Shiny Shelf

Sherlock: A Study in Pink

By Jim Smith on 28 July 2010

Public discussion of  Steven Moffat’s modern day re-interpretation of Sherlock Holmes has been extensive, partially because it seems like an age since it was announced.

I’d seen photographs of the cast and had the concept articulated to me more than once. This meant that I felt I knew the show already, despite not having seen so much as a second of it.

I thought I’d like it, because I like both Sherlock Holmes apocrypha and Moffat scripts, but I didn’t think it could surprise me. Brilliantly, I was very, very wrong about this.

Perhaps the most startling thing about ‘A Study in Pink’ is that it is genuinely quite a close adaptation of Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’, a novel generally regarded as ridiculously hard to adapt for the screen. (It has an odd structure, where roughly half of its wordcount is a flashback sequence dealing with one man’s battles with an American Christian sect. This section doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes at all.)

Yet all the most memorable aspects of Doyle’s novel are here. Sherlock’s brilliant crime scene examination of a corpse that has the word ‘”Rache” scrawled near it is retained. Holmes and Watson’s initial meeting in a hospital is shown. Both the ingenious and sinister murder method used and the fact that the killer is a London cabbie are present and correct. The flashbacks are gone. The mormons are gone. The killer’s motivations are radically different (and deeply chilling) and bits of other Sherlockian lore (Mycroft, Moriarty, a discussion on deduction from ‘The Sign of the Four’) have been imported, but this is recognisably Doyle’s novel in spirit, plot and character. It’s a far closer adaptation of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ than, say, ITV’s ‘The Last Vampire’ is of Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampyre’ despite that version’s supposedly “authentic” Victorian setting. (The contemporary relocation of this adaptation is entirely successful and is achieved through some incredibly subtle alterations to Holmes’ approach to things and Paul McGuigan’s inspired, showy direction. McGuigan, of course, directed ‘Gangster No 1′, the most underrated British film of the last twenty years.)

‘A Study in Pink’ has outstanding lead performances (I’d include Phil Davis’ lipsmacking cabbie here), a tremendous script and utterly vindicates the high concept of the series it kicks off . It’s also 90 minutes of brilliantly directed television. That’s a remarkable achievement, even for a TV writer/producer as accomplished as Moffat.  My only complaint is that we’re only getting three this year.

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2 Responses

  1. I especially liked the inversion of the RACHE clue: a nice joke for those familiar with Scarlet that won’t have left new viewers feeling they’d been left out of something. All in all a great piece of TV. However, I can’t see that Holmes’s crucial choice towards the end came down to anything but a blind guess.

  2. Jim Smith says:

    I love the inversion of ‘Rache’ too, especially the dismissive way Cumberbatch spits it out. Isn’t the conceit of “double pill” ending about the bluff/double bluff/triple bluff and/or reverse psychology of pushing one of the pill boxes forward? It’s about whether Sherlock understands people or not, isn’t it?