Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name…” – Dr John H Watson MD, A Scandal in Bohemia

SherlockIrene

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are only two adversaries who, despite only appearing in one short story each, loom larger than any others. Steven Moffat’s surprise hit modernisation of Holmes dealt with the first, and most obvious of them last year – James Moriarty, reinvented from a professor of mathematics with a dilettante interest in crime to a fully fledged ‘consulting criminal’, the logical opposite of Holmes himself. The other we finally caught up with this week, in the first, hotly anticipated episode after a long eighteen month break.

Irene Adler looms very large in the Holmes mythos, despite appearing in only one story – A Scandal in Bohemia, from which this episode drew its title and the first half of its plot. She’s far from the only female villain Holmes encounters, but she holds a unique position, unrivalled even by Moriarty, of being the only one of his foes to have actually beaten him. Holmes fans ascribe all sorts of interpretations to her relationship with the generally ascetic, asexual hero – the most common being that there was the merest frisson of a potential romance between them. Which makes sense – Sherlock may be distinctly lacking in carnal lusts, but what does turn him on is an intelligence equal to his own. Steven Moffat’s clever script for this first episode draws on all of that, cleverly playing with the expectations of Holmes aficionados while still telling a story that is perfectly accessible to those without encyclopaedic knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle’s back catalogue.

First though, he had to get our two heroes out of the cliffhanger ending he’d left them in all those months ago. I must say that, in the event, this seemed something of an anticlimax. If you recall, Holmes and Watson had been lured to a deserted swimming pool by Moriarty, at last revealed, who had hidden snipers trained on them while Sherlock decided that the best way out was to kill them all by shooting at, and detonating, the bomb which had until then been strapped round Watson. Got that?

Flashing forward to the now, we saw our heroes saved by a last minute phone call to Moriarty, heralded by his improbable ringtone of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin Alive’. For reasons that at first seemed unclear, this made him change his mind about killing Sherlock and John. This seemed like a copout, but as ever, the ending of the story made me reappraise this – when we saw the other end of the phone call, with a woman’s red painted nails ending the call, it was clear that this was Irene. And Moriarty’s change of heart, in light of what came later, actually made perfect sense.

Andrew Scott was as much fun as last series as Moriarty, playfully camp and humorous – the ‘awkward’ interplay of him excusing himself to answer the phone with Sherlock was hysterically funny. But as last year, he showed how he could change on a sixpence to being genuinely terrifying, as he capriciously switched to rage with his unknown caller. Moriarty’s role as puppetmaster meant that he was ‘present’ throughout, despite barely appearing onscreen, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of him for this year.

But on to Irene Adler. Given her reputation, it’s a demanding role; she has to be fiercely intelligent, calculating, and yet with a hidden depth of romance that she may not even be admitting to herself. Step up then, Lara Pulver, last seen battling enemy agents with her immaculately coiffured hair in the final series of Spooks. Given a very well-written role in Steven Moffat’s script, she seemed well up to the challenge. This new, modern Irene tempted her subjects to compromising, blackmail-prone photos as a high class dominatrix, simply known as ‘The Woman’, and there were less than subtle hints that she genuinely enjoyed her work.

This seemed like strong stuff for a pre-watershed show, and in fact I found myself wondering whether the 8.10 broadcast had originally been envisioned to go out after 9pm. But I think the show sailed just the right side of the line; any younger viewers watching a show like this can’t be entirely unaware of, ahem, ‘unusual’ sexual peccadilloes.

Which is just as well, as the new, modern Irene first presented herself to Holmes and Watson completely naked (albeit discreetly shot so no naughty bits were seen). Lara Pulver made her every bit as charming, glamorous and confident as she should have been, and her byplay with Holmes throughout was a joy.

