The Great Holmes Debate - My initial thoughts

Warner Bros. Sherlock Vs BBC Sherlock

Ever since the BBC’s Sherlock series began in 2010 there has been a debate concerning whether it or the Warner Bros film of 2009 is the better adaptation.

The problem is that there are really two debates. The first is to determine which of the two is more faithful to the source material. The second is to determine which has done the most to raise the profile of Holmes and gain new fans.

For the rest of this document the BBC series will be referred to as (BBCS) and the Warner Bros film will be referred to as (WBS).

Debate One – Fidelity.

Neither offering scores 100% when it comes to being faithful to the source material. BBCS does the best however as its principal failing is only that it is set in the incorrect time period. The creators have justified this on the grounds that Conan Doyle wrote Holmes as a contemporary character and that they are, in effect, doing the same.

It’s very easy for those of us reading the stories today to forget that Holmes was not a historical detective to the people that read his adventures when they were first published. However as time went on Holmes did become increasingly a prisoner of the nineteenth century.

When Conan Doyle penned his first adventure A Study in Scarlet in 1886 (published in 1887) Holmes was operating in the same Victorian period as those who read the story. When Conan Doyle wrote his last Holmes adventure Shoscombe Old Place (published in 1927) Holmes was still the Victorian (perhaps just about Edwardian) detective even though the reigning monarch of the day was King George V (Victoria’s grandson). In other words Holmes had made the transition from contemporary to semi-historical and was now operating in a world that was some two decades in the past. Although this was no doubt largely influenced by the character’s age (known to be sixty in 1914) it does suggest that Conan Doyle saw the Victorian era as Holmes’s natural place. This is born out by his opinion of the Eilee Norwood silent Holmes films which he thought were fine aside from the fact that they were set in the 1920s. Looked at in this way the argument for moving Holmes to the present day is a little weakened. See here for further details.

WBS scores highly by keeping Holmes in his correct historical setting but elsewhere its record is not so good. Their Holmes is not the Holmes of the books. He is, if anything, a diluted Holmes (or Holmes Lite). Where Conan Doyle gave us a Holmes who epitomised the Victorian gentleman and who was brain first, brawn second. WBS has given us a Holmes who demonstrates considerably less brain work and is more of a brawler with personal hygiene issues. The WBS film also seems to confuse eccentricity with madness. The Holmes of this film shares the occasional appearance of being present in body but not in mind with the character of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Watson in both BBCS and WBS is faithfully depicted. Conan Doyle gave us an intelligent and brave former army doctor and this is what we are given by both adaptations. It is rather pleasing to see Watson so well depicted after so many poor screen outings (such as Nigel Bruce). Perhaps WBS felt that if Watson could not be the comic relief then Holmes had to step in instead.

Inspector Lestrade is also well served by both adaptations. In the books he is very much depicted as a man lacking in reasoning ability but gifted with energy. In both WBS and BBCS this is the kind of man we are presented with.

So, as said above, from a fidelity standpoint, I feel that BBCS scores over WBS in almost every area except that of chronological setting where it loses and the depictions of Watson and Lestrade where they tie.

Debate Two – New fans and profile

Both WBS and BBCS have raised the profile of Holmes and have unquestionably increased his fan base. However these are screen fans rather than book fans. It is debatable how many of these new fans will go on to embrace the original Holmes.

Of course a proportion almost certainly will. I personally discovered Holmes and became a fan through the films of Basil Rathbone so the transition from a less than faithful screen Holmes to the original literary Holmes is clearly possible. Large numbers, however, are destined to remain fans only of the adaptations themselves.

Many fans of WBS who pick up the books are almost certainly going to be disappointed at the lack of love interest, the relative lack of fights and the almost total absence of explosions that the film leads you to believe form most of Holmes’s day-to-day existence.

Similarly, many fans of BBCS are going to be shocked that the stories have leapt back a century and that the text messages and cars have been replaced with telegrams and hansom cabs. BBC Books are not helping in this regard. They are in the process of re-releasing the original Holmes adventures. The problem is that the covers feature the modern Holmes and Watson and will create the impression for some that the stories are also modern. Some people will not react well to the Victorian Holmes they are faced with in the pages that follow the 21st Century Holmes on the cover. I strongly suspect that a sizeable majority will elect to stick with the version they enjoy and Conan Doyle’s original works will remain unexplored.

Both adaptations can, in my opinion, be regarded as successes even if they only bring a handful of new people to the books who then learn to love the written Holmes as much as the screen Holmes.

So the adaptation, in my opinion, which does the most for Holmes's profile is BBCS but the race is a close one and not the forgone conclusion that many might have expected.

