.

Price begins to pursue these different lines of enquiry, with the help of Sarah Grey, the house maid, who is initially assigned to act as his driver (she drove ambulances during the war) but quickly reveals herself to be sharp-witted, observant, a good researcher. It is she who ferrets out the story of the child murdered at the workhouse, drowned by another inmate. Price, meanwhile, has his associate , Albert Ogoro, ‘practitioner’ of some kind of African magic by night, fully-trained chemist by day, analyse the chemicals. Ogoro also assists in the first night of investigation, helpfully planting a device in the piano to make it play on its own. He is entirely pragmatic about his dual life as fake magician and chemist. As he explains to Sarah Grey, the hen he apparently sacrifices remains alive, but the people who attend his ceremonies are anyway so desperate that if what he does offers them comfort of some sort, is it so very wrong?

His approach is in stark contrast to Price’s mission to denounce and debunk the fakery: we see him break up a medium’s performance on stage, trying to explain to people what is really going on, showing them how it is faked, but to no avail. As the master of ceremonies suggests later, is it because Price himself has lost someone (the audience of course knows that it probably is – we might recall Harry Houdini at this point, who spent much of his life debunking mediums after he realised that they could not put him in contact with his dead mother). All this is significant in turn because Sarah Grey’s mother is a regular attendee at séances and public displays, spending money she does not have on tickets, seeking some sort of closure after her husband’s death. Whether Sarah Grey herself believes is less clear – her anxieties remain financial. The point, though, is that what the novel tried so very hard to convey is here placed firmly in context with a few well-chosen scenes, and done with considerably greater sympathy for those who are being deceived, and indeed those deceiving them.

But back to the case in hand. The chemist Ogoro has identified the chemicals that Price found (not arsenic, as I’d thought, and they go to great pains to say that it is not arsenic that lies at the heart of this) and something is clearly amiss. By this time, the young reporter Vernon Wall, the man who in real life broke the story of Borley Rectory, has turned up; he and Price seem to have some sort of history anyway, and Price persuades him to look into the background of Goodwin, the candidate, and in particular why he left his previous constituency. Which eventually leads them to the River Thames, a narrow boat, and a meeting with a young man who turns out to have been Grace Goodwin’s lover. And there was a pregnancy; the baby should be three months old. Needless to say, there is no sign of a baby.

By this time, it would be fair to say that the plot is not so much convoluted as a tiny bit over-extended and starting to flag, but we are fast heading towards a denouement. As has been clear all along, it was the husband, but the question is, what was he doing. Early in the story, it’s mentioned that his father was a chemist, and that he in turn studied chemistry for a while. It turns out he was making a crude form of barbiturate, with which to dose his wife, having discovered her infidelity. This caused her hallucinations, and meant that she miscarried the child, and afterwards, she suffered from terrifying withdrawal symptoms. Price, Ogoro and Sarah Grey intervene as Goodwin is in the throes of attempting to drown his wife.

But this is where the drama introduces an odd little twist. Goodwin had previously attacked Sarah Grey and left her unconscious on the floor. When she wakes, she can see the figure of a child pointing up the stairs; it’s a figure that has appeared a number of times, and that we’re led to suppose is exclusively Mrs Goodwin’s hallucination. Indeed, as Goodwin drowns his wife, she sees the figure of a child below her in the bath tub, reaching up. And yes, of course it’s a piece of sensationalism, but rather nicely done (certainly in comparison to some things, like the soundtrack, which was extremely noisy). Price’s whole schtick in real life was to attempt to eliminate the impossible, but he claimed to be open to the fact that possibly, just possibly, some people were psychic, and maybe some ghosts were real. Here, the audience is invited to wonder.

The whole thing is tidily closed down with Price doing a private sitting for Sarah Grey’s mother, to reassure her. Things are looking up for Price, and he might need an assistant. The resourceful Sarah Grey is clearly the person for the job. And yes, I would actually like this series to happen, at least if it keeps to this sort of standard of storytelling. It’s not surprising, particularly, but it was effective.

I’m writing this, of course, primarily because I’m interested in how the book became a tv drama, what was saved, what was discarded. As I predicted, practically everything except the names went. A little of the story of Grey’s parents was retained; watered down, one might argue, rendered simplistic and perhaps a little sentimental, but at the same time, I liked the fact that it engaged sympathetically with the fact that people wanted comfort after the War, wanted to know what had happened to their lost relations and so on. The drama catches the dilemma rather better, I think, than the novel, perhaps because the novel was unwilling to address the broader implications of what the mediums were doing. There is a point in the drama when Price mentions a doctor in Vienna; it’s an oblique hint that for many people mediums were the therapists they needed but which were not yet available to them. Which is not to say that we should regard mediums as a necessary part of the grieving or healing process – some were downright sharks, feeding on misery, but removing them would not eliminate the need. The real point being made, perhaps, is how much deception is good, and how much bad.

The tv Sarah Grey is a more sympathetic character than her novel counterpart; more likeable though sharp-tongued and not necessarily impressed with Price. She’s willing to spar with him and certainly doesn’t worship him. There is a certain amount of needling him about his perceptions of a woman’s capabilities. She takes the initiative on a number of occasions; the camera doesn’t always follow her but we see the end results and they are acknowledged as her work. This is no coup de foudre but more a meeting of two people with a formidable array of skills between them. Cara Theobald positions Grey as Price’s equal throughout, in a very crisp piece of acting.

And yet, the story focuses on Harry Price, proving the point that I made yesterday; that the main reason the novel doesn’t work because it stays so firmly within Sarah Grey’s head, when she is pretty much the least interesting person in the story. Rafe Spall’s Price is rather more attractive, inevitably, than his real-life counterpart, and he did the job well enough. My problem was that he kept reminding me of someone else; it took me ages to realise he looked terribly like Samuel West, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Sherlock might look like if Samuel West had played Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. Having said which, there is more than a hint of Elementary about the whole thing. One wonders whether the real-life Price was quite so beset with doubts as his fictional counterpart, but without that doubt there would be little in the way of a story, other than the producing of a solution

But hey, it was fun, which is more than can be said for the novel.

(And to make life even more exciting, the programme was bracketed by trails for something called Houdini and Doyle. Together they fight … I have no idea, but I think I may have to watch it.)

Reading The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring

Earlier this year, I decided I was going to stop reviewing bad books on Paper Knife, because bad books are legion, and I could be doing something more constructive with my writing time. Also, I had begun to suspect myself of enjoying that kind of reviewing rather too much, not least because it is so easy to do, if not entirely rewarding (like the empty calories of sugar – a quick hit but not very sustaining). As it turned out, I didn’t write a lot during the second half of 2015 anyway, and most of that was about theatrical productions. And now, as the year comes to a close, I’m once again about to write a review of a bad book. Have I learned nothing? Perhaps not, but one thing I’ve realised during my blogging hiatus is that sometimes one must bear witness to a book because it is bad. And Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters turns out to be a novel that demands my attention.

The Ghost Hunters was published in 2013 but I had no idea it even existed until it began popping up all over my social media outlets a couple of weeks ago. This turned out to be because the novel had been adapted for tv, to be broadcast over Christmas. But having looked at the novel I was slightly surprised I hadn’t noticed it sooner, given its topic – Harry Price’s investigation of the haunting of Borley Rectory. And that interested me because, as a ten-year-old, I had avidly, read Price’s books about the haunting, both of them, several times. They were gripping stories, filled with ghostly nuns, ghostly carriages, and inexplicable phenomena, not to mention a lot of old-school hints on how one might set about investigating a haunting. Good stuff for kids with a taste for the supernatural. Later, older, wiser, much more sceptical, I would learn that it was probable that Price had faked some of the incidents himself. Later still, and by this time remotely unsurprised, I would find that Marianne Foyster, the focus of many of the later events, had also faked a lot of stuff. At which point the case became interesting all over again because, while I might not any longer believe unquestioningly in ghosts, I had become interested in why people did believe, and the lengths to which they would go to convince themselves and others of their existence.

