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‘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 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.

mr-holmes-movie

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

Giving Up on Doctor Who

I’m giving up on Doctor Who again. This time it may be final.

I first gave up on Doctor Who in 1966, after The Tenth Planet. Or rather, I was banned from watching it for a while after an incident involving my dreaming there was a Cyberman in my dressing-up box. (I’m not sure how long the ban lasted as I saw a fair amount of Troughton’s Doctor Who but I am still wary of classic Cybermen.)

Once back, I watched all the way to Colin Baker’s Doctor Who and then stopped because of Bonnie Langford, and completely missed Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

I watched Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor but finally gave up on the Doctor Who reboot halfway through David Tennant’s stint in the role.

I gave up mainly because I’d got tired of watching talented actors reduced to eye candy and acting out the fantasies of overgrown adolescents who had somehow finagled their way into writing scripts. Where they were writing scripts that looked like old-time Doctor Who, without necssarily understanding why old-time Doctor Who worked and more importantly why it didn’t.

For the sake of nostalgia, I watched the mainly incoherent mess that was the 50th anniversary episode and the Christmas episode that made the anniversary episode look as though it had been rigorously edited. (And was incidentally glad I’d never watched any of the other Matt Smith episodes because … well, Geronimo. And if you don’t know why that upsets me, watch this.)

And I started the new series because … Capaldi.

I like Capaldi. He’s an excellent actor (as indeed was David Tennant, and Christopher Eccleston before him; and I think Matt Smith will just get better and better, too).

But three episodes into this new series, I’ve had enough.

Where to begin?

First, bear in mind that I write as a casual viewer, one who has not assiduously watched every reboot episode several times (except the anniversary episode because the soundtrack was so noisy I couldn’t follow a thing and I hate watching with subtitles).

But I have to say the writing seems to have deteriorated since I last watched regularly.

Badly.

It really is true what people say about Moffat’s inability to write women, or for that matter, to encourge others to write them well. Episode 1 of this series was my first proper encounter with Clara, and several people told me she is written so much better this series than last.

Really? That poor girl. It must have been bad if this is better.

I gathered too that the lizard alien, Madame Vastra, and her human wife, Jenny, are previous characters, which seems not to explain why we then had to go over and over and over the fact that they have a relationship, even before the lizard-human kiss. Because I was having a really hard time figuring that out until Moffat told me, and then went on to recreate Brookside all over again. And all that inbetween the casual objectfying of women. (And yes, if one woman objectifies another, it is still objectifying, honest.)

I still can’t decide whether to chalk it up to schoolboy prurience or daring progressivism, Moffat-style.

“See, puny humans, I can so write real women characters. So, yeah, ok, one is a lizard. But she’s a lady lizard. And a bit like Sherlock Holmes, too. Wow. Edgy, or what?”

OK, let’s instead say “I’m showing my insecurity about my ability to write women again, aren’t I? My wife says I’m good at writing women. I am a grown-up, honest. Please like me.”

And indeed, all three episodes are marked by a terrible insecurity and anxiety, particularly about Capaldi’s age and appearance. I suppose, after the girl cootie hysterics, it’s almost refreshing to turn to male-directed ageism. Though given that Moffat is not exactly a spring chicken and many of Doctor Who’s most devoted fans are not themselves in the first flush of youth, one might wonder quite where this anxiety springs from.

Jon Pertwee, the Doctor I remember most vividly from my childhood, was in his fifties when he played the role, and I don’t recall as a child being worried about his age. So one might assume the current child audience is unlikely to be bothered either. But neither, as an adult, am I bothered that Capaldi looks older than recent Doctors. (Capaldi is in fact, just over a year older than me, and believe me, I enjoy seeing someone close to my own age playing an action character – or I would if the scripts were any good).

Which suggests that somewhere along the way someone perhaps decided there was a target audience who wanted to see a Doctor who was pretty much like them in age terms, and that might also be flattered by having a slightly younger version of themselves to identify with, only to have it brought home to them in this series that yes, actually, we are all getting older. Or, to put a good face on it, we can all be grown-ups and still have fun.

