Sherlock S03E03: His Last Vow

A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’

His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office,  discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.

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One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.

Oh, the good old days.

Oh, the good old days.

The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?

It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.

Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way:  do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.

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Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.

Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.

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Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.

Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.

This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.

The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Sherlock S03E02: The Sign of Three

Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.

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It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.

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Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.

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Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.

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A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.

Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

Kickass literary heroes: Another Victorian/Fantasy Mashup

Following the success of Kickass literary heroines: A Victorian/Fantasy Mashup, it is now the turn of the boys. While we will inevitably lose the feminist vibe of the original, it does seem unfair to let these bundles of awesome go unnoticed simply because of an accident of birth.

Sidney Carton – A Tale of Two Cities

James Whilby as Sidney in the 1989 BBC adaptation.

James Whilby as Sidney in the 1989 BBC adaptation.

A proverbial fallen angel, dissolute lawyer Sidney Carton is a mercurial mass of contradictions. Frequently overcome by a sense of despair and self-loathing at the life he leads, he’s allowed le mal du siècle to become so deeply entrenched in him that attempting to reform himself seems like more trouble than his possible success would be beneficial. Nevertheless, he has a simple, almost idealistic love for the right and the just, sometimes allowing himself temporary respite by basking in their light before slinking back into the shadows he believes he deserves. Eventually, he gladly pays the ultimate price so that this light may be continued. The novel’s ending sequence, which comprises both his meeting his soul mate while being carted off to the guillotine, as well as several pages worth of stunning reflections on the greatness of France, of sacrifice and of redemption, is justifiably recognised as one of the best endings in English literature.

Tyrion Lannister – A Song of Ice and Fire

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in the HBO adaptation.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in the HBO adaptation.

So I like to blog about Tyrion. A lot. But he is one of the greatest, if not the greatest creation in fantasy literature, so leaving him out would be scandalous. A fiercely intelligent man, Tyrion has the misfortune to be born suffering from dwarfism into the most powerful family in Westeros, most of whom come to see his existence as a curse and a humiliation. One often gets the feeling that Tyrion could deal with any amount of ridicule from society were he assured of having the love and support of his own family. But he isn’t, and apart from a deep, shared love for his elder brother Jaime thanks to a horrific adolescent trauma, he’s had to put up with every hope or harmless dream he ever had being brutally crushed or ridiculed, usually by his father or sister, with whom he cultivates disastrous relationships. His mind being his only way of defending himself, Tyrion uses it to survive, and above all, to exist, colourfully and incandescently, in a world that would rather he didn’t. Ordered (reluctantly) by his father Lord Tywin to serve as Hand of the King in his stead, Tyrion shows himself to be a formidable enemy, an ingenious politician and a stunningly original thinker and schemer. When he falls from grace, and he falls hard, he proves himself to be as miserable a human being as the rest of us, the crippling loneliness and despair he has felt his entire life crushing everything he has achieved. It’s then that he starts to think about revenge…

Abraham Van Helsing – Dracula

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in the Hammer adaptations.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in the Hammer adaptations.

Misrepresented and misunderstood on an epidemic scale, Professor Van Helsing is so adorable that you want to transform him into a teddy bear that you can hug when you feel blue. Hundreds of students have passed through the hands of this endlessly energetic, kind and warm-hearted Doctor of Medicine and of Literature; and when he’s not occupied with university work, he dedicates himself to the study of the paranormal and with giving every iota of his energy to helping those who have been contaminated by vampires. This is first demonstrated by his efforts to help Lucy, during which he sits up night and day and bleeds himself of a dangerous amount of blood to restore the unfortunate girl’s faculties. When his efforts fail, largely due to the idiocy of Lucy’s mother, and the case soon becomes about tracking down and destroying Dracula himself, his actions are those of a loving, paternal and absolutely ruthless man who will do anything to stamp out evil. He is goodness and sweetness incarnate: and don’t get me started on his adorable English…

Silk – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Silk artwork by Mirror Cradle on deviantart.

Silk artwork by Mirror Cradle on deviantart.

While his real name may be Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, this prodigiously gifted product of his nation’s celebrated intelligence service has so many different identities in so many different places that he suffers from a permanent identity crisis that he finds amusing rather than alarming. Tiny, with a face like a rat, he’s sweepingly sarcastic and gleefully disrespectful; he’s fond of casual theft, paying and receiving bribes, outwitting his enemies, annoying his friends, going undercover and manipulating the economy in his spare time. His sunny disposition does, however, conceal a variety of griefs and psychological issues, including the plague-induced blindness and horrific disfigurement of his mother and his hopeless unrequited love for his uncle’s wife, which continues for an immense number of years before his being reunited with future-wife Velvet (real name Liselle), who turns out to be every bit as devious as he is. Most of the time, he’s disarmingly and uproariously funny, and steals your heart about as quickly as he picks your pockets.

John Thornton – North and South

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in the BBC adaptation.

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in the BBC adaptation.