On top of all this, there’s no denying that Harry Price was a fascinating character: like Harry Houdini, a debunker of mediums and others claiming to engage with the spirit world; a skilled magician who used this knowledge to uncover others’ trickery. What is interesting too about Price is that he seemed to want to believe, if only he could find the genuine article in among the fraud and trickery, whereas other groups of researchers seemed to work from the assumption that everyone was genuine until shown to be otherwise. Price began working at a time when there was huge interest in spiritualism, fuelled in part by the terrible loss of life caused by the First World War. Arthur Conan Doyle had moved from scepticism to outright belief in an afterlife, as a result of losses within his own family. Although the two men were initially friendly, he would become antagonistic towards Price as a result of his activities.

How, you might ask yourself, could this not be the stuff of novels? How, indeed, and yet Neil Spring has taken this rich topic and turned it into something that is at best staggeringly dull, and at worst just plain inept. The question is, how has he managed this remarkable feat, give that a novel about Harry Price and the haunting of Borley Rectory should theoretically have massive potential? I mean, just think about it: fiercely driven man, ambitious, with huge ego, eager to make his mark, who may or may not have been rather secretive about his own early life, determined to expose fraud in others; who investigates a woman who herself has a rather shadowy past, and all this set against a background of immense anxiety about what happens to the mind after death but also of rapidly developing new forms of communication. How could all this go so wrong?

If there is one moment in which The Ghost Hunters conclusively begins to go wrong it’s in Spring’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Sarah Grey, a young woman who becomes Price’s personal assistant, works for him for many years, and among other things accompanies him to Borley Rectory during his early investigations. In fact, I’m not even sure that the problem lies so much in the creation of Sarah Grey in particular as in Spring’s inability to create a character, period. For it is noticeable that The Ghost Hunters is in fact not one novel but two; and that Sarah Grey has two roles within the novel. The first novel is a recounting of events in Price’s life as a researcher, his encounters with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, his debunkings of various mediums, his work at Borley, and so forth. All this is well documented and easily told. Here, Grey functions as Spring’s narrative mouthpiece, parroting information to keep the reader up to speed. Spring is clearly comfortable with information. Apparently, he spent three years researching the novel (and indeed, obligingly provides footnotes for events within each chapter, just in case the reader might be uncertain. This does, on occasion, lead to unexpected moments of revelation – for example, I had not realised that Robert Aickman, that Robert Aickman, was an investigator at Borley. However, I have the distinct impression that Spring doesn’t realise the significance of the R.F. Aickman whose report he briefly quotes from.)

The second novel is Sarah Grey’s own story. Literally her own story, the story she tells, about herself and about Price. A young woman, living with her widowed mother, in somewhat straitened circumstances since the death of her father, a barrister, during World War One, Grey is, in common with many in post-war London, somewhat adrift. It’s difficult to get a sense of who she is exactly. She works – or has worked – but while she is anxious about money, about supporting her mother, about keeping the house going, there is nonetheless no real sense of urgency in her search for employment in London. Instead, the two women struggle on in genteel faux-poverty. Sarah’s mother is coping with her grief at the loss of her husband by going to séances, something that Sarah, seemingly a rationalist, does not approve of. However, she finds herself coerced into attending a lecture at which Harry Price talks about his work, exposing fraudulent mediums, and about the establishment of his National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Grey is impressed by Price, goes looking for him, finds her way to his private office, where he surprises her, and promptly offers her a job as his assistant, as you do. And after a little to-ing and fro-ing, she decides she will do just that.

And here is one of the great failures of the novel: Spring cannot communicate in any shape, size or form, the fascination that Price seems to hold for Grey. This is not some great coup de foudre – Grey is far too decorous and virginal a character for that – but neither is it a meeting of minds. Although Grey will enjoy her work and become rather good at it, at least according to her account, one never has the sense that she is totally immersed in it. The problem is that the attraction is inexplicable only in that Spring does not know how to communicate an inexplicable attraction. Grey never questions it, not properly, mainly because Spring doesn’t question it either; because, as a writer, he doesn’t know how to question it. It doesn’t help that he has decided to use a first-person narrative viewpoint. While this works well enough in those portions of the novel where Grey is called on to describe Price’s actions, it fails miserably when she accounts for her own.

Now, one might argue that as a first-person narrator she is, almost by definition, unreliable; this much is true, but for me the problem is that she isn’t actually interesting in her unreliability, and an unreliable narrator needs to catch the reader’s sympathy and/or interest in some way. As a reader I might laugh at her adoration of Harry Price while accepting its sincerity within the frame of the novel, but I’d expect to see some foundation for that unquestioning admiration. Yet, try as I might, I can find nothing in this novel that seems plausible. It is as though Spring has decided that this is how she will be, so this is how she is.

This is not to say that Spring doesn’t make an attempt at providing some sort of accommodating back story. We are led to believe, for example, that Sarah may be suppressing memories concerning her father. He died a hero, we are told, though the family turns out to be in dire straits because of his mismanagement of the family finances. How he might have mismanaged them becomes plain only much later. Sarah gradually retrieves odd memories – a stranger who comes to the door, her father crouched over a trunk of letters, crying. We could argue that she sees something of her father in Price, turning to him because she is in need of a father-figure after losing her father, but that doesn’t seem right either. And Sarah’s mother is behaving more and more strangely. She insists on getting up early, to meet the post, and opens all the letters herself, including Sarah’s. Later, we will learn that she has also been intercepting Sarah’s letters. She forbids Sarah to go into what was her father’s room; later, we will find her constantly scrubbing out the room, insisting that it is mouldy.

This strand of the story is given its head after Grey ceases to work for Price, for reasons that remain unclear for most of the novel. The rationality of her investigative work is replaced by a superstitious conviction that she herself is being haunted, by a dark woman, by a mysterious medallion taken from Borley, and by a series of mysterious scratching noises in the walls between her mother’s room and her own bedroom. We’re led to believe that Price’s investigations have released something evil from Borley, which has found its way into the world through the people who have visited the place.

There is one straightforward way to account for all this, and that is to read it as an externalisation of Grey’s guilt, and also her mother’s knowledge about her father. Swiftly unpacked, it turns out that the father was having an affair, and that the woman’s husband had found out. His death was in fact suicide. Grey, it turns out, went to bed with Price during a particularly fraught night of mysterious happenings at Borley, and became pregnant. She had the child in secret and didn’t tell Price that he was the father. The child was hidden away in another part of the country and adopted. All this comes out conveniently, right at the end of the novel, almost as though Spring had suddenly realised himself. I think the withholding of this information is supposed to be a highlight, a grand revelation. Instead, it feels more as though the author has either been unduly manipulative, or literally been making it up as he goes along.

Also, we are supposed to believe that Grey comes to recognise that there really are dark forces out there, that some manifestations are indeed genuine. And yet Spring is utterly maladroit in handling all of this; he’s clearly not comfortable with writing about heightened emotions, and would much rather scuttle back as fast as he can to describing Price’s career, because he does at least know what he’s doing with that, as it is so thoroughly documented. He doesn’t have to imagine any of it. Certainly, he doesn’t have to imagine Harry Price, which is a pity as I would dearly have liked to know what was going on in Price’s mind for much of the novel, rather than having Grey stand between me and him, telling me how wonderful Price was. Yet the one thing we do not have access to is the contents of Harry Price’s mind.

