BBC’s new Sherlock series loses the plot

These days the BBC is at least partly a commercial organisation, depending on sales of its hit shows to boost revenue at a time when its take (still £3bn or so) from the licence fee is under political pressure and it has to use the money for more purposes.

One such key programme is Sherlock, the update of the Conan Doyle stories starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.

Since Sherlock started a few years ago, Cumberbatch and Freeman have gone on to join the Hollywood A-list; Cumberbatch usually playing a baddie and Freeman currently impersonating Peter Jackson’s blockbuster version of ‘The Hobbit.’

Is this why the new series of Sherlock – two down and one to go – is so infuriatingly tricksy?

Sunday’s episode – The Sign of Three – was even dafter and more self-indulgent than the first one, which showed Holmes implausibly rising from the dead. Set at Watson’s wedding, it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was about the relationship between Holmes and Watson (and Watson’s clearly about to be long-suffering new wife), sociopath Holmes or a thoroughly implausible murder plot involving a photographer with what looked like a lethal pin. You couldn’t really tell.

To pad out its 90 minutes there was a long and painful sequence showing Holmes and Watson getting pissed on Watson’s stag night – which only involved the two of them. Hasn’t Watson any other mates?

Heaven knows what overseas buyers made of all this. The Sign of Three had its felicities of course – it could hardly not with such a stellar cast, including British screen veteran Una Stubbs’ surprisingly lively Baker Street housekeeper Mrs Hudson – but the essence of the Sherlock Holmes books was their painstaking plotting – it’s only this that demonstrates how clever Holmes is.

The new series, two out of three anyway, has done away with plots entirely. which is not very respectful of the audience: we’re obviously expected to tune in to watch the actors, writer and director showing off.

It will earn mostly good notices, of course, because it’s such a big British show and most critics will be fearful of panning it because they think that will make them look less than clever.

But this series of Sherlock is not clever at all. In fact it’s another own goal for the BBC.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.