It’s hard to get past The Wire when comparing TV crime dramas in Britain and the States. The Baltimore based HBO series broadcast for the last time in 2008 and is commonly cited as the best TV crime drama ever made. This is due in part to the brilliant cast, and not least to the rakish charm of Irish American cop Jim McNulty, played by British actor Dominic West. Hard drinking, arrogant and disdainful of authority, still he always gets his man – and his women.
Yet this iconic American character follows in the great British tradition of maverick detectives, out of synch with the system they represent, out of touch with themselves. Psychologically damaged sleuths, on the edge, working to their own rules – as epitomised by Victorian master detective Sherlock Holmes, loner, habitual smoker and occasional drugs user (both morphine and cocaine were legal in C19 England). Created by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has inspired a record breaking number of films and TV series and is cited in The Guinness Book of Records as the movie character most portrayed on the silver screen – 75 actors have played the part in over 200 films.
A television staple, many argue that the TV adaptation most faithful to the original stories was ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ produced by British based Granada TV between 1984 and 1994, with Jeremy Brett in the title role. Brett WAS Sherlock Holmes to many British viewers growing up in Thatcher’s Britain – me included, and his chilly English arrogance echoed that of Basil Rathbone, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the classic English films of the late 1930s.
With a very different approach to this seminal character, the 2010 BBC series ’ Sherlock’ brought the great detective into the 21st Century. Co-written by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, renowned writers of British TV’s time traveller ‘Doctor Who’, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes, and his loyal sidekick is portrayed by Martin Freeman - formerly of British TV series ‘The Office’. Described on the Beeb website as ‘thrilling, funny and fast-paced’, the programme is a quirky, boy’s own adventure story neatly transported to contemporary London, and the two main characters are brilliantly cast. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is loveable though impatient, and he clearly feels affection for Watson, albeit disguised beneath the shrewd analytical mind of this socially inept detective.
The ever present gloom of Victorian Britain has been replaced with a bright and witty take on the classic stories, and minus his pipe Holmes now wears nicotine patches, mindful of Britain’s new preoccupation with fresh air, and carries a mobile phone. Thus with access to SATNAV – to show him the way - and with the bleep and blip of a mobile keyboard as the soundtrack to his systematic and methodical unveiling of the truth, Holmes wins the day – any century, any day. The lurking menace of the original storylines may be missing, but Moriarty, Holmes’ arch nemesis, is definitely still in for the kill, and a second series has been commissioned by the BBC for Autumn 2011.
Eileen O'Sullivan recommends these DVDs from Amazon US and Amazon UK - she watched Sherlock Holmes, the acclaimed 1970s series on British TV.