Now, it may be that I simply came to this novel with unreasonable expectations. I am not, I admit, a huge fan of novels about historical characters because I often feel very uneasy about the way that fiction ascribes to them thoughts, actions, motives they may not have had. On the other hand, I can also see that there are moments when fiction is the only tool one can employ in attempting to account for people’s behaviour (for all sorts of reasons, some of them surprisingly practical),and based on what I knew about Borley, a novel seemed like a useful way of approaching the matter. That is not what I got.

And fine, that might not be what Spring set out to do. Having said that, I’m really not sure what Spring did set out to do. What he definitely did, however, was to create probably the most unconvincing female character I think I’ve ever read. I keep asking myself, what in god’s name possessed him to use the first-person narrative viewpoint when he clearly has no idea how to construct a female character, any character for that matter. There is something so painful about his presentation of the inner thoughts of Sarah Grey it’s almost too embarrassing at times to read them. No subtlety, no depth, no sense of someone breaking under the strain of dealing with a sick mother, with personal guilt, with very odd experiences, just generalised flailing and wibble which stands in for emotional content.

Then again, given the clumsy construction of the novel generally, perhaps I really should not be so surprised. At every level, this novel feels one draft shy of being truly finished. Some of the dialogue is truly jejune; the kind of thing I’m accustomed to seeing in work by inexperienced, unpublished writers. The narrative generally feels like the writer is running a marathon he hasn’t really trained for, collapsing momentarily with relief as each major goal in the race is finally attained. It’s baggy, unnecessarily convoluted, and much of the latter part of it (pretty much everything post-Borley) seems irrelevant. Indeed, the strangest thing is that the novel is not one but three first-person viewpoint narratives, linked chronologically, to bring us to Grey’s long-lost son, who finally learns that his mother is alive, and in need of his help. Why, we don’t know. I do note that Spring’s second novel is set in Wales, but there seems to be no connection. (The Watchers focuses on a series of alleged UFO sightings in West Wales in the 1970s, the so-called Dyfed Triangle, another well-documented case. I begin to sense a pattern here.)

But here’s the interesting thing. As I said at the beginning, this novel has been adapted for television (it’s on tonight, in fact). I joked to Paul Kincaid that, given the quality of it, I’d not be remotely surprised to learn that they’d kept the characters and lost everything else, When I looked at the listings write-up, this seems to be to some extent the case. Or, at any rate, this one-off drama is not about Borley Rectory but about an alleged haunting of a house in Finchley, with Sarah Grey recast as a housemaid who helps Harry Price solve the case. My best guess at this stage is that they have taken the story of Grey’s mother and father from the novel and made that the basis of the ‘haunting’.

And that is why I read The Ghost Hunters. Because someone adapted it for tv, and I was curious. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount from it, but neither was I expecting to be quite so disappointed by it. I feel a little sad for Spring that the novel was published in this state. Whether another draft would have fixed it, I don’t know, but it’s clear it was bought because it was mediocre but could be filleted for names and a few details of plot, and turned into something else altogether. One can only hope that it’s going to be better.

Archive: Reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor,

This review originally appeared in Interzone 259 (July-August 2015).

The Book of Phoenix
Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder & Stoughton, 232pp

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death. As the title suggests, it is the story of Phoenix, ‘mixed, grown and finally birthed’ in Tower 7 on Manhattan, two years old but an accelerated organism with the body of a forty-year-old woman. She is able to read a substantial book in a couple of minutes, plants grow unusually fast when in her presence, and her body’s temperature has begun to soar. Later, she will discover other unusual abilities. Phoenix, as she finally comes to realise, is an experiment, in a building filled with other genetic experiments, many of which have gone horribly wrong. Her ultimate purpose will be to become a weapon. And yet, to begin with, not realising that anything is out of the ordinary, Phoenix is happy enough with her life. Things change after the death of her only friend, Saeed, when she realises that her home is in fact a prison, and determines to escape from Tower 7.

Her account of her experiences we hear from Phoenix herself, but in a roundabout way. Indeed, for all that the novel is ostensibly about Phoenix, the reader is well advised to also pay attention to that Book in the story’s title, for this is also a novel about storytelling. Phoenix’s own story is embedded within another narrative, set further in the future, in which an old man, Sunuteel, caught in a storm in the desert, discovers a cache of old computers. The computers were hidden by the Okeke, of whom Sunuteel is a descendant, at a time when things began to go wrong on earth: ‘just before Ani [the earth goddess] turned her attention back to the earth’. The Book of Phoenix downloads itself onto Sunuteel’s ‘portable’, and he listens to it while he sits out the storm, a storm which seems itself to be something to do with the spirit of Phoenix.

It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see this cave as some sort of repository for latter-day Dead Sea Scrolls, the computers hidden in haste and then left, their stories untold; the very title, The Book of Phoenix, suggests a flavour of the biblical, while much of Who Fears Death hinges on interpretations of the mysterious Great Book. As for Sunuteel, he is a recorder and a reciter, a man who speaks many dialects of Okeke, as well as a number of other languages. This in turn suggests that it is no accident that he has been brought to this cave at this time. We are also dealing with a character who proudly carries a copy of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ on his portable, although Barthes’ perception that ‘the author enters into his own death, writing begins’ will be vigorously challenged during the novel. The point being made is that once written, a story lives. It can be rewritten, yes, but the story itself also persists. And persistence and endurance are very much at the heart of this novel.

Alongside Phoenix’s own persistence in understanding how she came into being, disentangling her true story from the lies told to her by the managers of Tower 7 and its sister towers in other US cities, we are also led to understand that Phoenix’s own story has shaped the world that Sunuteel now lives in. However changed they might be, stories about her have lasted. Sunuteel is better qualified than anyone else to see the truth of this, however terrifying this may be to him, in a future shaped by Phoenix’s actions.

The intricate storytelling forms that frame The Book of Phoenix, as well as the recognition of the need that everyone’s stories should be heard, may seem strange to those who prefer their genre neat, but frankly, that is their problem, not the author’s. Quite apart from drawing on traditional storytelling forms, and peopling her world with characters who are emphatically not white, Okorafor delivers a searing (almost literally so in places) commentary on big pharma, experimentation on human beings, the theft and misuse of genetic material, globalisation, companies that function way beyond the law, and all of this from the point of view of the people who are routinely on the receiving end, the people who struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of the appalling violence regularly inflicted on them. This makes for hard reading at times but it’s rewarding work.

Archive: Reading Tamaruq by E.J. Swift

It’s been a while since I posted any of my Interzone reviews, so it’s time to catch up. This review originally appeared in Interzone 258 (May-June 2015).

E.J. Swift, Del Rey, 432pp

E.J Swift’s Osiris (2012) portrayed a society whose rulers apparently gloried in their own insularity, while concealing a truly shocking secret. This inward-turning was reflected in the novel’s intricately wrought prose, which seemed to physically resist the reader’s attempts to engage, as well as in the claustrophobic imagery Swift used. The divide between the haves – the ruling elite of Osiris – and the have-nots, the refugees who had arrived there in the wake of one ecological catastrophe too many – was enacted in the division of the city into quarters, but manifest too in the relationship between Adelaide Rechnov, daughter of an elite family, and Vikram Bai, an activist from the other side of the city.

Cataveiro (2014) ejected us into the outside world, with its dizzyingly open spaces, more freedom than the average Osirian could ever imagine. Again, the writing reflected this in images that seemed almost to burn the eyes, they were so bright. And yet, as the reader quickly came to realise, the world beyond Osiris had precisely the same set of problems, only writ much larger, its protagonists more anonymous, hiding behind intermediaries. Because Osiris was, of course, always a microcosm of that outside world.