Good as he had been last time, this was a new level of challenge for Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and he rose to it admirably. It’s not difficult for an actor playing Holmes to convey icy intellectual aloofness; it’s far harder to deal with the implied feelings for Irene, feelings he too can’t really admit to himself. Cumberbatch added another layer to his performance here, not just in his deeply repressed feelings for Irene, but also his very real attachment to his friends. As we saw, when Mrs Hudson (the sublime Una Stubbs) was threatened by heavies, he got pretty angry – angry enough to throw the offending heavy out of the window. Several times. With hilarious consequences.

Not to say that the humour of the last series was absent in its portrayal of Sherlock though. Cumberbatch continues to make a good team with Martin Freeman as John Watson, and they have excellent comic timing. And the running gag of them being more than friends was still in evidence, as John’s latest disposable girlfriend told him he really was a great boyfriend – to Sherlock anyway. By the time Irene herself was dropping hints, he was exasperated enough to exclaim, “if there’s anyone out there who still cares, I am not gay!”

The plot was a typically labyrinthine Moffat puzzle, the first half faithfully adapting the original Scandal in Bohemia in a tale of Irene having hired Moriarty to help her in a twisty turny endeavour of blackmailing the British government over a shady intelligence plan. Complex it was, but as the pieces fell into place, it was clear that it hung together rather better than Moffat’s similarly convoluted plot for last year’s Doctor Who.

Along the way, the script was littered with Moffat’s trademark quickfire comic dialogue, delivered with precision by all concerned. Series co-creator Mark Gatiss popped up again as Sherlock’s shady spook brother Mycroft, and again, their interplay was both comic and revealing as the script dropped subtle hints about how bizarre it must have been growing up in the Holmes household. Sherlock, for his part, was again a semi-autistic ‘high functioning sociopath’, as he failed to recognise coroner Molly’s affection for him, embarrassing her in front of the guests at his Christmas gathering, and turned up, unconcerned and unclothed, for a consultation at Buckingham Palace (on a side note, I’d never realised what a nice body Benedict Cumberbatch has…)

While not alienating non-Holmes aficionados, the script was still littered with sly references to classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories and Holmes tropes in general, and I’m sure I didn’t pick them all up in one viewing. John’s blog continues to be the modern equivalent of his published accounts in the original stories, and there was much fun to be had with the titles he gave to the parade of cases they saw before they became entangled with Irene. Hence, a case involving comic book nerds became ‘the Geek Interpreter’ (referencing the Doyle story The Greek Interpreter), a mysterious dead woman became ‘The Speckled Blonde’ (The Speckled Band), and in perhaps the most side-splittingly contrived example, a strange belly button related case became ‘The Navel Treatment’ (The Naval Treaty).

Elsewhere, as John’s blog spread Sherlock’s fame, he was forced to disguise himself from the press by grabbing a handy nearby hat – a deerstalker, of course. I also liked the sly reference to John’s increasingly long list of disposable girlfriends – a nod, presumably, to Doyle’s inconsistent, cavalier treatment of Watson’s love life, in which girlfriends and even a wife were casually forgotten and not mentioned again.

Of course, the question for Holmes fans was whether Moffat would want to redress the balance by having Sherlock beat Irene this time. After it became clear that the original Scandal in Bohemia story had been dealt with about halfway in, the script cleverly played with our expectations here as first one, then the other seemed to gain the upper hand, in the game they played that obviously delighted them both. Right up to the very end, I thought that the script had let Irene win after all – then Sherlock pulled out his last ace, having scientifically deduced that she really did have feelings for him in order to finally work out the lock code for the cameraphone that was this modern version’s interpretation of the original’s photographs.

I’m forced to admit, that final solution did seem a little forced; I’ve never seen a phone that declares “I’M ____ LOCKED”, which was the only way to add the final touch of the code being “SHER” – still, I’m no smartphone expert, so maybe there is one. On a less technical side, it was a little obvious after the first try that Sherlock would have several goes at working out the code, and be successful on his last chance; but that didn’t really detract from the satisfaction of seeing it happen.

