Monday, January 09, 2012

The Hounds of Baskerville: Dogging Up The Past

'A twenty year old disappearance? A monstrous hound? Wouldn't miss this for the world!'
Chances are, if you've only ever read one Sherlock Holmes story in your life, or only ever seen one cinema or TV adaptation based on the Conan Doyle characters, or even if you've never seen a single frame or read a single word but simply know the name of one Sherlock Holmes story, by reputation, then it's likely to be The Hound Of The Baskervilles. First serialised in The Strand magazine in 1901 and published as a novel in 1902, the tale remains, by a considerable distance, the most famous to be associated with the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. In its day it was the equivalent of The DaVinci Code, a publishing sensation and a best-seller of obscene proportions. Take, for instance, that wonderful line in Billy Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes where the Russian diplomat, Rogozhin (Clive Revell) tells Holmes (Robert Stephens) that he is a huge fan of Doctor Watson's writings about their cases: 'I particularly like ... Dog Of Baskerville, yes?' And because in many ways The Hound is the Sherlock Holmes story that people know best, it has become something of a cliché in and of itself and a touchstone to a series of adventures that many people imagine they know well but, actually, don't. (The character of Inspector Lestrade, for instance, appears in only a handful of Conan Doyle's stories. But, because he's in The Hound Of The Baskervilles, most casual readers assume he must be in near enough all of them.) Conan Doyle had not written about Sherlock Holmes for eight years, having killed off the character in the 1893 story The Final Problem (you know, the one they're doing on Sherlock next week). Although The Hound Of The Baskervilles was set before the latter events, two years later Conan Doyle would be forced - by public demand - to bring Holmes back for good, explaining in The Adventure Of The Empty House that Holmes had faked his own death in the nasty tussle with Professor Moriarty at The Reichenback Falls. Which is, one hopes, exactly what Steven Moffat will be faced with doing in a few weeks time when the BBC commission Sherlock series three.
    Anyway, back to the present, and the world's most infamous hell-hound is back. It has scared generations of readers and movie and TV viewers with its Gothic horror, ghostly dog, mist-covered mires, bloodthirsty plot and grimly nasty climax and is thought by many fans to be the greatest of all the Sherlock Holmes tales, if not the finest detective novel ever written by anyone. Bar none. On Sunday night, Mark Gatiss gave the famous novel a contemporary twist. And, it worked.
'Did you see The Devil that night?' Of course, being Sherlock, the contemporary twist includes plenty of in-jokes and allusions to the original text to keep all the fans happy: Dartmoor. The flashing lights on the moor in morse code (or, as it happens, not). Character names (Stapelton, Mortimer, Barrymore, Frankland). Another view for the deerstalker - 'it's not my hat!' Sherlock vainly protests when someone says that he didn't recognise him without it. And, of course, The Grimpen Minefield! Witty, Mark, very witty. There are also some clever visual jokes (the nodding dogs in the shop window) and a clinging spooky darkness which Paul McGuigan's direction toys with quite brilliantly. The episode includes several real, honest to God twenty four carat 'jump out of the seat' scares, a great musical score by David Arnold, fine performances from the guest cast (including Amelia Bullmore and not one but two former TV Little Johns, Clive Mantle and Gordon Kennedy) and the expected casual brilliance of Cumberbatch, Freeman and Rupert Graves. We - finally - get a first name for Lestrade (Greg), the series first direct reference to Sherlock's potential Asperger's Syndrome and a cunning dialogue allusion in the vague direction of An American Werewolf In London.
'Are you laughing at me, Mr Holmes?' 'Why? Are you joking?' The Hounds Of Baskerville also features red herrings galore  (I mean, scores of them - from a stolen rabbit to dodgy goings on in that there secret military base) in a doggy tale of (as it happens, false) conspiracy theory and repressed memories. It starts when Sherlock Holmes bursts into the flat at 221B holding a bloodstained harpoon and looking absolutely furious ('you went on the tube like that?' asks John Watson with barely a bat of the eyelid). Well, it got your attention, didn't it dear blog reader? (Holmes readers will recognise it as the opening sequence of one of Conan Doyle's lesser-known stories, Black Peter.) And it worked on screen, too, a typically rich Sherlock device, having fun with its crazed, all-capable hero even as it gently mocks him. For being very silly. At one point John tuts at Sherlock for being flashy with his deductive powers. 'Of course!' our full-of-himself hero shouts back. 