Cataveiro explored this from several perspectives. Vikram, only survivor of an Osirian expedition to Patagonia, found himself on the run from the Patagonian authorities, eager to make political capital out of his arrival, and befriended by Taeo Ybanez, hoping to use Vikram as a way to facilitate his own return to Antarctica. Through their eyes the reader saw life as it was experienced by most of Patagonia’s inhabitants – brutal and repressive. And yet, knowing there was a world beyond the immediate provided perhaps a little more room for hope, even though there was often little to choose between life in the western quarter of Osiris and in the slums of Cataveiro.

Ramona Callejas, self-taught pilot and cartographer, had all the space in the world, but was obliged to protect her freedom to fly by making maps for the authorities. Yet her intense scrutiny of the landscape was also directed towards protecting those communities she encountered on her journeys, and trying to protect her people as best she could. Eventually, she discovered that people were being kidnapped and taken north, including her own mother. This prompted her to follow the people traffickers, hoping to rescue her mother and find out what was happening.

Having shifted from the microscopic focus of Osiris to the wide-angle lens of Cataveiro, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tamaruq, the final volume of the Osiris Project, takes a different narrative approach again. Necessary, too, given that there are now so many different perspectives in play, so many ‘voices’ clamouring to be heard. Vikram is even more interesting to the authorities now that he has survived, inexplicably, redfleur, the Ebola-like disease ravaging the world. Ramona has found her way onto a cargo ship where the abductees are being held. And, Adelaide Rechnov has survived near-drowning and intense psychological distress, only to find herself in the hands of the would-be revolutionaries. More unexpectedly, she has finally realised that she can indeed find common cause with them.

This time the novel is a-flutter with pieces of information, from sources of all kinds. Alongside the narratives of Ramona, Vikram and Adelaide, there are extracts from correspondence and radio messages, as well as lengthy extracts from the journal kept by a researcher into redfleur, working at Tamaruq, a research station in the Alaskan desert. This last is discovered by Ramona when she breaches the station’s security, finds out what is actually going on there, and uncovers a link to Osiris. It’s tempting to suppose we’re seeing the story from the point of view of the enigmatic Alaskan, whose presence formed the core of Cataveiro and, it seems likely, will perform a similar function in this novel. If the others are hesitantly recovering knowledge, the Alaskan, cybernetically enhanced, and an inveterate gatherer of information, already seems to know the answer to what is going on, and is now merely seeking confirmation. By ensuring that the various protagonists at last find their ways back to Osiris, she is in a position to orchestrate the final confrontation between the various world powers, the city’s rulers and the downtrodden inhabitants of the western quarter. This is a particularly shocking moment of uncertainty in a novel which has perhaps set us up to hope that there might finally be a happy ending. Which is not to say that there isn’t, but it is not necessarily what one might expect.

If the plot seems messy, this is not because of a lack of control in Swift’s writing. Instead, we are witnessing the messiness of real life turned into fiction. The problem, if there is one, is people, who decline to perform as narrative genre expectation demands they should. Instead human concerns drive the storytelling. This has been emphasised throughout the series, as p people react against being treated as mere gaming pieces. If Adelaide could not see actual human beings until it was almost too late, Ramona, by contrast, has been acutely aware of every individual she has met in her travels, and of the personal consequences of decisions taken elsewhere. Vikram, self-contained as he is, has survived by caring about people en masse , but in the end, he also realises that it must be about the individual.

Striking too is the way in which the reader can never see the entire story at once. At the beginning of Osiris Adelaide assumed her brother Axel had been murdered or kidnapped, abandoning her search for an explanation only when something more compelling came along. And here too we are left with fragments of story, things that are not neatly tied off. This might be indicative of the narrative overflowing the trilogy, but Swift seems to be suggesting instead that some stories must inevitably be overwhelmed by others. This is how we survive, in spite of everything.

Watching Hamlet (dir. Turner, 2015)

We have all been waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, haven’t we? Haven’t we? Well, I don’t know. It’s the kind of role he should be thinking about, given where he is in his career, and there is no denying that a Cumberbatch Hamlet would be highly bankable. And there’s the rub. This production was always going to be an event rather than a production of Hamlet.

The tickets sold out in seconds. There were endless press nights, and much complaining from the production team that the press had reviewed the production during the preview nights). Worst of all, apparently, the director had moved the ‘To be’ speech to the beginning of the play, until critical outcry caused it to be moved back to its customary place.

I saw the play as a National Theatre live broadcast at the Gulbenkian cinema in Canterbury, and even this was an event, with both cinema and theatre pressed into service for a simultaneous showing. In fact, according to the person fronting the live broadcast from the Barbican, not only was the play on stage but every cinema in the complex was also broadcasting it, as well as it being broadcast worldwide. We were part of an EVENT.

And after all this, was it worth the fuss?

Yes. And, alas, no.

The short version is that Benedict Cumberbatch, much as I expected he would be, is a very good Hamlet. Unfortunately, he is stuck in an appalling production of Hamlet.

The long version? Well, where to begin?

There are two reviews in The Guardian of what I suppose I must call ‘the Cumberbatch Hamlet’, one of the theatrical production, one of the worldwide screening. Between them they encapsulate everything that seemed to me to be bad about this production. The first review pretty much nails my experience of watching it as a theatrical production. The second one pretty much explains all the reasons why I really didn’t want to be watching it as a theatrical production on screen.

My theatre posts endlessly wrestle with this conundrum of how one produces a cinematic experience that ‘faithfully’ recreates the sense of a theatrical performance, because I do realise that not everyone watching on screen wants what I want. I’m aware that some of my criticisms undoubtedly emerge from the fact that I really miss live theatre. Watching a performance on screen, while it can be good, just isn’t the same for me. Or, rather, in some respects, it’s so much better it’s really not like being at the theatre at all. I want to be in the theatre.

I’ve been watching Royal Shakespeare Company broadcasts, live and recorded, for the last couple of years, and they do a very decent job of conveying the sense of being at the theatre. Critically, they never lose sight of the fact that there is an audience present. I always feel that I’m watching a theatrical production, with occasional nods to the fact that I am seeing it from a slightly different perspective.

The Royal National Theatre follows a different philosophy, in that their broadcasts mostly seem to want to eliminate the audience altogether. We might see them briefly at the beginning, but once the play begins, they exist only as laughter or applause. The RNT’s productions seem to be staged with more of an eye as to how they will look like on camera. This isn’t a crime per se, but it seems to me to lose sight of the fact that even at the cinema I’m expecting to see a play, on a stage. I anyway think the RNT does best with more contemporary works – my favourite of the things I’ve seen on screen from there (Frankenstein not withstanding) is Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, which had a very plain staging and was simply filmed. There was no theatrical or cinematic fussiness and I could concentrate on the words and acting.

I’m not clear what the relationship is between the RNT and Sonia Friedman Productions, the company that staged this new Hamlet, but the screened version was produced under the aegis of NT Live. Consequently, I don’t know who made choices about camera angles and so forth, but for the purposes of this discussion I am going to assume that Lyndsey Turner, director of the play, was involved to some extent in things like camera positioning for the broadcasting, and that the play was originally designed with the understanding that it would be filmed and broadcast.

Because the first thing I need to say about the Cumberbatch Hamlet is that it’s impossible to ignore the play’s staging, even for a moment, during the performance. That might sound odd, because surely the whole point of a play is that it is a thing constructed to be performed on a stage? But there is staging and there is stagey, and this production falls heavily into the latter category. I remember someone once telling me that actors hate it when the curtain goes up and the audience applauds the set, because it has already shifted the audience’s focus away from the actors. While that doesn’t actually happen in this production, I nonetheless had a strong sense throughout the broadcast that I was being invited to mentally applaud the set. The staging (and for the purposes of this discussion I include set, business, lighting and music) was the dominant presence throughout, and it frequently got in the way of the actors.