The totally hip, up to date stuff  – like smartphones – was as inventive as ever, with clever visual representations of text messages, blog writing, and Sherlock’s effortless ‘decoding’ of Irene’s mysterious email. It’s been a consistently appealing trademark of this modernisation that it paints Sherlock as being a man who – like the original – makes use of every cutting edge resource available to him. I suppose the one worry is that in being so up to the minute culturally, it might not age well. Still, that’s a pretty small niggle.

As the story came to a close, the script again played games with our expectations of whether this most worthy of Sherlock’s adversaries might survive to come back another day. She gets away with it in Doyle’s original story, but despite occasional references is never seen again. Here, we were (perhaps) hoodwinked by Mycroft’s revelation to John that she’d been beheaded by vengeance-hungry terrorists, only to have the rug pulled out from us again by a flashback revealing that Sherlock himself had been her sabre-wielding saviour in that scenario.

At least one person I know felt that that stretched credibility too far, with Holmes becoming almost a comic book superhero figure; but it worked for me in the same way as Robert Downey’s more atypically physical portrayal in Guy Ritchie’s recent movies. Doyle’s stories make clear that, as well as being an ascetic genius, Holmes is one double-hard bastard – we just never see it, only hearing about it secondhand from Holmes himself (of course, he might be bullshitting). Still, this reader has always been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt…

All told, this was a great opener that shows the series has lost none of the verve and appeal that made it a hit last time round. The cast are as great as ever, with Cumberbatch playing a role he could have been born for, and Martin Freeman making the best use I’ve ever seen of his established ‘decent normal bloke’ persona. Lara Pulver was a welcome addition as a modernised but totally faithful Irene Adler, and the script and direction continue to sparkle in a way that, for me, works better than Moffat’s recent Doctor Whos – if anything, this works better as a ‘family show’ than Doctor Who’s current ‘children’s show’ approach. Next week, it’s Russell Tovey and Russell Tovey-lookalike Stephen Wight in a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Can’t wait!

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 4

“As punishment for recent actions of the British government, Trafalgar Square will be attacked at 6pm… And MI5 will let it happen.”

SpooksErin

Looks like I was indeed a little wide of the mark last week when I theorised that Dimitri was being shaped up into the central figure of Spooks this year. It turns out that the writers are going for more of an ensemble approach; last week was “the Dimitri episode”, and this week’s, it soon became clear, was “the Erin episode”. Much emphasis on Erin in the “previously on…” bit was then followed by a sinister man in a car spying on her leaving home and promising that “the woman will be taken care of”, as if to hammer the Erin-centric nature of the story home.

It’s an interesting way to approach the storytelling, in that it’s focussing primarily on the characters. This may explain, why, yet again, the central character this week was allowed to develop by means of a plot that is very familiar ground to Spooks fans. Erin was thrust into the foreground of that old Spooks stalwart, the “thwart Muslim extremists” plot, as an imprisoned Abu Hamza-like cleric groomed the soon to be released inmates at his prison into jihadi suicide bombers.

This caused much tokenistic soul-searching as characters turned into political mouthpieces for the writers. Meeting with the Home Secretary, Harry expressed concern at a violent cult leader being locked in an environment full of vulnerable, impressionistic young men; basically, his own ripe recruiting ground. The Home Secretary countered by outlining the alternative of allowing him out and inflaming all the country’s right wingers. Some relief from this rather simplistic pontificating was offered by the Home Secretary’s weary admission that it was a no-win scenario: “I get rather a lot of those.” Simon Russell Beale’s world-weary delivery was pitch-perfect, and almost made you feel some sympathy for career politicians. Only almost, though, the writing’s not that good.

