Chilling in Baker Street

I spent most of my birthday weekend in and around Baker Street: onstage, in a restaurant and on television.

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes at the Duchess was not nearly as bad as it’s been cracked down to be; a good deal better, in fact. And the first of three contemporary Sherlock Holmes films on BBC 1 last night was witty and thoroughly enjoyable.

As Benedict Cumberbatch’s fast-talking, gloriously impatient and super-intelligent detective left the final scene with Martin Freeman’s plucky little Watson, he suggested dinner in a very good Chinese restaurant near Baker Street that stays open till 2 am.
He surely meant the Phoenix Palace, a bustling emporium where the food is as good as the service, and where I’d been the night before and feasted en famille as my special day treat. Alimentary, my dear Watson.

I’ve always thought of Peter Egan as a rather under-rated actor, and he proves a terrific Holmes in the current stage play — massive, flawed, haunted and superbly spoken — ably abetted by Robert Daws’s classic, traditional Watson.

The story is that of the two men’s friendship, with clever allusions to many of the stories, and a revelatory surprise twist that could explain the entire mystery of Holmes’s personality.

The show, which is modest but engaging, played to a packed Saturday matinee audience who tuned in and cheered up when they got over the fact this wasn’t going to be a detective story.

And it was gratifying to hear little pockets of Holmesians around the auditorium chortling merrily at the in-jokes and references.

Both the play and the screen update can start at the same place: Watson’s recent return as an army doctor from the war in Afghanistan.

But the television version deals with Watson’s “psychosomatic” limp in an ingenious way: the crutch is forgotten in a thrilling rooftop chase above a taxi route seared into Holmes’s telepathic brain.

The Study in Pink, as the first show was called (as opposed to The Study in Scarlet, the first Conan Doyle story), posed not a three pipe problem to Holmes, but a three patch problem; in the No Smoking age he’s addicted to nicotine patches.

Text messages flash up on the screen at a Scotland Yard press conference where Holmes is taunting the hapless Lestrade (beautifully played by Rupert Graves) after a series of linked suicides.

The trail leads him to a mysterious cab driver and the confessional showdown between this Cockney middle-man of crime, powerfully and touchingly played by Phil Davis, is wound up when Watson comes, in wonderfully bizarre fashion, to the rescue.

I was only planning to watch a few minutes, but was hooked for the full ninety. The cast includes Una Stubbs as a hilarious Mrs Hudson and Mark Gatiss — the League of Gentleman genius is one of the show’s three executive producers — as the sinister Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother.

As I live in Shirlock Road — just around the corner, as it happens, from the brilliant, motorbike-riding Benedict Cumberbatch — the weekend proved once again that there really is no place like Holmes. 

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