Remember the decision to situate ‘To be or not to be’ at the beginning of the play? I could put together an argument that surely Shakespeare and his contemporaries were constantly shuffling around chunks of play, trying to get the right effect, so it’s not a problem for a contemporary director to do the same. It is an argument that would work in certain more experimental settings, like the Royal Court, but not, I think, on a ‘West End’ stage, which is, like it or not, a fairly conservative arena, where people are paying for a certain thing, and expect to get it.

It’s obvious looking at the shape of the production as it now is that Turner wanted to emphasise a point about Hamlet’s state of mind. The play begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore as is traditional, but in a room somewhere in the castle. The room is empty but for a few packing cases, and Hamlet is listening to an old record on a portable record player. This is, we are led to believe, all that is left to him of his father, who has of course recently died. inserting the ‘To be’ speech here was presumably intended to emphasise this point. Without it, the opening is very weak, but neither can I see what placing it here would achieve other than to emphasise something that will become clear anyway, that Hamlet is moody and introspective. Perhaps Turner wanted to head off the ‘mad or not’ dichotomy, but I’m not convinced it would have worked.

Hamlet is summoned to attend his mother’s marriage to his uncle, at which point, in a grand theatrical gesture, the backdrop is whisked away and we are transported to the cavernous hall of a very grand country house, with a staircase to one side, a balcony along the back of a stage, a doorway opening into a corridor and another doorway which seems to lead out to a porch. All the world’s a stage, but in this instance, it seems that Elsinore itself is intended to be the stage and contain the outside world within it. On those occasions when the action moved theoretically ‘outdoors’ it seemed more as if the outside world had irrupted into the world of Elsinore. This is most evident at the point when the players come to the castle and perform The Murder of Gonzago for the court. They perform first within a tiny theatre, like a toy, brought into the entrance hall, and then the Player King, in his role as Gonzago, steps down into the court audience, which itself sits among off-stage scenery, to sleep in an orchard composed of leafy twigs and dried flowers set in musical instruments (no, I don’t know why either. Improvisation?). Hamlet himself steps out of the audience to take on the role of the murderer. All of this is clearly intended to in some way blur boundaries, but I found it rather awkward.

However, what really did strike me about this production was how focused it was on the threat of war. In the other productions I’ve seen, the presence of Young Fortinbras on the borders has been a vague thing, rumbling away in the background as the Denmarks try to work out what to do with their problem child. Here, the implication seems to be that Hamlet’s behaviour is really very, very vexing, as he’s getting in the way of this war they’re trying to deal with. This might be an interesting way to examine Hamlet’s story, but in this instance I couldn’t help feeling it had emerged from the staging decisions rather than the other way round.

So, while the stage is filled with the various accoutrements of a war office – desks, telephones, maps, flocks of secretaries dressed in tailored serge or khaki, everyone clutching files or making notes, Claudius and Polonius in sashes to show their status, Gertrude in a vaguely Eva Peron hairdo, Hamlet appears in the middle of this in a toy soldier uniform, with a drum, marching up and down on the table. Later, he sits in a toy fort, surrounded by almost life-size toy soldiers, pretending to fire off his rifle at all and sundry. It’s a credit to Benedict Cumberbatch that he actually makes this seem entirely reasonable at that point – he’s a good physical actor, and has excellent comic timing – but OK, we get the point: toy fort, toy theatre, Hamlet is reverting to childhood and acting up because his mum has remarried barely two months after his dad died, and he’s not getting enough attention.

For the life of me, I still can’t work out why all the doors and windows had to be blown in at the end of the first part, when Claudius has decided that something had to be done about Hamlet once and for all. The stage is left covered in paper soot and fake rubble, which remains in the second half. I presume this is to indicate that any chance of family unity, and by implication Denmark’s own sovereignty, has now failed, but it’s all a bit Fall of the House of Usher. Not so much something being rotten in the state of Denmark as a complete architectural failure in search of a restoration project, with Young Fortinbras finally arriving to preside over everything like Kevin McCloud.

You will note too that the review of the screening praises the way in which the characters seem so tiny on the stage, as if to suggest ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport’ (wrong play, but you take my point). I grant you it’s been maybe fifteen years since I saw a play at the Barbican but my recollection is that the stage, while sufficiently capacious to accommodate Henry V’s surprisingly substantial army and a rainstorm in the production I saw (Branagh’s Henry V in 1985), is nowhere near as cavernous as the screening seems to indicate, while the auditorium, although large, was fairly intimate in atmosphere. Even in the cheap seats I never felt I was as far from the stage as the filming seemed to suggest one could be. So, again, I find myself wondering exactly what it is the theatre audience saw. To me, it seemed less that the screened version was making a point (and presumably a point that the theatre audience would not be experiencing) as that the cast appeared to be rattling around in an unfeasibly large space, which is odd when Hamlet is, to my mind, a fairly intimate sort of play, very interior. And if that is the case, why was I given this entirely different experience of the play from the audience in the theatre that night (this strikes me as a very Cameronian interpretation of ‘all in this together’. I suppose I could argue I was being compensated for having to see the play as a cinema goer, but it sits badly with my idea of what I thought I would be seeing).

Which leads me in turn to consider something else that particularly struck me about the on-screen staging. I entirely lost track of where the audience was in relation to the stage. To me, the balcony and staircase that dominated the stage was at the back of it, with the long corridor down which the rubble cascaded, up which Ophelia climbs once she has resolved to drown herself, at the side. Yet this makes no sense if the seated audience is to see Ophelia vanish from the stage, which means that I must have been ‘watching’ a good portion of the play from an angle not available to the audience, effectively from the wings. The implication seems to be that the balcony was set at a slight angle across the stage, but even so, it still suggests that what I saw is nowhere near what the audience in the theatre saw. Plus, if the stage was as enormous as the broadcast suggests, I got the benefit of many, many close-ups of Cumberbatch in a way that the theatre audience never could. So, lucky me, I guess, and poor theatre audience.

The inescapable conclusion of all this is that it was never intended to be a theatrical production in the proper sense of the word but was constructed from the outset as a thing to be filmed. Which is very different, I’d argue, from filming a theatrical production to turn into a film (see Julie Traymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is unequivocally a film, based on a theatrical production, and never pretending to be anything other than that). This might explain some of the other things that made me unhappy, not the least being the sound design, which emphasised every significant moment with huge crashing chords, and the lighting design, which performed a visual equivalent. Very little was left to the imagination. Much was elaborately signalled. And yet, every now and then there would be a delicious little moment, purely theatrical, such as when Hamlet’s father’s ghost descends into the grave; I’d spotted someone flipping up the trap door under the cover of dark, but it looked for all the world as though he was simply vanishing through the floor. The groundlings would have loved it. I certainly did, and it was probably the simplest special effect on display all night.

At other times, I found myself wondering about such things as how Hamlet would stab Polonius behind the arras when both arras and sharp pointy weapons were distinctly lacking. As it turned out, the curtains of the toy theatre were pressed into unconvincing service as the arras and even as I’d wondered about the dagger, my eye drifted to the display of weaponry on the wall, and it became obvious – the reverse Chekov principle, so to speak. However, given that the play appeared to be set in Upper Romanovia, it did make a nonsense of the last act: Claudius’s sudden desire, in the midst of ruin and gunfire, to see Hamlet and Laertes fight a demonstration duel with foils seems bizarre. One could almost see an unvoiced WTF? forming on Cumberbatch’s face as he considered the proposal.