Which is fine, but why do you have to keep going on about it? One school of thought explains to me that this shows the script team being aware of the sensitive feelings of their audience and addressing their anxieties about an older Doctor directly. And isn’t that wonderful of them?

Given the only response I’ve seen from the Doctor Who fans I know is “wow, Capaldi, yes”, inbetween “you know, John Hurt was a wonderful War Doctor”, I’m not sure exactly who it is they might be addressing about this issue. Themselves, possibly? This is beginning to feel like scriptwriters of a certain age playing out their own hopes and fears.

But all this is a distraction from the thing that is really annoying me this time around. Shoddy narrative, shoddy structure.

I’ve been struck by how none of the episodes so far actually fitted their allotted time. Episodes 1 and 2 both seemed to be dreadfully padded while last night’s episode suffered from quite the reverse, with an abrupt change of pace two thirds of the way through, as though Mark Gatiss had suddenly remembered it wasn’t a two-parter after all and, jesus, he had better start winding up NOW. Leading to the distinctly Bulldog Drummondish moment of Robin Hood and the Doctor fortuitously finding an off-screen blacksmith’s forge in order to release themselves from their shackles (though frankly, seeing them scrapping over that might have been more amusing than some of what passed for humorous interplay last night).

Last week, it was endless Dalek-on-human shooty-shooty in a series of wobbly corridors while Clara reactivated Hal, I’m sorry, Rusty, the good dalek, while in episode 1 there was so much infill and so many comic interludes it was hard to find a plot at all. There was probably about half an hour’s worth, which meant forty-five minutes of often exquisite tedium.

I’m also less than thrilled about the bolting on of moral points, and the relentless setting up of a story arc (i.e. the appearances of Missy, and references to The Promised Land. Shades of Bad Wolf again). It’s not that I object to story arcs per se. Handled well, they can be amazing things, but they need the individual stories to be strong as well (and here my view is shaped by watching Babylon 5, in its first two or three series one of the darkest things around). With Doctor Who it seems to have turned into a process of “bugger, another weak story, so hey, let’s put in something about the Doctor’s moral and existential angst a-n-d another story arc plot coupon. Collect the complete set to figure out what’s going on. The fans – the real fans – will love it.”

Possibly they will. Already, I am seeing critical commentary on this series that basically boils down to “and we learned this, which may mean that …”, which is not so much critical commentary as being a contestant on one of those solve-a-fictional-crime game shows so beloved of Radio 4. It’s also being used to elide the fact that the individual plots are as flimsy as hell, with a pop-up revelation at the end of each show.

And then there is the humour. Now it may be that I am indeed a humourless bitch, or it may be that as I said last night online, “My problem is that I like my comedy subtle rather than being elbowed in the ribs every two minutes to admire the waggishness of it all.” I could just about tolerate Strax the comedy Silurian Sontaran [Sontarans, Silurians, Silurians, Sontarans – let’s call the whole thing off] in episode 1, a little more than the arch exchanges between Vastra and Jenny, but last night’s attempt to recreate every cliché from every Robin Hood film ever became irksome (I can’t decide whether it would have been more irksome not to know the references than to be able to spot them, and yes, I knew them all – Gatiss is not the only one with a misspent youth). And there seemed to be slight but definite pauses before each stolen setpiece, as though to telegraph that it was coming. And after that came the meta-commentary on the laughing. As an observation it was spot on, but inevitably Gatiss overdid it, because they always do. On the other hand, I gather that children enjoyed the silliness of it all.

But, but, but, couldn’t it have been silly and told a better developed story as well? Like dealing with the whole notion of what Robin Hood means, as a real or fictional artefact, in more detail? Because then the silliness would have been a part of something else, rather than being the sole “thing” in the episode. As it was, it was obvious all the way through what was going on, even down to Robin Hood not being a robot. Even if one accepts that the Doctor has reasons for not “noticing” that something is wrong, one might wonder how, in the first episode, Clara didn’t notice, say, the oddity of the diners in that peculiar restaurant, because it was the first thing every viewer noticed, surely?

