And so to A Scandal In Belgravia, the first of three new Sherlocks, charged with the tricky task of topping one of the most triumphant debut series of all time. Within the first two minutes, writer Steven Moffat made it clear that he wasn’t planning to start things off quietly: a pearly-arsed dominatrix known as “The Woman” entered a bedroom, holding a riding crop, asking: “Have you been wicked, Your Highness?”
“Yes, Miss Adler,” a posh voice replied.
And then the opening title-sequence rolled. Yeah. That’s right. The first episode of the new series of Sherlock was about a Kate Middleton S&M blackmail scenario. In your face, Waterloo Road.
The next hour and a half were, to be scientific, as good as it’s possible for television to be: other programme-makers must have been biting their wrists in a combination of jealousy and awe. Not only does Sherlock have the embarrassment of riches that is a cast-list that reads “Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Lara Pulver, Rupert Graves”, but its episode subject was the potent one of “Sherlock Holmes and love”. Having spent the first series setting up Holmes as one of the foremost men of the 21st century — all milk and ice and billion-dollar synapse-blinking — this series seems to be about examining his weaknesses instead. They’ve built him up — now they’re going to knock him down. Or, in this case, blow him up, by throwing a fantastic pair of tits at him.
For Sherlock cannot fathom Irene Adler — “The Woman” — a high-class dominatrix with incriminating pictures of Middleton (it’s hinted, anyway, if never made obvious) on her phone. Played by Lara True Blood Pulver, Irene Adler lives in a beautiful house of monochrome damask and her lipstick is as red as damask roses. On the orders of the Palace, Holmes is sent to the monochrome house to retrieve the pictures, and Adler prepares for his arrival.
“What will you wear?” her lover/assistant, Kate, asks.
“The Battle Dress,” Adler replies.
When Holmes arrives — pretending to be a vicar, ridiculously; he’s already acting like a div — she greets him naked. The Business Suit. He’s pole-axed by her — not just by the quiet authority of her bare arse, swishing past him on the sofa, but her face, too. He cannot read her. Holmes, who can read everyone — he glances at Watson for reassurance: notes his shoes mean he has a date tonight; his stubble that he used an electric shaver — cannot decipher a single thing about Adler. She can hide herself wholly, even when naked. Particularly when naked. After all, as she reminds Holmes: “However hard you try [with a disguise], it’s always a self-portrait.”
Holmes is so stupefied by the novelty of being outsmarted that he doesn’t even realise he fancies her, at this point.
And Adler, against all her judgment and nature, fancies Holmes, too. Adler is as clever as Holmes, but also as damaged: she keeps blackmail material on her phone because she “makes her way in the world” with a series of deals and dodges; she has “friends” she regularly sedates with the syringes in her bedside cabinet. Nearly everything in the world bores her. Sex isn’t fun — it’s just a job. What really excites her are detectives, and detective stories. Despite being a lesbian, what ultimately excites her is Sherlock Holmes.
And so A Scandal In Belgravia was an hour and a half of two odd, fast, hot people being confused by each other: not quite knowing why they jangle when they’re around each other; not quite knowing what to do with their feelings. Both have jobs that involve crushing their emotions: should they continue doing that — or actually trust each other?
In the end, their cataclysmic meeting results in a plane full of corpses rotting on a runway as Mycroft, the British Government and the American Government despair. “Holmes and Adler” really aren’t the new Hart to Hart. She’s betrayed him, he’s betrayed her, and all Holmes’s suspicions about love — “The chemistry is terribly simple. And very destructive” — have been borne out. Love will never do for Holmes. He likes things to have conclusions, and endings. Love has no conclusion or ending at all. And, also, he fell in love with a mental. That was quite a big error.
From 8.10pm to 9.40pm, it was often hard to tell which part of you was being stimulated more by Sherlock: the eyes, or the brain. For while the script bounced along with a winning combination of screwball, rat-tat-tat dialogue and parkour-like plot leaps, Paul McGuigan’s direction was of movie-like sumptuousness. You lost count of the moments that looked a million dollars. A shot from above of Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) closing his umbrella and ducking into a café, out of the rain, had a sense of choreography to it; 221b Baker Street has never looked more sumptuous.
McGuigan seemed to particularly revel in the scene where Adler — trying to retrieve her phone — jammed a syringe into Sherlock’s arm and he floated off into a wiggy state of narcoleptic wooze. As Sherlock collapsed backwards, drugged, the camera rotated once, twice beside him; sometimes you couldn’t tell if he was falling up or down. As he finally came in to land, his face was the same colour as the white-waxed floorboard he was bouncing off. Here, in a dream, Holmes found himself on a moor — Adler beside him, on a chaise longue. They were two incongruous, pale, elegant town-creatures in all this brutal, wet green. Holmes still could not speak, insensible on barbiturates as his bed rose up out of the moss like a benign tombstone and Holmes fell on it, winking out of consciousness, carried into the next scene.
It was as distractingly beautiful a piece of cinematography as you’re ever likely to see, and — accompanied by David Arnold and Michael Price’s lush, weeping soundtrack — left you walking away from the television after 90 minutes feeling like you’d just been fed lobsters, champagne and truffles through your brain.
For Sherlock is a detective story, not Panorama. It doesn’t care about statistics, and nor should it. All I could see were two damaged people making a mess of each other’s lives while Martin Freeman did his patented “Martin Freeman eyebrows” from the sidelines. And, obviously, some of the best television this country has ever produced.