The one thing I can’t speak to as it’s been so long since I read it is how much Turner has moved the script around. ‘To be or not to be’ was restored to something approaching its customary place, but as I noted earlier the play no longer begins with the sighting of Hamlet Senior’s ghost, and it really does feel wrong. We also thought some of the other speeches had been moved around or edited. I know this happens all the time and we don’t really notice, but there was in this instance something oddly breathless about the play. Events frequently arrived suddenly and unexpectedly; neither of us was convinced that the grave-digging scene was quite as we’d seen it before, and the whole of the second half seemed generally very perfunctory, especially the final collective death scene, with bodies dropping like ninepins. Perhaps Turner wanted to avoid the long, drawn-out savouring of Hamlet’s death but something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark by this point.

Having myself now done the unforgiveable and devoted over two thousand words to the play’s staging even before talking about the actors, let’s turn to them. Front and centre, Benedict Cumberbatch. Actually, the one thing that is so very, very good about Cumberbatch is his sense of timing. We can talk about the energy and physicality of his performance as Hamlet, but it’s really all about the timing. He brightens the play every time he is on the stage.

I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of designating his Hamlet as mad or feigning madness, as has been the habit. Neither is, I think, appropriate in this case. Cumberbatch’s is a very confused Hamlet, and that’s not entirely down to having to fight his way out of a very confused staging. I found myself thinking that in this instance, here is a man who has not been allowed to mourn properly. It’s been barely two months since his father died, he’s been dragged back from university to find himself attending a wedding with added funeral, he’s surrounded by people telling him to brace up because there is war imminent. There is no room here for him to process his own feelings. He throws tantrums, yes; he lashes out, undoubtedly. He’s surrounded by people exhorting him to get on with life, and life is defined as war.

The problem here, of course, is that Hamlet seems not to be that interested in war, or in politics. You wonder, in a way, why Claudius didn’t just let him go back to his studies. Hamlet seems here to be less concerned about the usurpation of his kingdom, more about the usurpation of his mother’s bed, but even that I didn’t find convincing. Mostly, he seemed to want to be on his grieve. And this, perhaps is the problem at the heart of this production. Turner can’t seem to reconcile the exteriority of war – the excitement of uniforms and noise filling the stage – with Hamlet’s necessary interiority. The latter is frequently lost to the big gesture.

Both Gertrude and Claudius seem to enjoy the imminence of war, as though it gave them purpose even though they’re revealed to be politically inept – because obviously, the thing you do when you have secured an assurance that Young Fortinbras isn’t going to war with you is to then let him march through your lands on his way to an irrelevant skirmish somewhere else. What the elder Hamlet would have done about it, had he lived, I’m not sure – he makes his appearances in a rotting military costume, which might be a clue, and perhaps also an explanation for why the younger Hamlet dresses himself up as a red-coated soldier. But given that that Claudius and Gertrude favour a more modern style of battle dress, one wonders if the production is pointing at a theoretical clash – old school versus modern military methods. If so, it doesn’t really come to anything. The fact that Claudius has effectively usurped Hamlet’s position as king is addressed only obliquely, when Hamlet, in The Murder of Gonzago, assumes a coat on the back of which is painted ‘King’.

Of course, one might argue that Young Fortinbras’s refusal to obey his uncle, Old Fortinbras, stands also as a reproach to Young Hamlet, as is the readiness of the populace to proclaim Laertes king, but this is never really explored. Perhaps the strongest moment comes when Hamlet, on his way to the ship to England, passes through Young Fortinbras’s camp, and it suddenly dawns on him what’s happening. At this point he seems to decide that he has been focusing on the wrong thing, and it’s time to go back and save his country from his family. It is, of course, already far too late but in the fencing match we get a glimpse of that Hamlet, the dashing young man who might have been king. At the same time, would that Hamlet have even given in to Claudius’s command that he fight Laertes.

I can’t say I warmed to either Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius or Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude, at least not in the first part of the play. Hinds seemed somewhat out of place, as though he had stumbled in from a film about gangsters, while Hille was performing generic hard-faced practical bitch. Things began to improve at the point where Hamlet observes his uncle’s soliloquy and debates whether to kill him there and then. The scene was genuinely powerful, perhaps because it was stripped of flummery and focused instead on two people acting their socks off. In the second part, confronted with Ophelia’s madness, both Hinds and Hille seemed genuinely moved but unable to adequately respond. Again, I think, because it’s impossible to do anything other than to take this sequence straight, without gimmicks (well, until the crashing chords at the end, to tell us this is a dramatic moment – no shit). It did strike me, though, when Gertrude talks about having imagined that Hamlet and Ophelia would marry that you really never would have guessed in the first part of the play. OK, partly it is that everyone is telling Ophelia that this relationship won’t work, can’t be allowed to work – in this production Laertes is more unsympathetic as a character than I recall seeing before – but neither has there been the remotest hint of an indication from anyone who isn’t Hamlet that this might have been on the cards.

And Ophelia, let us talk of Ophelia, and Sian Brooke’s storming performance, the best thing in the play after Cumberbatch himself. Actually, better than Cumberbatch. The presentation of Ophelia is the one genuinely interesting thing about this production. This is no dalliance that turns sour because Hamlet is either feigning madness or genuinely ill. From the first moment we see Ophelia she is nervous, twitchy, her speech stumbling; she finds it hard to meet anyone’s gaze. In fact, Ophelia constantly carries a camera and photographs everything, as if only through the camera’s lens can she actually see the world. It stands as a shield between her and the world. She has no job as war looms (unlike Gertrude, and the other court women). The fact that she has no autonomy, no purpose other than to make a marriage of some sort is heavily underlined. She would, in another world, be a war photographer, or reporter but clearly no one is going to allow her to do anything other than stay home and play the piano. In her ‘mad’ scene, she will drag a huge trunk down the stairs; after she’s gone, Gertrude will open it and see huge piles of photographs. It’s hard not to read that trunk as a coffin in which Ophelia has buried her creativity and her hopes for the future.

Instead, she is constantly lectured to by men – Laertes, Polonius, Claudius, and Hamlet himself. I’d never really noticed this before but it is painfully evident here. If we assume that Hamlet was her only hope of escaping her overbearing family, for values of escape, his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ is a bitter rejection. In which case, I suppose we are to read Ophelia’s suicide as a means of taking control of her life. And it is about taking control. Brooke’s mad scene is heart-breaking – not a word I use lightly – and the most powerful piece of acting in the entire production. You see the moment when she makes a decision, when she knows what she has to do, and the determination with which she marches up the hill of rubble towards the light, towards the outdoors, away from Elsinore is just extraordinary. It’s at that moment you might just begin to reassess the production.

But so much else is unsatisfactory. Jim Norton’s Polonius never really rises above caricature. Now, I know one might argue that Polonius is nothing but a caricature but Oliver Ford Davies showed that it is entirely possible to produce a Polonius who is a little fussy, a little annoying, a little too fond of dispensing good advice, but who is trying to do his best for his daughter, and for his king, no matter how misplaced his ideas. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes was dull, and Leo Bill’s Horatio seemed to have little to do except turn up at intervals, looking worried. I’d always seen Horatio as the one person holding Hamlet together, however imperfectly, but here, Horatio’s role seemed negligible. I forget who said to me that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam) were portrayed as Hamlet’s hobbit sidekicks, but sadly, they were spot on. Karl Johnson, on the other hand, showed how to make sufficient of comparatively little, in a lovely cameo as the Grave Digger, marrying the spiritual and the prosaic, as he digs a grave, listens to the radio, throws skulls casually across the stage, pretends a leg bone is a microphone.

So, while it may have been an event, I’m not convinced that this production of Hamlet was great theatre. Indeed, had I paid to see it at the Barbican, I would have considered myself to have been robbed. Cumberbatch is a pleasingly complex Hamlet, but I think the production itself is a bit of a mess. It’s not structured in such a way as to give the actors a reasonable chance. Cumberbatch and Brooke shine, but the others struggle to make much of an impact.