'I am a show off! That's what we do!' But the showing off takes a very different form this week - well, once there's been a two minute scene in which Holmes and Watson bicker about the rules of Cluedo™ anyway. After Steven Moffat's beautifully balletic, high-octane opener last time around, his co-creator Gatiss's The Hounds Of Baskerville is more of a creepy affair, all jittery camerawork, staggering exterior scenery, rampant paranoia and gnawing suspense. As one might expect from the world's biggest Hammer movie fan. A Devon man, Henry Knight (the excellent Russell Tovey) is haunted - you might say dogged if you were looking for canine puns - by memories of his father's violent death on Dartmoor two decades ago. So the consulting detective tries to find out what secrets are hidden at the nearby Baskerville military research facility - a sinister place which has thrown up its own Area 51-style cottage industry in conspiracy nutters involving tales of genetic mutations and 'horrors beyond imaginging.' Is there really, as local tourist lore suggests, a giant hound on the loose? Sherlock's terrified client claims that his father was killed by a monstrous creature stalking the wilds of Dartmoor, so Holmes and Watson head to the countryside to investigate. But what seemed like mere fantasy back in Baker Street proves a very different prospect when the duo look into an ultra-secret army base at the edge of the moor. Plus, there's a potentially shocking episode of lapinicide to be investigated too! But are the two cases - the bunny burglary and the dodgy doggy - connected?
'He's totally convinced there's some mutant superdog roaming the moors. There isn't, though, is there? Because if people knew how to make a mutant superdog, we'd know. They'd be for sale, I mean, that's how it works.' As you'd expect with yer man Gatiss, the dialogue is a mixture of seriously portentous, Teutonic Mummerset (in best 'don't get many strangers round 'ere' fashion) and thigh-slapping humour. There's the sly: 'Sorry I couldn't do a double room for you boys.' (Even Watson, it seems, has stopped the denials by now!) And: 'We have to keep the bins somewhere.' And: 'Did we just break into a military base to investigate a rabbit?' And, my favourite line in Sherlock so far this year: 'If I wanted poetry I'd read John's e-mails to his girlfriends. They're much funnier!'
'They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!' Using Mycroft's stolen ID, Sherlock and John gain entry to Baskerville. 'God knows what they've been spraying on us all these years, or what they've been putting in the water' says a minor character in what is, I guess, the closest Gatiss have ever come to a Nigel Kneale-style neo-political rant. 'I wouldn't trust them as far as I can spit.' There, they meet the slightly-too-helpful-for-his-own-good Doctor Frankland (Mantle). 'What exactly is it that you do here?' asks Sherlock. 'Mr Holmes, I would love to tell you. But then, of course, I'd have to kill you.' 'That would be tremendously ambitious of you,' replies Sherlock in a foreshadowing of events an hour or so later. Leaving the base, Sherlock and John have another spectacular row. 'Can we not do this, this time? You being all mysterious with your cheekbones and turning your coat collar up so you look cool.' Oh, so you've noticed as well, have you? 'I don't do that!' 'Yeah, you do!' A night at Dewer's Hollow proves a genuinely frightening experience for Henry and Sherlock leading the latter to finally get to utter his most famous line: 'Once you've ruled out the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.'
'I don't have friends.' 'No. I wonder why.' The Hounds Of Baskerville sees Sherlock and John's friendship put to its harshest test but emerge stronger than ever. It's got some terrific non-sequitars in its arsenal of delights. ('Are you, err, rich?' 'Yeah.') Its core, once you strip away all the stuff about hell-hounds, and CIA experiments and psychotic drugs, is summed up in one line: 'Fear and stimulus, that's how it works.' It shows John Watson at his most unsuccessful with women but his most magnificent as a human being (plus, he gets to pull rank for the first time in a while which he clearly enjoys). It shows Sherlock Holmes, for once, doubting himself and finding, in that place, an emptiness that is terrifying. There's some hilariously funny bits (Watson's discovery of the, ahem, doggers), and some bowel-shatteringly scary ones too. 'The big coat should have told me. You're one of the conspiracy lot, aren't you? Well then go ahead, seek them out. The monsters, the death rays, the aliens.' 'Have you got any of those?'
Tonight's Sherlock, dear blog reader, was a retelling of a masterpiece in an efficient, sometimes unusual, but always jolly appealing way. Now, you must excuse me, I've 'got to see a man about a dog.'

There's a great piece by Mark on the writing of the episode at the Radio Times website here.

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