And perhaps that goes back to my earlier point about collecting story arc plot coupons. It seems to me that the audience is being flattered to believe it is cleverer than the Doctor and Clara in noticing these things, and that it will find the answer ahead of them. Even that isn’t in itself a crime but it is done so blatantly, and I find that offensive. All fiction, be it written or visual, is a form of manipulation of the reader or viewer, but the art is surely to do it without the consumer noticing. Unless, of course, you want them to notice and admire your cleverness, or encourage them to admire their own, a form of fan service.

And now we seem to be into reprising past shows. We’ve had the “mad dalek”; next week is this series’ “Are you my mummy?” episode. Which will of course remind us that Moffat did once produce an episode of genuine terror. (So much so that it had me awake in the night and sleeping with the light on, several nights running; it really was just like the good old days.) Somehow, on recent showing, I don’t think next week’s episode is going to do that.

Which is not to say that there aren’t good moments. There are, but they are very few and show how bad the rest of it is. The burgeoning relationship between Danny and Clara was surprisingly tastefully done, but feels like it’s a pilot for a totally different series in which a former soldier turned schoolteacher comes to terms with his past and makes a new life for himself in the civilian world. Could be quite gritty and all that. (One should also note Tom Baker’s cameo in the anniversary episode, which was probably the best thing about it after John Hurt.) And indeed, I find myself wondering whether Moffat isn’t now actually bored, having helped reboot the Doctor. I mean, where do you go next?

My single favourite moment of the entire series so far came last night as the arrow thudded into the Tardis and Capaldi just looked at it. Nothing was said. He just looked. And it was brilliant. Infinitely funnier than all the knockabout because it came out of incredibly good acting that turned a cliché into something special.

But that’s the problem. I can’t waste forty-five minutes of my life every week waiting for moments like that. Nor do I have any interest in collecting the plot coupons. I’m caught in a place between the people who can watch each episode totally uncritically and those who are so steeped in the lore of Doctor Who that every word, every slight nuance has so much meaning it would take a lifetime to accumulate the knowledge necessary to fully apprehend what is going on. And I don’t have the time to expend the effort needed to do that. In fact, I don’t want to have to study that hard in order to enjoy my Saturday night tv viewing to the full.

I want a tv series that can exist for those who watch regularly, a little out of nostalgia it’s true, but who also want a well-constructed narrative alongside the entertainment for the littlies and the fan service for the geeks and nerds, and that seems to be the one thing that Moffat et al are unable to provide.

In which case I shall with regret take my leave.

Things I read on the internet – week ending 18/1/2014

Russell Hoban – The Mouse and His Child: moving metaphysics for kids

George Orwell explains in a revealing 1944 letter why he’d write 1984

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Andrea Hairston reviews Paradoxa 25, Africa SF, ed. Mark Bould

Paul Kincaid discusses Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes at Big Other.

And to go with it, Lynd Ward’s illustrations for Frankenstein, courtesy of John Coulthart at [feuilleton].

Also via John Coulthart, a link to a performance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.

Republic of the Moon is an arts project currently ensconced at the Barge House, Oxo Tower Wharf in London. One component of this exhibition takes as its inspiration Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, in which, famously, a traveller goes to the moon in a vehicle drawn by geese. There is more information about Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s work here.

I have a rather odd interest in the inappropriate use of dangerous substances. I swear I once saw an advert for radium toothpaste, and I try not to think about what was in the paint on the toys I chewed as a child. So, radioactive toys (which is not entirely as awful as it sounds).

The latest instalment of ‘which European nation really got to Australia first’ features a rather adorable kangaroo. It’s almost too good to be true, it looks so convincing.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a thing about paper sculpture. Here, a model of Smaug emerging from The Hobbit.

A new biography of Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books.

Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial

Jeff Wayne and David Essex: how we made War of the Worlds (and I bet, if you’re of a certain age, the chords are all crashing through your brain)

Extraordinary black and white photos of superstorms.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s own Alice illustrations

Via kuriositas, a French sea serpent

2013 Philip K Dick Award nominees announced

And finally, John Coulthard (who seems to be taking up residence here this week) has a nice post on [feuilleton] about illustrations for The Angel of the Revolution by George Griffiths.