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Watching Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon, 2015)

Mr-Holmes2Mystery surrounds the circumstances of Sherlock Holmes’ retirement to Sussex to keep bees. What prompted it? Conan Doyle, or more properly John H. Watson, never told us, although ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ and ‘His Last Bow’, both of which occur after Holmes’ retirement, suggest that, if his powers had been waning, he was still able to exercise them well enough to solve such mysteries as came his way. However, there seems to be a minor cottage industry in filling in the gap in Conan Doyle’s record, involving stories about Holmes’ encounters with various would-be apprentices, of the bee-keeping and detecting persuasions. I’ve said before that I’m not that interested in sequels by another hand. They rarely if ever seem to strike the right note, and frankly I’d rather stick with canon. In going to see Mr. Holmes at all, I was breaking my own rules, but well, Ian McKellen … and I admit I was intrigued by the idea of a film based round the idea of a Sherlock Holmes who is struggling with a failing memory, brought about by extreme old age.

The Holmes we see in Mr. Holmes is very different to the one we might be used to. It is 1947, he’s ninety-three, he’s physically frail and walks with a stick. Nonetheless, he has just undertaken a gruelling journey to Japan, in search of a plant called prickly ash, which he has been led to believe will improve his memory, which is apparently also deteriorating. But why is this suddenly of such urgency to Holmes? Is it because he fears the onset of senility, or is it that he cannot accept that his physical strength is waning? Knowing what we do of Holmes, we might even wonder if he is faking it for some reason – ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ comes to mind, as do a slew of other stories in which Holmes successfully disguises himself to the point where Watson cannot recognise him – but his housekeeper Mrs Munro’s anxious response to his arrival home, calling in his doctor, and the doctor’s questions serve to suggest that this deterioration is for real.

Gradually, we come to realise that Holmes is struggling desperately to remember the details of his final case, and the reason why he abandoned his detective practice and retired to the country to raise bees. That is, we are dealing with a detective story in which the detective is the mystery he is trying to solve. All the clues are contained within himself if he can but locate them, but that retrieval is proving rather difficult. Taking royal jelly has failed, and so has rereading Watson’s highly embroidered account of the case. Taking prickly ash will fail in turn. Now, Holmes is attempting to jog his memory by writing down the details he does recall. However, it is his conversations with Roger, his housekeeper’s son, who discovered and read the manuscript while Holmes was in Japan, that will prove to be most effective in recalling things.


As is the way of a Sherlock Holmes story, the detective element of the plot, while not slight, follows a familiar course. A series of events have occurred which point to a very obvious solution, one which Roger, the young and inexperienced Watson analogue, inevitably identifies, while of course, the more experienced Holmes, who has trained himself to look behind the veil of the mundane, will reinterpret the facts to show a different story, in this case precipitating a tragedy. As is also the way with a Sherlock Holmes story, some of the story’s elements tend to the outlandish – in this instance, a glass harmonica appears to be involved in a case of potential murder.

At this point, though, it’s worth considering what has caused Holmes to suddenly become so concerned about solving the ‘Adventure of the Detective’s Lost Memories’. The answer is simple, and perhaps from what we’ve seen by this point, unsurprising: mortality. Holmes’ search for an answer is prompted by the recent death of his brother, Mycroft, and the retrieval of various papers from the Diogenes Club. These include Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ various cases. It is while reading Watson’s account of that final case that Holmes realises that not only is it inaccurate, he can no longer recall what actually happened, although this case brought about such profound changes in his life. Watson is also dead, and we discover that he and Holmes were in fact estranged at the time of Watson’s death. We may reasonably assume that Mrs Hudson is also dead, and probably Lestrade and Gregson too. In other words, Holmes has outlived everyone who once knew him as himself rather than as Sherlock Holmes, the creation of John Watson, and there is no one to whom he can turn for clarification of what happened in the past.

This contrast between Holmes as man and Holmes as detective overshadows the entire film, not least for the audience, knowing that Sherlock Holmes is entirely fictional. True, for his doctor, Holmes is his patient, first and foremost, but he is still Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ relationship with Mrs Munro is more elusive. She is no Mrs Hudson – this is indicated in her indifferent cooking – but while she to some extent protects Holmes from those people who seek his help, she nonetheless also seems to resent him in some way not fully articulated in the film’s opening sequence.

mr holmes ian-mckellen-laura-linneyAs the film proceeds, we can see that she does not enjoy her job, and perhaps does not care to live in the country. She is preoccupied with the thought of finding a job in Portsmouth, and almost the only time we see her looking bright and alert is when she returns from a trip to Portsmouth for an interview. Also, she is unhappy about Holmes’ growing influence over her son, particularly once he takes Roger on as apprentice beekeeper. At the heart of her resentment, perhaps, is the issue of memory. Mrs Munro is a war widow; her husband was a pilot who seems to have died early in the war. Although Mrs Munro can tell Roger stories about his father – most significantly, stories about how Mr Munro would tell stories from Roger’s suggestions, always including Roger – Roger cannot offer her spontaneous memories of the man she has lost, because he has none, being too young to have formed any. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Munro fears she will lose her own memories of her husband, because she has no one she can talk to. (In an aside later, we learn that while she has a sister, she and that sister do not get along, so Mrs Munro, like Holmes, is adrift in a world which does not know her for herself.)

As noted, it is the conversations with Roger which mostly seem to spark Holmes’ memories; as he records them, they prompt other recollections, and one might suspect that Holmes is deliberately using Roger’s burgeoning skills as a detective. Gradually, the story unfolds. Mr Lemott married a beautiful young woman, they hoped for children but she experienced serial miscarriages and they were told they should not try for more children. Lemott is determined to accept his fate and look to the future, but in doing so is unable to acknowledge his wife’s grief. He refuses to allow her to erect headstones to their lost children because they weren’t proper babies – the sharp look Mrs Hudson gives him at this point speaks volumes – but is glad when she starts lessons on, of all things, the glass harmonica as this apparently affords her some comfort. When she becomes obsessed with the instrument, he grows concerned and refuses to pay for her lessons. Bills from the teacher prompt him to believe that she is taking lessons in secret, and he cuts off her access to money, as well as following her when she goes out. Holmes quickly establishes that Mrs Lemott is funding someone else’s lessons, because she wants to hear the music. When Lemott follows her to the teacher’s rooms, she seems to disappear on the stairs – Holmes realises that she has used to a concealed door to sit in the garden and listen.

mrholmeswomanholmesfollowsmckellenbenchcostumesFor the contemporary reader, some of what is happening here is only too obvious. Mrs Lemott is perhaps suffering from post-natal depression and is grieving in her own way for her lost children, but this does not fit with Lemott’s understanding of how grief should be enacted. There is more than a passing nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in the way he attempts to effect a cure – that is, to restore what he believes to be normal. Holmes, of course, is drawn by the unusual features of the case, with its faint echoes of ‘The Adventure of the Man With the Twisted Lip’ and other cases of untoward disappearances.

A series of events can be construed as one thing – in this instance, we are invited to suppose that Mrs Lemott is about to murder her husband and run off with her lover – or as something else entirely. Holmes sees that Mrs Lemott is intending to take her own life, while constructing a story for his benefit, in which it would appear that she is planning to murder her husband and run off with her lover. She has engineered a confrontation with Holmes in the hope that he will acknowledge her suffering and offer the sympathy her husband cannot. But as Holmes will admit at the end of the film, having elicited the facts, and seen Mrs Lemott pour away the poison, he failed to understand that this would in no way alleviate her suffering. His emotional detachment leads to his refusal of the overture she has made and he sends her back to her husband; instead, she dies in front of a train not an hour later.

