BBC Sherlock - Ignorance is bliss

I was ten when the Granada Sherlock Holmes series began in 1984 and I don’t recall being outraged or emotionally damaged when Holmes went over the falls (supposedly) at the end of The Final Problem. In this I find myself at the opposite pole to many younger fans of BBC Sherlock who seemed to go into a collective bout of hysteria at the conclusion of The Reichenbach Fall (if many blogs and Youtube videos are anything to go by).

The Granada "Fall"

Was my reaction (or lack of one) because I’d read the Canon and knew full well that Holmes returned? More than likely. One thing I never felt (and no this isn't me having a convenient memory) was that I had any right to criticise the series or the show’s creators beyond remarking on changes between the episodes and the original stories. That level of criticism was acceptable as Granada was promising to give us a canonical Holmes. Unlike the BBC it was not attempting to reinvent.

Granada's series was unusual in its attempts to be faithful - in stark contrast to the adaptations that had come before it. The films of Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone and Ronald Howard (during the 1930s, 40s and 50s respectively) had all messed with the Canon in some way so Granada’s faithful approach was refreshing and, at the same time, relatively devoid of surprises as the stories were out there in print.

The current BBC offering is both canonical and unfaithful. It, like so many other versions, has been made contemporary and the stories, whilst rooted in the canon, are different. It is, as its creators have freely admitted, following very much in the footsteps of the Rathbone Universal films.

This has the advantage that even someone one who knows the Canon can be surprised by the way the stories unfold. But the Canon still exerts a strong influence and certain fixed points cannot be messed with. One of these is that Sherlock Holmes survives his clash with Moriarty.

Therefore, anyone watching The Reichenbach Fall who had any familiarity with the Canon would have known full well that Sherlock would be alive. There was, let's be honest, almost zero chance that he would actually die in a program that was a smash hit. That doesn't mean the episode would not be emotional but only a person with no Canon knowledge could have been surprised when Sherlock turned out to be alive.

The BBC "Fall"
I read some blogs and watched some offerings on Youtube and was quite frankly staggered at the response to The Reichenbach Fall. Young people outraged that Sherlock was dead, the same people then outraged that he wasn't, the borderline hysterical tantrums – all only remotely reasonable if they were ignorant of the Canon. People presumably drawn from this same group have gone on to hurl insults at other fans and people connected to the show and set up blogs, Tumblrs etc. to rant about the emotional trauma they were put through etc, etc.

As downright bizarre and, in some cases, disturbing this all was to me;  a part of me was actually envious of their apparent Canon ignorance. The one downside of having had the entire Canon available from day one was that no adaptation has really held surprises for me. In some respects I longed to have an experience analogous to the Victorians who were drip-fed the original stories through The Strand and had no idea between the end 1893 and mid-1903 that Sherlock Holmes wasn't actually dead. The people watching the BBC show today without that Canon knowledge are getting, to an extent, an experience similar to the original Victorian readers of The Strand and this is something I cannot help but envy even though I don’t like some of the less savoury aspects that seem to come with it.

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.


  1. One thing I have always hoped for with these new shows (RDJ, 'Sherlock' 'Elementary') is that people would want to know more about 'where' Sherlock Holmes came from and discover the books.
    When I am done watching a movie or a show I usually start doing some research behind it. If it is based on a book, I will usually find a copy and see how they compare.
    If it is historical, I will usually try to see how 'historical' it turned out.
    It would be interesting to see if the sale of the original works on Holmes has gone up a great deal or just a little.
    It is rare that a movie or TV show is better than the book they are based on, but if you don't explore, you will never know.
    With the new TV show 'Sherlock', are they liking the the fact the Sherlock is well played as described in the books, or are they liking Mr. Cumberbatch and when he moves on, they will follow and leave Holmes behind. Or will more fans see Holmes and continue to follow him.
    We will see.
    Good post, thanks.

  2. According to Kristina Manente in the first Great Sherlock Holmes Debate, sales of the Canon increased a ridiculous amount in England after "Sherlock" series one (180%? I don't remember the figure she quoted). We also have the anecdotal evidence of Cumberbatch fans online stating they've read all the stories, sometimes more than once, to catch the Easter Eggs in their favorite program. You're right, John, to wonder whether they'll "come for Cumberbatch but stay for Doyle". If Cumberbatch and Freeman continue the show into their 50's, we could indeed have a large number of "Sherlock"-ites turn in to Sherlockians.

    Of course, movies and TV shows are not beholden to the Canon. Even Granada can diverge in small or great ways from the Canon. Sometimes this might have been to stretch out a story to fill up an hour; sometimes it's to recapture lightning in a bottle, like changing the August of "The Cardboard Box" to Christmas to duplicate the magic of Doyle's "The Blue Carbuncle". What we look for in cinematic treatments is whether they capture the essence of Holmes and Watson. It seems that Rathbone and Bruce did that for a couple of generations of movie, radio and television watchers. "Sherlock"-ites have created their own vibrant fandom. It is a Venn diagram of overlap and separation with Holmesians. I wonder if there are any studies from the Great Boom of the 70's where we can see how many "newbies" came to the hobby and how many stayed?