Last night was my first opportunity to sit down and watch my recording of the final episode (His Last Vow) of the BBC1 series Sherlock, which – as regular visitors to the National Rust website will know – I failed to review on Monday as intended. This was because, during its original transmission on Sunday evening, I recognised I was falling asleep and therefore switched off and went to bed.
Having fast-forwarded to the point I had retired, I duly watched the final hour.
I’m not going to spoil things here for those who have not yet seen His Last Vow, but intend to do so, by revealing some of the twists in the plot.
Instead I’m going to make some general comments upon this latest series, and indeed this latest incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes legend.
There is much to commend Sherlock, the now globally-acclaimed modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective creation created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also appears in the series as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft).
It oozes class – being well written, acted, produced and directed – and is edgy, multi-layered, challenging, atmospheric and (above all) clever.
In particular, the quick-fire bombardment of our senses with information, not least via the device of using text-like digital words exploding onto the screen, displaying the workings of Sherlock’s computer-like mind and flights of creative thinking, simultaneously draw in and intrigue the viewer.
Are we keeping up with him in terms of understanding what’s going on – and therefore somehow ahead of the rest of the cast and action … or should we remain vigilant, in case we are being duped and misled? Sherlock, and the producers and writers, keep us guessing.
Casting the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch as Conan Doyle’s detective was undoubtedly an inspired decision, for he excels at playing ‘deep’, difficult, intelligent characters who are mavericks or outsiders.
His mesmerizing portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in 2010’s Van Gough: Painted With Words was the first time I sat up and noticed him as an actor who had the potential to go far.
Having said that, as regards the phenomenon amongst the female population, which splits starkly into groups of ‘Cumberbitches’ (those who openly admit fawning fan-worship and going weak at the knees at his apparent aloofness and single-mindedness) and those who ‘just don’t get him’, broadly-speaking I belong to the latter.
Now having seen the entire third series, I am convinced that Sherlock has achieved a plateau of excellence from which world domination is secure until its makers, and its writers, grow tired of it and/or the what-has-now-become an ensemble cast cannot be persuaded to continue.
Both Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (Doctor Watson) have, by different routes, become major movies stars since they first took part. There is a danger that the tsunami of lucrative work offers they must be fielding will take them, possibly reluctantly, elsewhere at some point.
Nevertheless, casting remains one of Sherlock’s strengths.
Rupert Graves as Detective Inspector Lestrade, Andrew Scott as Moriarty, Una Stubbs as Holmes’ landlady Mrs Hudson, Cumberbatch’s own parents – Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton – as Sherlock’s parents, and Louise Brealey as lab assistant Molly Hooper who may or may not have a crush upon Holmes, are all quality actors and by now (Series 3) ‘part of the Sherlock furniture’.
Furthermore, in the His Last Vow episode, the guest appearance of Lars Mikklesen – the actor playing the leading and complicated politician character in the first series of the Danish drama The Killing – as the villain Charles Augustus Magnussen was another classic move.
I have now discovered the best way to approach watching Sherlock and pass it on here in case it may assist readers of the National Rust.
Few experiences in life are more enjoyable than watching superbly-made television programmes or films, a category for which Sherlock definitely qualifies.
However, there is no point in trying to follow its plot-lines. I say that because the writers and producers are hell bent on keeping their characters – and indeed the viewers – surprised, wrong-footed, impressed and guessing. I don’t doubt for a moment that the scripts are compiled in three or four drafts, each one then analysed at length and then deliberately made more complicated and confusing than the one before.
That is why I suggest that the punters, or even critics like me, should just strap themselves in and let each episode wash over them.
Don’t even bother to try and snatch the straw/clues floating upon the wind. Just ‘go with the flow’. That way you can better appreciate the occasional dazzling dialogue, the wry exchanges of humour, the jumps of understanding and flashes of enlightenment.
A key indicator of its high quality is that – contrary to what often happened with previous manifestations of Sherlock Holmes, in which the detective appears omnipotent, all others serving as mere cyphers – in Sherlock even the minor characters have their individual quirks, motivations and insights.
One last word on my suggestion that viewers do not attempt to follow the plots and why, with Sherlock, this approach need not hinder enjoyment of the series.
From start to finish, I didn’t understand anything of the set-up, plot or dialogue and afterwards emerged puzzled, dazed and confused. Which is why, when The Matrix 2 was later premiered and my son enquired whether I’d like to go and see it with him, I replied in the negative. There was no point, I added.
There’s a lesson to be had from my experience with The Matrix and a reason why, in contrast, I’d always go to watch a new series of Sherlock.
The fundamental problem with The Matrix was that the viewer never engaged with the characters and therefore the issue of what might happen to them was irrelevant. This reservation does not apply to Sherlock, whose characters are so well-developed and rounded that we do care about them.