The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 3

Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts


That phenomenon was the rise of branding. As the entertainment medium expanded to include the internet, social networking, streaming and other new home formats, films and TV programmes sought to establish brands with an instant recognition factor from audiences. If someone came to a story with previous knowledge, they could start to enjoy it immediately. This wasn’t born of laziness but the need to locate loyalties quickly and efficiently in a world with more leisure-time and available choices. As the branding race heated up, games companies burned their fingers with films based on Cluedo and Battleships & Cruisers. If a film could be made called ‘J-Cloth – The Movie’ it would have been out by now.

Holmes was one of a handful of instantly recognisable world brands. Some countries, like France, barely bothered to court such acclaim (although they made repeated efforts with Asterix & Obelix) and went their own way. Britain, now bereft of a popular film industry, which had been systematically dismantled over two decades, found that it had plenty of brands that were no longer valid, so projects like ‘Bulldog Drummond – The Movie’ were stillborn after many attempts to restart it, one of them by the company Red Bull.

This meant that ‘Doctor Who’ was now ready to be relaunched, and this time – unlike the ill-fated relaunch attempt with Paul McGann – it worked because the time was right, the technology was available and the BBC had deep pockets. It was no longer necessary to rebuild Victorian London or shoot in Prague when you had your own post-production house. ‘Doctor Who’ succeeded because it took the best elements and playfully modernised them, which is why the ‘Superman’ brand keeps failing – DC are far too protective of their brand, and the lack of fun wearyingly shows. Supe should be fighting Mr Mxyzptlk and the Bizarros, not acting like a Christ figure.

Also, ‘Doctor Who’ had become an SF archetype hitting the full demographic age range, as Holmes is a classic crime archetype – you can really have only one or two of these at most. They tend to be a little bland, a little mainstream, a little safe. Guy Ritchie steered the Holmes movies into this broad populist area – as he should, because Holmes was always user-friendly – and his second film, ‘Game of Shadows’, curiously added a 1960s vibe as it romped around Europe like ‘The Assassination Bureau’, which was virtually a period movie spin-off of ‘The Avengers’. The films kept Holmes’s deductive reasoning intact while more controversially turning him into an action hero, but it didn’t hurt and was great fun – after all, Franco Zeffirelli turned Mel Gibson’s Hamlet into a two-fisted hero without damaging the reputation of the original.

The BBC’s work was virtually pre-cooked for them. They made the characters younger, and had a secret weapon; Stephen Moffat, whose Hollywood-style writing added tricks, twists and turns to every episode. And the modern setting allowed for even wilder plots – witness ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, which only lifts the characters, dispensing entirely with the original story.

By now, we’re as far away from Conan Doyle as we can get. To be honest, the series could have had an entirely different hero (or ‘brand’ – Sexton Blake, perhaps) but it added nice little in-jokes for those who had read the books, and could say it was driving new readership back to the originals – which is probably what it’s doing.

What one senses will happen next is that Holmes will fall dormant again after a few seasons, like Dracula or Tarzan, forced out by over-familiarity. And then it will be time for another archetype to receive the branding treatment. But universal character knowledge belongs to only a handful of names. Don’t hold your breath waiting for ‘Bill and Ben – The Movie’.

17 comments on “The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 3”

  1. Jo W says:

    What? No Bill and Ben the Movie? Oh, Flobberlob!

  2. Ralph Williams says:

    ‘J-Cloth – The Movie’ would be the worst film ever – even Battleships would wipe the floor with it.

  3. J. Folgard says:

    Loved that lengthy Holmes essay/retrospective, thanks admin! Your point about Superman is spot-on: there are still fun comics that feature him, but not the movies. In the end, when choosing to read or watch anything featuring Holmes & Watson (or any of their current avatars), I check out the creative team first, it helps. That’s the funny thing about brands in entertainment: they’re only as good as the individual or collective creative voices that animate them.

  4. pheeny says:

    Sherlock succeeded because it stayed true to the spirit of the original despite its contemporary setting, the movie was an appalling travesty because while it reproduced the temporal setting it made Holmes into a Victorian James Bond – which is fine but don’t pretend it has anything to do with Sherlock Holmes.
    Holmes who was “as fastidious as a cat” and affected a “primness of dress” racketing around with a three day stubble? I think not.

  5. pheeny says:

    Sherlock succeeded because it stayed true to the spirit of the original despite its contemporary setting, the movie was an appalling travesty because while it reproduced the temporal setting it made Holmes into a Victorian James Bond – which is fine but don’t pretend it has anything to do with Sherlock Holmes.
    Holmes who was “as fastidious as a cat” and affected a “primness of dress” racketing around with a three day stubble? I think not.

  6. Ralph Williams says:

    I really liked the BBC Radio adaptations starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams – firstly, because they managed to do every story, secondly, the excellent violin music and thirdly, they really did a good job in bringing out some of the later, more throwaway, Conan Doyle stories such as the Lions Mane.

    There was also a short story collection called Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, in which various authors mixed Holmes with Sci Fi, with various degrees of success, but fun to read.

  7. Janet Wilson says:

    Have been thinking about men, women, and writing- the only female archetypes I can think of are Moll Flanders and Miss Marple. I have a theory- feel free to shoot me down- that fiction writing is a sort of display activity; men do it to show off their intelligence, wit, grasp of The World, earning ability even, if successful, andcan, if they wish, signal to other men that they know how to handle violence, extreme behaviour, and big personalities. Call it the Hemingway theory. Women need to show, mainly, that they understand complex relationships and social interactions. Call it the Austen theory. Both approaches can be used in genre fiction, which is why there are a lot of female crime writers. Ta-dah!