Back at the Grid, Dimitri and Calum engaged in a similar discussion, culminating in an uncharacteristically liberal outburst from Calum: “3% of the country is Muslim, but they make up 11% of the prison population. Maybe we should start with that.” It’s a tricky line that shows like Spooks and 24 have to walk when presenting Islamic extremists as their villains, and it’s become de rigueur for the writers to add a bit of debate to display that they’re not trying to characterise all Muslims like this, while not ignoring that some of them are. This tends to lead to some very out of character mealy-mouthed platitudes in the dialogue. While I recognise the perceived necessity for it, this often comes across as ham fisted, and Spooks was no exception this week, though thankfully it didn’t descend into the near-offensive cultural stereotyping that became a hallmark of 24.

But thankfully, we didn’t have to linger long on the cultural philosophy. This is Spooks, not Newsnight, and there had to be enough time left in the episode for the requisite running around, peering at CCTV footage and shooting guns. Thus it was that we discovered one of the two potential jihadis being released from Eastland Prison was actually one of Erin’s assets, supplying her with information from inside the prison in exchange for a promise that his daughter would be allowed to move to the UK from their home in Pakistan.

The script didn’t linger on the statement that this man, Ashur Mohali, was a university lecturer in Pakistan who’d been arrested for illegal menial work in the UK; that was one of the political points better handled, left hanging there for you to make your own judgement. Slightly less well-handled was his impassioned plea to his fellow jihadi, a former BNP member turned Muslim convert, that what they were doing was wrong according to so many tenets of the Qu’ran. All true enough, but again it felt like the point was being hammered home.

Unfortunately for Ashur, his handler Rashaida (the impressively sinister Chu Omambala, who we’d seen spying on Erin earlier) wasn’t the trusting type, and he’d kidnapped Ashur’s daughter in order to ensure that Ashur would go through with the plan. This led to much hand-wringing from Erin, who’s obviously still ridden with guilt about having screwed over another of her assets a couple of weeks ago. Lara Pulver is rather better at portraying inner doubt and guilt than Max Brown, so we actually felt for her as she begged Harry to petition the Home Secretary for help: “Just once, I’d like to fulfil the promises we make to those who are risking their lives for us.”

This showed that The Harsh Realities of the Job still aren’t fully clear to her. For Erin , one of those Harsh Realities is being really, really unlucky, as not only was she in the process of ruining yet another life, the job came perilously close to home when Rashaida kidnapped her daughter too. Double daughter jeopardy! It wasn’t made clear exactly how Rashaida managed to get his hands on her; I suppose it’s possible that he killed Erin’s mum to get her out of the way, as we didn’t see her again. I’d like to think that the writers wouldn’t be so cruel, as Erin’s already having enough bad luck to make her envy Job. But this is Spooks, and nobody gets a happy ending here, so who knows?

Much peering into CCTV monitors and running around council estates throwing guns hither and yon for the local kids to pick up ensued, as Dimitri was again relegated to thumping people and shooting. It all culminated in an admittedly tense standoff in Trafalgar Square (the location being announced by hyperdramatic music accompanying shots of Nelson’s Column and stone lions), as Erin begged Harry to wait for Dimitri to rescue her daughter before shooting down poor old Ashur to stop him detonating a big strap on bomb. Dimitri, of course, got there in the nick of time. Ashur was duly dispatched, and Erin’s conscience got some salving from hearing that Ashur’s daughter, rescued by MI6, was on the next plane over. Mind you, with Erin’s luck, she’ll probably be the one who has to explain to the girl about where her father is.

As mentioned, Lara Pulver conveys emotion rather better than Max Brown, so her tearful near-resignation after all of this was perfectly believable – even if her immaculate hair remained unruffled throughout. Erin’s a bit of a daft character, of course; an impossibly glamourous single mum who saves the country on a weekly basis and still has perfect hair, she certainly outdoes the responsibility juggling of Sarah Jessica Parker in the execrably titled I Don’t Know How She Does It. But Lara Pulver’s been likeable enough to make you overlook the absurdity, and it seems rather a shame that, this being the last series, we won’t see very much of her. She’ll never be in the same formidable league as the much-missed Ros Myers, but she seems to be shaping up into an interesting character.