British Library launch event for "The Narrative of John Smith"

I was very pleased to be invited to the British Library launch event for Conan Doyle's 'lost' first novel. This was held yesterday evening in the library's bookshop.

Jean Upton and Roger Johnson

Catherine Cooke with a member of the British Library's publishing team

Many notable names were in attendance. Roger Johnson, Jean Upton, Catherine Cooke and David Jones of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Richard Doyle and his sister Catherine were also present. Representing The Undershaw Preservation Trust were John Gibson, Lynn Gale and Sue Meadows.

John Gibson, Robert Lindsay, Sue Meadows and Lynn Gale

The final two names of major note were Conan Doyle biographer Andrew Lycett and actor Robert Lindsay who narrated the audio book edition.

Richard Doyle making his speech of thanks

Everyone gathered around a speaker to hear a recording of Conan Doyle. We were all surprised and amused when the recording developed a stutter

The Book

My copy signed by Richard Doyle

I shall add more pictures as I receive them from others. Hopefully some will feature my good self.

Update - further pictures courtesy of Roger Johnson and Lynn Gale.

David Jones, John Gibson and your humble blog author

Humble self, Jean Upton and Catherine Cooke

Me and Robert Lindsay

Me and Richard Doyle

An Entirely New Country - Updated Amazon UK listing

The Amazon UK listing for my new book now carries a quote from Mark Gatiss.

Check it out here

For some reason the entry for the book still only allows you to sign up for notification. I hope that people will be able to place orders there prior to release but who knows.

The final straight

Well I am now waiting for the proof copy of An Entirely New Country. I very much hope it will be with me in the next few days.

Announcement - Mr Mark Gatiss

I am delighted to be able to announce that Mr Mark Gatiss (co-creator of the BBC's Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in said series) has kindly written the foreword for my new book An Entirely New Country.

I am incredibly grateful for this and for his extremely kind comments about the book itself.

Pre-order links


I have been informed that my guest foreword should be with me in a matter of days. This is very exciting news as it is the last piece of the puzzle (so to speak).

All legal permissions have been sorted out so this really is the last thing between me and the presses.

Haslemere Festival 2012 - Latest

As far as I know I shall still be giving a small introductory talk at Haslemere Hall in May/June 2012 as part of the Haslemere Festival. Unless there are changes, this talk will be delivered before a screening of the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I have, this morning, penned the outline of my talk and it is shaping up to educational and hopefully entertaining.

I shall, assuming all proceeds as planned, see if my introduction can be recorded for use as a podcast.

More about the venue can be read here.

I shall make time at the end of the event to speak to people and also sign any books that people have bought in advance of the event. Books will not be on sale at the event itself unless there is demand for it. If you wish to buy books at the event itself you need to let the organisers know.

Dusting off old notes

During the course of writing my latest tome I made two trips to the British Library in order to look at Conan Doyle's letters, diaries and other items. My notes were hastily scribbled into a dedicated (no expense spared) notebook which I am now dusting off as I go through the manuscript for what should be the last time.

My reason? Well I want to add a few little tit-bits that I was in two minds about before. These are really little more than the odd word here and there but they will, I hope, bring a little extra clarity to the places where they appear.

After that dear reader there is precious little standing between you and the book which is still on course to be released on December 5th.

Now how many complimentary copies have I promised? Where is that spreadsheet?

Undershaw - an old perspective

Here is a link to an article re Undershaw from October 2007 that appeared in the Telegraph. Despite its factual errors it provides us with some idea of how the house was viewed four years ago.

The point of no return approaches

The finish line is in sight. The book has been written, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, tweaked and proof-read. A few Is to dot and Ts to cross and it's all done.

An honour

I have been invited to attend the launch at the British Library of Conan Doyle's first novel The Narrative of John Smith. It's an honour and something I'm looking forward to.

My best Sherlockian items thus far of 2011

I know it is only September but I feel compelled to put together a list of the best Sherlockian/Doylean things I have read so far this year. The list includes books and blogs and is not in order of preference.

Barefoot on Baker Street

A fascinating look at the life of Red as she works her way up from humble beginnings in the workhouse to the pinnacle of crime meeting Moriarty, Holmes, Watson and others en route.

The Dark Detective (Issues 1 - 5)

The superb illustrations of Phil Cornell combined with a good storyline make this a comic series to treasure.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Cinema

A comprehensive (if slightly out-of-date) look at the attempts to bring Conan Doyle's works to the silver screen.

The Outstanding Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes

An above-average set of Holmes pastiche featuring a couple of really novel plots.

William Gillette: America's Sherlock Holmes

The first and only(?) biography of William Gillette who brought Holmes to the stage in the UK in 1901.

A top class blog on all things Sherlockian.