In the week that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, questioned whether the BBC licence fee gives “value for money”, the advent of Sherlock donked his theory quite badly. It’s a bit embarrassing to be standing on a soapbox, slagging off a corporation as essentially wasteful and moribund, right at the point where it’s landing a bright, brilliant dragon of a show on the rooftops, for 39p per household. And with the rest of the BBC’s output that day — theoretically — thrown in free.
I don’t want to be racist against ITV1, but you know what a bag of b******* they would have made of a Sherlock Holmes reboot in 2010: Robson Green as Holmes; Christine Bleakley as Watson; Pixie Lott as “dead prostitute”; and the Go Compare advert every 13 minutes — as unwelcome as finding flyers for a local doubleglazing firm wedged into your copy of Animal Farm.
The BBC, on the other hand, went in and did it magnificently: like craftsmen retrofitting a vintage Rolls-Royce Phantom with the engine from Virgin’s SpaceShipOne. The casting was perfect. Benedict Cumberbatch — the first actor in history to play Sherlock Holmes who has a name more ridiculous than “Sherlock Holmes” — was both perfect and astonishing: an actor pulling on an iconic character and finding that he had infinite energy to drive the thing. He is so good that — ten minutes in — I just started laughing out loud with what a delight it was to watch him.
He looks amazing — as odd as you’d expect The Cleverest Man in the World to look. Eyes white, skin like china clay and a voice like someone smoking a cigar inside a grand piano, this Holmes has, as Cumberbatch described it in interviews, “an achievable superpower”. He might not have actual X-ray vision, but his superlative illative chops mean that London is like a Duplo train set to him: an easily analysable system, populated by small, simple, plastic people.
At one point, a suspect speeds away from him in a taxi. Holmes can call up the A-Z, and the taxi’s only possible route, in his mind: “Right turn, traffic lights, pedestrian crossing, roadworks, traffic lights.”
By climbing over the right rooftop, ducking down the right alleyway, and running very, very fast while looking hot, Holmes can beat the taxi to its destination — as easily as if he were the size of the Telecom Tower, or Big Ben, stepping over the city laid out on the rug at 221b Baker Street.
“People don’t usually say that,” Holmes blinks, pleased. “They usually say, ‘Piss off’.”
But this Watson isn’t the usual bluff, conservative sidekick. In a role rivalling his turn as Tim in The Office, Martin Freeman’s Watson is altogether more complex and satisfying. Yes, he’s here as dragon-trainer — to whack Holmes with a stick when he starts monstering around and climbing up on the furniture. But he’s also as quietly addicted to “the game” as Holmes: it’s Watson with the nervous tremors because he misses active service, in Afghanistan; Watson with the gun.
Sherlock is so packed with joy and treats, to list them means bordering on gabbling: Una Stubbs as secret dope-fiend landlady Mrs Hudson (“It was just a herbal remedy — for my hip!”), Mycroft Holmes’s mysterious, posh, texting, superlatively composed assistant, “Anthea”. The little nods to the possibility that Holmes might be gay. The insanely generous casting of Rupert Graves as DI Lestrade. The line “I love a serial killer — there’s always something to look forward to!” And the perfect placing of what is, presumably, the series arc: “Holmes is a great man. And I hope, one day, a good one, too.”
“Value for money” isn’t even the start of it. Every detail of this Sherlock thrills. Given that it was written by Steven Moffat in the same year he knocked off the astonishing, elegant and high-powered rebooting of Doctor Who, at £145.50, Moffat’s scripts alone are value for money.
If the funding is ever called into question, I’ll pay it myself. In cash. Delivered to his front-door step. While screaming “THANK YOU. CAN I COME IN AND USE YOUR TOILET?” through the letterbox.