Watson will cast this tragic story as a melodrama in order to protect those involved, and concoct a story of murder via lead poisoning from the glass harmonica itself – which is what I thought was happening at first, before Holmes unravelled a different story. Holmes and Watson will quarrel over Holmes’ apparent inability to get over the death he has caused, thanks to his arrogance and emotional withdrawal (echoing Lemott’s own failure to appreciate his wife’s grief). Holmes, belatedly realising the cost of his insistence on the truth, and his failure to understand Mrs Lemott’s emotional needs, then withdraws from his work as a consulting detective, because he cannot accept the pain the knowledge brings.

We might assume then that Holmes has so far failed to understand also Mrs Munro’s emotional needs as she grieves for her husband and endeavours to move on with her life. Hence, one may envisage her alarm as her son and her employer appear to forge closer ties. As if to emphasise this point, the film turns then to Holmes’ visit to Japan, at the invitation of Mr Umezaki, the man who is to provide him with the prickly ash plant. How they initially made contact with one another is unclear but once in Japan Holmes immediately becomes aware that Umezaki is not, as he claims, a long-time devotee of Holmes’ work on bees. Instead, we learn that when he was young his father went away to Britain, leaving him and his mother, and never returned. Instead, he sent the child Umezaki a copy of A Study in Scarlet and urged the child to take Holmes as his example. Umezaki has, it would seem, brought Holmes to Japan, in order to learn about his father. Except it seems likely that Holmes never met Umezaki senior.

MRHOLMES081436483533The crises in this story are twofold. First, there is Mrs Munro’s determination to move to Portsmouth to work in a hotel, taking Roger with her to also work there. Roger is against the idea, believing that with a proper education he can do much better in the world. This turns out to be much the same argument as his father presented to his mother when he determined to become a pilot rather than remaining a mechanic. Roger it would seem is unwittingly very much his father’s son, but Mrs Munro would rather stifle that ambition in order to keep her son with her, as he is well aware. Roger uses Holmes as a means to force his mother to admit what she has done and then shames her. Holmes insists, as a father might, that Roger must apologise (and we might see here a hint that Holmes is well aware that the act of detection brings with it responsibilities). This is balanced by Holmes later finding Roger lying in the meadow, covered in stings, apparently dead from anaphylactic shock. Holmes acts immediately by calling an ambulance and returning to the stricken boy, but fails to call Mrs Munro, who sees this as the ultimate betrayal: she has lost her husband, and seems likely to lose her son.

Later that evening Holmes finds her attempting to set fire to the hives, believing that the bees have killed her son. Yet, as the audience will already know, perhaps without realising it, Roger is not allergic to bee stings. Holmes realises that Roger has in fact solved a mystery that has been puzzling the beekeepers – why do the bees keep dying? The culprits are wasps, which attacked Roger when he tried to destroy their nest, and he is instead allergic to wasp stings. Having convinced Mrs Munro of this, the two instead destroy the wasps’ nest. Meanwhile, Holmes has come to terms with his failure to save Mrs Lemott and has finally been able to complete his version of the story, helped in part by Roger’s discovery of the missing glove.

As a result of this Holmes is able to admit his failure to Mrs Munro, to express his appreciation to her and ask her to stay as housekeeper. It comes in a perhaps roundabout way, by telling her that he has left everything to her and Roger, the implication being that this has been his plan all along. Roger, of course, survives. But there is another thing that Holmes feels he must do, and that is to write to Mr Umezaki, who has written to him to announce the death of his mother. Here Holmes offers him what is almost certainly an entirely fictional version of what his father was doing in Britain, serving the British government in Malaya. The telling detail in the vignette we see is Holmes advising Mr Umezaki to say nothing to his family. All of this is, we are led to believe, entirely fiction – this is the only time we ever see Holmes work at Watson’s old desk rather than his own – but it is Holmes’ acknowledgement that sometimes a piece of fiction can bring a form of comfort, although we know already that Roger’s attempts to reassure his mother than he does remember his father are not enough.

And it is perhaps significant too that Holmes finally writes his own account of the Lemott affair not in his study but in his bedroom, while confined there as the result of his experiments with prickly ash. It is as though once he is forced to step back a little from the reminders of his life as a detective he can see matters a little more clearly. Indeed, I have my doubts as to whether Holmes’ failing memory is an organic deterioration so much as a selective amnesia – a psychological refusal to remember, now so engrained it has taken him over. It’s significant, perhaps, that it is names he specifically has trouble with. His ability to deduce and analyse seems otherwise unimpaired, even though his physical strength is, unsurprisingly, waning.

By the end of the film everything has changed. Roger is teaching his mother how to care for bees – what will become in due course her bees (it is emphasised several times that it is the queen bee who is in charge, and she is of course the husbandless mother; given both Holmes and Roger at times also protect the hives, this suggests a complication of each of their roles within the film). This signals that Roger does not expect to be at the farmhouse as he grows older, at least for a while, and Holmes of course must inevitably die (the one thing he will never entirely do, of course, despite Conan Doyle’s best endeavours), but indicates too that Mrs Munro is now anchored. As for Holmes, he can mourn his own dead while rejoicing in his own comparative vitality. How close this is to the original novel – A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin – I’ve no idea. Having seen the film, I’m not sure I want to know.

It is a curious film, rather chewier than I initially expected, though it does at times indulge in a little hand-waving. That the film is set post-World War II is sketched by a crashed fighter plane still embedded in a British cornfield, when I’m fairly sure it would have been long since removed. In the same way, Mr Umezaki takes Holmes to what is all too quickly shown to be Hiroshima, and finds the prickly ash growing in the roots of a tree in a forest razed by the blast. I’ve no idea whether this is actually biologically possible but it was perhaps a little too freighted with the symbolic. (I am also tired of films that signal death by headstones no freshly filled graves – they are supposed to settle first, for obvious reasons.) Having said that, I’m prepared to indulge the film slightly when it was so good in so many other ways.

I particularly liked how fractured the film’s structure was, the way it shifted back and forth in time, and from place to place, representing the fragility of memories, and their abrupt resurfacing. The film’s general appearance was gorgeous, particularly the long sequence as Holmes returns to his house in deepest Sussex, and the scene where he and Roger go down to the beach to bathe, the shots both suffused with golden autumnal light, as if to reflect Holmes’ great age. The scenes in Japan, by contrast, are grey, as if to reflect what Japan suffered as a result of the war.

McKellen’s performance as the elderly Holmes is everything you’d expect from an actor of his calibre, warm and terrifying by turns, as he grapples with infirmity and loss of memory. His portrayal of Holmes as a working detective, in his late fifties, early sixties, is nicely done, but he excels as the elderly Holmes – at times a little bewildered by the way his body is giving up on him but still alert, still cognisant of what is going on around him, still able to analyse the signs, solve the mysteries. The scenes between McKellen and Milo Parker as Roger are exquisitely done. We feel often that we are simply eavesdropping on real conversations as they meander around the garden or walk down to the sea. At the same time, Parker turns in an incredibly powerful performance, no more so than in his denunciation of his mother’s expectations of him. The anguish of ‘She wants me to be a boot black’ when he knows he is capable of so much more is heartrending. Laura Linney’s performance as his mother is restrained, which seems appropriate given the grief bottled up in her. Roger Allam as the doctor and Hiroyuki Sanada as Tamiki Umezaki turn in similarly poised performances, with a beautifully over-the-top cameo from Frances de la Tour as Madame Schirmer, the glass harmonica teacher. By contrast, Hattie Morahan’s Mrs Lemott is quite steely.

I was hoping for an interesting film and I definitely got that, more so even than I’d anticipated. Mr. Holmes turns out to be a powerful meditation on memory and ageing, built on a very competent Sherlock Holmes story.MR Holmes 4