“To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.” (Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891)
There’s a whole lot of nakedness in episode one of this new series. Which is surprising seeing as its central character is a cold, calculating machine for whom passion usually means cracking juicy cases.
But there’s no getting away from it – that’s definitely Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes at Buckingham Palace with a mere bedsheet to protect his modesty. To the delight of the raucous fans at the BFI preview screening on London’s South Bank, the linen doesn’t stay in place for long.
And then there’s Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) strutting about starkers and getting John Watson (Martin Freeman), as well as high-society females, all a-fluster. Conan Doyle’s adventuress has become a dominatrix for this latest reworking and she certainly makes a big impression. But don’t go thinking that this is a mere sexing-up of Sherlock.
“Well, she’s gay and he’s only interested in brainwork,” says co-creator Mark Gatiss at the Q&A that follows the screening. “And yet something happens. But it doesn’t have to be something as mundane as a love story. It’s far more interesting than that.”
Cracking the shell
What’s undeniable is that Cumberbatch is considered, not least by the effusive audience members, to be the most dashing screen Holmes of all time. A Twitter society named the Cumberbitches exists solely to worship the actor, who they call a “high cheek-boned, blue-eyed sexbomb”. It currently has over 5,000 followers.
So how has the Sherlock team capitalised on the allure of their star? Well, by putting a 21st-century spin on the one Conan Doyle story that attempts to make a dent in Holmes’s armour of hard logic. Enter Irene Adler, the only woman that the great detective elevates above the rest of her sex, mainly because her brilliance is more than a match for his.
Says Pulver of her character: “I think she’s a very flawed, damaged, fearful woman. And she has this wonderful mask that’s solid and then she meets this man and they see each other. It’s like looking in a mirror.”
“It’s two appallingly damaged creatures seeing each other across a room and thinking, ‘wow, there’s another of me’”, says writer Steven Moffat, who’s crafted a typically tricksy, labyrinthine plot with which to begin this new run of three adventures.
Like theatregoers who watch The Mousetrap, audience members at the BFI were sworn to secrecy over some of the more crowd-pleasing surprises (well come on, it’s not long until you all get the chance to see it yourselves), but for those wanting hints, there’s international terrorism, more from Moriarty plus – and here’s where things get nasty – some horrible CIA agents terrorising poor Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs).
And if there’s one thing that’s going to raise Holmes’s ire, it’s the mistreatment of his landlady: “She is like a sort of mother figure,” comments Cumberbatch. “I like the idea that there’s a vulnerability to Sherlock. Some kind of Achilles’ heel. It makes it fun to play with.”
The Hound, Reichenbach and Downey Jr
The success of series one has certainly imbued Sherlock’s creative team with confidence. If the debut of Irene Adler weren’t enough, we also have a Baskerville hound to look forward to in the second instalment plus a finale that offers a modern-day take on Holmes’s fateful confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls with his most notable adversary.
“It’s all about the huge, grand battle between Sherlock and Jim Moriarty,” teases Moffat. It’s obvious that he relishes the opportunity of reworking the slueth’s greatest moments, those Conan Doyle touchstones that have lingered longest in the memory.
“Why wait? Let’s get on with it now. To hell with deferred pleasure – let’s have more sooner nower.”
And it’s notably a time of instant gratification for Sherlockians. Not only do have this BBC version, but also Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, a big-screen sequel to his 2009 blockbuster. Is there a rivalry between the makers of these two interpretations?
“I actually really liked it,” says Moffat of Robert Downey Jr’s first outing. “I adored it. I had tremendous fun and it was much more like Sherlock Holmes than I thought it was going to be. We always talk about the film, but they never talk about us. So we are, officially, the ones who are not afraid.”
Judging by the confidence of those behind the camera and the exuberance of the finished product, you really have to fear for the chances of Ritchie and co if it came to a dust-up in a pea-souper. The game, as Sherlock himself would say, is very much back on.
The new series of Sherlock begins Sunday 1 January 2012, 8:10pm, BBC1. Watch a clip