I had high hopes of the BBC’s ‘The Empty Hearse’ (1 January 2014). So far the makers of the series had done such a good job of producing a show to satisfy an audience ranging from die-hard Doyle-ites (among which I include myself) to casual viewers seeking exciting Saturday-night entertainment.
And so? Well, even in the presence of spectacular explosions, boy-on-boy action and Twitterati crowd scenes, I was always only here for one reason. The pivotal scene of ‘The Empty House’ is the moment at which Holmes reveals to Watson that he is alive. Even in Doyle, Holmes infuses this scene with a theatricality that could be called insensitive, but in ‘The Empty Hearse’ I think writer Gatiss tilts this far far too far towards slapstick. Yes, the way in which Holmes puts together his waiter disguise as he passes through the restaurant is clever. But it calls to mind too much the diversionary tactics of illusionists such as Derren Brown (who was, cleverly, featured in the one of the inset ‘conspiracy’ scenes). Yes, the Holmes of Doyle enjoys a little sleight of hand and the odd coup de théâtre, but this particular moment was not the one to reference this. The tone was all wrong. In Doyle, even as Watson is recovering from the swoon that Holmes’ reappearance put him into, Holmes is apologising profusely and ministering brandy to his friend. His first words are “My dear Watson, I owe you a thousand apologies.” In Gatiss, it appears to be days before Holmes admits to having upset his friend in any way (and this during the toe-curling scene in the tube carriage).
This particular scene from the canon is a hugely important one to me, and I scrutinised Martin Freeman’s performance for its emotional integrity. I thought he did a wonderful job of conveying those crucial few seconds of realisation, and was sorely disappointed that the creators of the show did not call upon Benedict Cumberbatch, also surely a very able actor, to match him. Thinking on my disappointment when the episode had ended, I wondered why I felt so let down. I wanted that scene to ring true. Why did I feel belittled? Perhaps it is because I ‘lost’ someone [curious euphemism, that – what I really mean is that someone I knew died] – and for years afterwards I suffered from the inability to believe that he was dead, the belief that I had seen him in the street, and vivid dreams of his return. I fantasised about how he might let me know. More than 10 years later I occasionally find myself scrutinising the face of a stranger, even though nowadays it is more for the comfort of remembrance than in any real hope. Maybe all this is because I read Doyle as an impressionable young adult, and I internalised the possibility of miraculous returns to life. Still, it makes the situation in which John Watson finds himself just a tad more personal.
Looking back through Doyle, as I just have, I understand another way in which the tone of ‘The Empty Hearse’ does not ring true to an old-school Sherlockian like me. As the episode unfolds, and despite the numerous red herrings, it becomes clear that Sherlock never expects to die when he goes up onto the roof of the Bart’s hospital. The plans (thirteen of them) are in place, and the inscrutable Mycroft has his back. This is in total contrast to Doyle in which, as he explains his escape from the Falls, Holmes tells Watson that “My note to you was absolutely genuine. I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety.” So on the one hand the Gatiss Sherlock provides a telephonic suicide ‘note’, in the full knowledge that he will not die; on the other, the literary Sherlock writes a genuine farewell note, in the semi-certain belief that he will die. This is quite some profound difference. As the consumer of this entertainment, I find the latter infinitely more satisfying. How people act in the face of impending annihilation is an interesting subject to me, which is why the last episode of series 2 of the Gatiss Sherlock provided real meat. The distress appeared genuine, the dilemma real. I think this may be why the fandom of the Gatiss Sherlock has waited so eagerly for the resolution.
To be fair to Gatiss and the others involved, it was a big ask. To convincingly explain away such a gigantic cliffhanger was never going to be easy. My emotional response is that they have nullified a lot of what made series 1 and 2 so good. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming back for more. I am not immune to The Purple Shirt of Sex and The Swishy Coat. It’s just that for me it isn’t Sherlock any more.