  8. Janet Wilson says:

    P.S. apropos nowt but yr home base Mr Fowler, have you been to the Palais de Danse, and aren’t you in love with Brandyn Shaw? If not, please don’t say anything unkind to shatter my illusions!

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Has Tarzan vanished more permanently? Racism is a lot more built in with him than with other old heroes.
    Sexton Blake may have been a little colourless himself, but his villains made up for that. One of them, Zenith, spoke my favourite line of villain dialogue – “I would treat you as you deserve, but the blood would get on my cuffs” – to another villain. He would have been far more courteous to the hero himself.

  10. Janet Wilson says:

    Great villain line! Friend of mine used to have pre WW2 book illustration, (possibly Sexton Blake?), where the caption threat to the bound and gagged hero was simply, ‘I’m going to drive you to Exeter’!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t know why I couldn’t really enjoy Sherlock, but perhaps it was lifting it all into the present and I wasn’t ready for that. I agree about the “fastidiousness” of Holmes, which was mentioned several times in the stories. I don’t think Conan Doyle worried about whether the science would work or not because he was writing “fluff” fiction or whatever they called it then so no one was likely to call him on it.
    Superman can’t be played around with because he *is* a Christ figure. He’s prim, prudish, and boring as well and I don’t think there’s a humorous bone in his body.

  12. Terenzio says:

    Actually at its core A Scandal in Belgravia is close to A Scandal in Bohemia. In both you have a strong seductive woman who possesses a compromising photography of a royal. Now whether this royal is British or Bohemian is of no importance. What is important is the photograph could weaken a monarchy thus the photograph needs to be found and destroyed. Instead of being behind a secret panel in the Drawing Room in the one, it is stored in a smartphone in the other. In addition A Scandal in Belgravia utilizes Holmes’ methods found in the stories written by Conan Doyle. It is really quite clever updating the story while keeping the essence of the Conan Doyle story. Even A Study in Pink based on A Study in Scarlet, which at first glance might appear to have no relation to the story it is based on, is very much in keeping with the original story. First off, A Study in Pink and A Study in Scarlet share the same main theme: a dying man anguishing over the loss of his wife seeking revenge. Next, the murderer uses a taxi to travel around London in both A Study in Pink and A Study in Scarlet; in addition to, the use of poison to dispatch the victims. Lastly, the murder investigation including the clues is pretty much the same in A Study in Pink and A Study in Scarlet. Perhaps the biggest change is the events in the US and the Mormon angle, are cut from the modern interpretation. However, this is no way does this alteration ruin or detracts in any way from the mystery. You still have Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime in modern day London using the detection methods Conan Doyle gave to Holmes that bears the hallmarks of the crime committed in 19th century London in the written adventure.

    Sherlock, the British television series came about at the right time. With the success of the Dr. Who Gatiss and Moffat would able to successfully pitch their idea for a modern Sherlock Holmes. The invasion of Afghanistan by Britain and other NATO members in 2001 could be incorporated into the storyline. Like Dr. Watson from the 19th century who had just come back from the Second Anglo–Afghan War, the 21st century Dr. Watson has just come back from the latest war in Afghanistan. Instead of publishing Holmes’ adventures in The Strand magazine Dr. Watson blogs about the adventures, but in the end the same thing just different technology. It is possible that without these events Sherlock might not have ever got off the ground.

    As far as easily substituting or using another detective such as Sexton Blake in the series. Well – I’m not sure about this. Sherlock Holmes is unique in that he is the only fictional detective with such a large global following. What other detective has active fan based societies not only in the UK and US, but in other countries as well. And if you think about it Sexton Blake is a pale imitation of Sherlock Holmes, so why use the 2nd best when the original is readily available.

    Now Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films do bear only a passing resemblance to the stories written by Conan Doyle. Sure the films are great fun, but they are basically video games with very little detective work. Here you do have characters from Conan Doyle’s stories simply dropped into a steampunk version of Victorian London.

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers. I’m off to the cafe for a coffee and perhaps something sweet to give my sustenance until dinner.

  13. Terenzio says:

    And yes, this was an excellent topic of conversation. It is always fun to discuss the Consulting Detective of 221b Baker Street.

  14. Janet Wilson says:

    Steampunk- now there’s a rich theme to be discussed! And I’ve just thought of another female Who won’t stop popping out of a black hole: ‘that prime heroine of our nation, Alice’. Anyone care to carry on with the R. Graves poem? She inspired me to doggerel once. ‘If Alice pass/The looking glass/Illusion should be shatter;/For backward time/In forward rhyme/Just doesn’t anti-matter…’

  15. snowy says:

    “Climbing courageously in through the Palace.”

    She pops up in some delightfully odd places, including ‘Alice in Quantumland’, by Robert Gilmore.

  16. Tanya says:

    I did enjoy the new Sherlock even though at first I thought it might be a boring charmless mess. Instead I found myself liking the quirky hot Benedict Cumberbatch and the recognition of old plot lines modernised.

  17. Alan G says:

    My two favourite Sherlock stories appear with him as a slightly ridiculous minor character.

    In George McDonald Fraser’s “Flashman and The Tiger” and in the comic series “Honour among Punks” (not sure got that right) the protagonists each have Holmes apply his lengthy deductive techniques upon them. In both cases S. gets everything entirely wrong.

    Hmm – might have to dig those out now…

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