The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 3
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film industry, which had been systematically dismantled over two decades, found that it had plenty of brands that were no longer valid, so projects like ‘Bulldog Drummond – The Movie’ were stillborn after many attempts to restart it, one of them by the company Red Bull.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’.