“I need to get to know London again, breathe it in,” Sherlock Holmes says in a voice-over in a trailer for Sherlock Series 3 while we see Holmes standing on a rooftop---presumably not the one he jumped from at the end of The Reichenbach Fall---surveying his London.
If you click on the target link in the interactive version of that trailer you hear Holmes go on to say, “London is like a great cesspool into which all kinds of criminals, agents, and drifters are irresistibly drained.”
I felt terrific satisfaction when I heard these lines. Besides that the second quote is very much like something Conan Doyle’s Holmes would have said and very well might have said---I don’t have the stories memorized---London is intrinsic to Holmes’ character and one of the the reasons Sherlock is so much better than Elementary is that Sherlock evokes and uses London to an effective degree Elementary doesn’t come close to evoking and using New York City where they’ve re-settled their 21st Century Holmes, taking away from his essential Holmesishness without adding anything to replace it. Holmes is as much a denizen of a particular place as any of the criminals, agents, and drifters he hunts. It’s not just that he knows London (and should know New York) like the back of his hand in order to get around. He knows what it’s like to live and work in any part of the city because he lives and works in the city himself. The city is a part of him. He identifies with it. With all of it, from the Limehouse opium dens to the poshest neighborhoods in Belgravia, and with everyone else who lives and works there, including the criminals, agents, and drifters whom he often deplores not for their villainy but for their lack of the industry and imagination he would bring to the job if he decided to become one of them.
IN THE third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses. The first day Holmes had spent in cross-indexing his huge book of references. The second and third had been patiently occupied upon a subject which he had recently made his hobby–the music of the Middle Ages. But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes, my comrade’s impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. He paced restlessly about our sitting-room in a fever of suppressed energy, biting his nails, tapping the furniture, and chafing against inaction.
“Nothing of interest in the paper, Watson?” he said.
I was aware that by anything of interest, Holmes meant anything of criminal interest. There was the news of a revolution, of a possible war, and of an impending change of government; but these did not come within the horizon of my companion. I could see nothing recorded in the shape of crime which was not commonplace and futile.
Holmes groaned and resumed his restless meanderings.
“The London criminal is certainly a dull fellow,” said he in the querulous voice of the sportsman whose game has failed him. “Look out of this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”
“There have,” said I, “been numerous petty thefts.”
Holmes snorted his contempt.
“This great and sombre stage is set for something more worthy than that, ” said he. “It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.”
But when I thought a little more, about it, I realized something.
It’s a trick.
Looking back over the six episodes of Series One and Two, I can’t think of one in which London as London figures as more than a backdrop.
Sherlock does make better use of London, visually, dramatically, and thematically than Elementary does of New York. It's better written and, more to the point here, better directed. Paul McGuigan, who directed four of the first six episodes of Sherlock, and Euros Lyn and Tobey Haynes, who directed the other two, have been able to capture just enough of the right details of the real London to establish a rich and solid sense of place. On Elementary they don’t seem able to capture anything of any street scenes except the traffic. But the producers of Sherlock have another advantage over Elementary they cleverly exploit.
The London they need to create for their stories already exists inside the heads of their audience.
On Elementary, it’s not how little New York is seen. It’s how generally absent it is. The cameras can’t seem to find it. The writers don’t seem able to locate a scene let alone an entire plot there. The characters Holmes and Watson encounter in their investigations don’t seem to live or work there or have any connections that tie them to any specific, peculiar aspect of the city. They come from Nowheresville or rather Anywheresville in TVpoliceproceduralland USA. Holmes and Watson live in Manhattan but I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve left there to investigate a crime in the outer Burroughs in what are essentially suburban neighborhoods where people live in detached houses with yards and there’s plenty of available onstreet parking---everybody owns cars. There are neighborhoods like this all over what is technically New York City, in Brooklyn and Queens particularly, but on what is also geographically and culturally Long Island. They're also in different counties, placing them outside what ought to be Holmes and Watson’s jurisdiction.
Now, Holmes and Watson shouldn’t have jurisdictions. Conan Doyle routinely sent them far out of London on cases (which always bothered Holmes the London man). But Elementary’s Holmes and Watson are cops. Forget their supposed role as “consultants.” The producers have wedded them to the official police force in a way no previous incarnation of Holmes would have accepted and all for plot convenience. Holmes and Watson get to bully witnesses and suspects, avail themselves of forensic evidence and warrants and police backup, and generally throw their weight around like any other set of TV cops whose writers don’t have the time or imagination to make think and talk their way through a case and actually solve it as opposed to appearing to have just read ahead in the script. And while they’re at it, they end up dragging the real cops along which highlights the fact that Gregson and Bell appear to be the only two homicide detectives on the NYPD and as such don’t work out of any precinct and have no limits to their jurisdictions unlike, say, Briscoe and Logan and their various other partners on Law & Order, a show in which New York City and its idiosyncratic neighborhoods and peculiarly eccentric citizens were very much a part of every episode’s look, feel, and general narrative. Often the fun of the Law part of any given episode was in recognizing the types of New Yorkers the detectives met in the course of an investigation. Law & Order was practically a video precursor to Humans of New York.
London and its humans rarely figure in the plots of Sherlock to the extent New York figured in the plots of Law & Order. Sherlock is able to make London a felt presence not by actually working it into episodes the way Law & Order worked New York into its storylines or even by letting us see it very clearly. It evokes it through imagery, allusion, and the occasional plot point and then lets our imaginations fill in around it with details derived from Conan Doyle, to a degree, but mainly from movies and TV shows and other novels and short stories set in Victorian England. This starts with any shot of the doorway of 221B and explodes when we’re taken inside where Holmes and Watson’s 21st Century flat is almost a perfect reproduction of Conan Doyle’s (Well, Sidney Paget’s) Holmes and Watson’s 19th Century one, but with better lighting. One glimpse of the sitting room windows overlooking Baker Street conjures up Jeremy Brett looking out the window of his 221B onto his Baker Street and we immediately “see” what’s out there.
Which of course isn’t the real London but a literary London.
This is true to Conan Doyle in that it’s pretty much how he settled his Holmes and Watson in their London, through allusion, occasional plot points, and imagistic shorthand. He was writing for magazines and didn’t have the time or space for long descriptive passages. But he could rely on his readers’ to see what he needed them to see because he knew what they’d read and were reading alongside his stories.
That’s Dickens’ London outside the windows of 221B, and Wilke Collins’, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s. Beside building from what they’d read, Conan Doyle’s contemporary readers would have known that London from illustrations in those books and in magazines and newspapers and from the stage sets of plays that were to their time what movies would become to their grandchildren’s generation.
The photo up top reminds me of something….
Of course the visual quote from Skyfall is deliberate. Sherlock’s creators and head writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss love referencing Bond, partly I think because they get a kick out of reminding us that Mycroft (played by Gatiss) is essentially M in Sherlock’s universe (and, when you get down to it, in Conan Doyle’s universe too), and partly because they don’t want to us to forget that Sherlock Holmes, in all the universes he inhabits, is an action hero and has on many occasions acted as a secret agent in adventures that Watson often alludes to but for reasons of “national security” either hasn’t written down (yet) or published if he has. But you know that. The reason I’m bringing it up is so I can post this tweet by rufus jones:
Sherlock in big coat on roof looking out across London cityscape. Sees Daniel Craig doing exactly same thing on next building. Little wave.— rufus jones (@rufusjones1) January 7, 2014
Sherlock. Series 3 premieres Sunday, January 19th, at 9:58 PM Eastern/8:58 Central on PBS.