In fact, more than anything else, the introduction and beginnings of development of two new main characters seems the clearest sign that this probably wasn’t originally intended to be the show’s last series. Why start developing new characters at this stage of the game? Calum, of course, is a necessary replacement for Tariq, whose death was vital for the standard shock value of a Spooks Big Plot. And presumably Erin was brought in because it would have been less than credible for the team to be as small as four people and still protect the realm with the reliability of five people (a fact Calum drew attention to with an in-jokey line about the five of them against the CIA).

The fact remains though that this series seems like it’s trying to take the characters somewhere, as if news of the show’s cancellation didn’t reach the writers until after they’d finished. As I said last week, given the familiarity of the ground we’ve been treading, the show’s demise may not be a bad thing. But I sincerely hope news of its end reached the writers in time to craft a proper end for the Big Plot – particularly since this year’s Big Plot must also resolve the several years of simmering but chaste romantic tension between Harry and Ruth.

Thankfully, the Big Plot was much more to the fore this week, as Ruth continued to struggle with her decision to take a job with the slimy Home Secretary and her growing distrust of Harry. This was underlined in a sweet scene, perfectly played by Peter Firth and Nicola Walker, as Harry and Ruth met on a park bench to discuss her misgivings. Ruth’s been picking the brains of CIA friend turned bad guy Jim Coaver, on a bridge over the Thames (“What is it with you Brits and hanging out by this river?” asks an exasperated Coaver in yet another in-joke about the tropes of the show). Coaver dropped some heavy hints about Harry’s bad boy past with Elena in the 80s, and Ruth, already feeling like “the other woman” is starting to feel that she doesn’t know Harry anywhere near as well as she thought she did.

Here was the real acting muscle of the show, as Firth and Walker subtly conveyed so much turmoil on such rigidly controlled, British faces. “You can’t love someone on a need to know basis,” said a frustrated Ruth, to which Harry was equivocal; clearly that’s always been a condition of his romantic relationships. But Harry’s love has no plausible deniability as he urged Ruth to take the Home Secretary’s job offer: “I don’t want you caught up in what’s coming.” Clearly Harry’s about to get badass again – time to break out the murdering gloves.

For it now seems undeniable that the CIA are the bad guys, trying to overthrow the uneasy detente with the Russians. Harry discovered this by the rather dubious means of coaxing them into taking potshots at his old flame Elena, after using her to misinform them about discovering the identity of the source posing as Harry. Wheels within wheels, it seems, as the CIA assassin was directed by an unseen car driver; the same car, Ruth later discovered, habitually used by Coaver (though given her suspicions, that one to one meeting on a bridge seems a little foolhardy).

So Harry finally squared up to his old buddy, with much philosophising about the nature of friendship versus The Harsh Realities of the Job: “I’d never shoot my friends. My family, maybe, but never my friends.” Coaver’s protestations of ignorance seemed fairly convincing, and after all, it might not necessarily have been him in the car directing the assassin. But that’s cutting no ice with Harry, whose judgement is being made to look increasingly shaky. Coaver’s got 24 hours to come clean, or Harry’s coming after him: “I guess you’ve forgotten who I work for.” “Then I’ll have to come after them too.”

So is Harry coming unglued? Or is this going to be his last blaze of righteous glory as he claims vengeance and justice in a way that the Home Secretary will presumably not approve of? With only two episodes left, it looks like the focus is going to be squarely on the Big Plot from hereon in; if nothing else, that’s a mercy for sparing us an episode centred on Calum. There’s plenty to tie up, so two episodes is probably necessary. Along with the duplicitous CIA and the inscrutable Russians, Harry has to come clean to his unsuspecting son and choose between the two women in his life before, very probably, dying a hero’s death. Let’s hope the writers are up to the task of giving this most British of heroes a proper send off. And not end the whole series on a cliffhanger because they didn’t realise it had been cancelled!