For the millions of you who probably don’t know, Mr. Thornton is the brusque Northern cotton mill owner who dethroned Mr. Darcy as quintessential brooding romantic hero after a reign of almost ten years, thanks to a terrific performance by Richard Armitage in the BBC miniseries. John has endured an immensely difficult adolescence after his father commits suicide due to ruinous debt. Encouraged by his formidable mother Mrs. Thornton (see Ten Great TV Performances You’ve Never Seen), he works right through his teenaged years to pay the creditors back and regains the family mill. He takes immense care to protect the health and wellbeing of his workers, and, against his mother’s wishes, studies the classics in his spare time in order to improve himself, believing that there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth. It’s at this point that he falls in love with his tutor’s daughter Margaret, a headstrong and stubborn precursor to feminism from the South who, due to her own misplaced prejudice, sees him as a fat cat profiting from the misery of his workers and thinks his feelings for her are ‘offensive.’ Margaret’s rejection of him only serves to increase his own feelings of inadequacy and of still being considered a simple tradesman who is incapable of bettering himself despite his efforts to the contrary. As the novel progresses, these feelings only intensify, and he becomes one of the loneliest men you could imagine as he refuses to stray from the path of decency to his workers even when in danger of losing everything he has worked for.

Samwise Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings

Sean Astin as Sam in the celebrated Peter Jackson adaptations.

Sean Astin as Sam in the celebrated Peter Jackson adaptations.

Oh, Sam. Where shall we start? The most loyal character in existence, demonstrating the sweetest innocence, the most perfect sense of right and wrong and a blinding, moving inner strength at his darkest hour. He has no Galadriel to help him – only himself. He is such a gentle, simple soul who rises so spectacularly and so courageously to the challenge of being flung into perpetual danger further and further from home. His is the poetry of the ordinary person: he’ll risk taking the most unspeakable evil into himself to give some relief to a friend, and he’ll stay, always, even when seized by the deepest unhappiness and the most awful fear of rejection.

Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Okay, so it’s not completely Victorian all the time, but Holmes has enough esteem for Queen Victoria to adorn one side of his living room with ‘V.R.’ done in bullet holes, so let’s not worry too much about it. Jeremy Brett once remarked in an interview that the three most influential people of the 20th century were Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes. If you consider that Sherlock Holmes never actually existed, that’s a fair testament to Mr. Holmes’ importance. While boasting a truly brilliant mind, possibly the greatest ever, he abounds with eccentricities, many of them alarming and rather disturbing. Holmes is a consulting detective, not a private one, and thus only occupies himself with cases that amuse him, the stranger the better, which he will solve and investigate with a poorly suppressed glee regardless of their gruesomeness. He cannot be induced to talk about his cases if he doesn’t want to, which will often leave him silent for many days at a time, not even indulging the entreaties of his friend and colleague Doctor Watson, with whom he shares a symbiotic relationship. He has a deep love of chemistry that goes well with his complete disregard for bad smells. He’s fond of leaving the sitting room at Baker Street strewn with papers for months of end, insisting that no one can sort them out and pack them away except him. He likes to play the violin, and has an almost autistic disrespect for people in general, regardless of rank. And while he does what he does for the rush and the thrill of the chase, he also does it because of a glorious humanity that he very rarely admits to.

Belgarath – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Belgarath cover art by Geoff Taylor.

Belgarath cover art by Geoff Taylor.

Belgarath is bordering on 7000 years old. He’s old. An easily annoyed great sorcerer, he doesn’t take nonsense, has an unhealthy fondness for drinking and wenching, likes to steal food, wears a filthy sort of rag instead of a tunic that he ties with a bit of rope, wears mismatched boots, has a long white beard, and smells. Awfully. Hearing only that side of his personality, you might think that he’s a stereotype on the mighty sorcerer that David and Lee Eddings did for a bit of fun, but while it’s evident the pair of them had the time of their lives writing him, he isn’t a stereotype. He remembers only too well the pain that drove him out of his mind when his beloved wife Poledra died, leaving him twin daughters. He’s been alive for so long; he often wishes he could follow himself if he wasn’t so busy following prophecy, and he has loved his family so long and so deeply that he’s forced to mask it from the uncomprehending with naughty humour and constant arguing with his surviving daughter Polgara and his brothers Beldin, Beltira and Belkira. The rest of the world justifiably reveres him and respectfully calls him ‘Ancient One’, a title that never fails to provoke a scowl, and he has a charming way of treating both peasants and kings in an equally crass and casual way. He never makes the slightest attempt to seem wise and Gandalf-like, because he doesn’t have to. The greatest of all these characteristics is that Belgarath is a badass: tyrants and despots the world over are absolutely terrified of him, and he positively flays the skin off the evil and the unjust. He is a formidable, incredibly mischievous, humanly flawed and usually half-drunk force for Good who never fails to triumph.

Kickass literary heroines: A Victorian/ Fantasy Mashup

Lyra Silvertongue – His Dark Materials Trilogy

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

The foul-mouthed urchin who would be Eve, this twelve year old Oxford native possesses the strength of all women, navigating a multitude of dangerous, sometimes steampunk Blakean worlds of archangel assassins and tyrannical deities in a quest to restore a Truth hidden since the writing of the Bible. She loves deeply and loses excruciatingly, but is nevertheless possessed with an immovable, Frodo-like certainty that none but she can see her task through to the end.

Violet Hunter – The Adventure of the Copper Beeches (Sherlock Holmes)

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

I have blogged about Violet before, but no list of awesome Victorian women is complete without her. Being the only woman apart from the overrated Irene Adler that Holmes would look twice at, this oft-forgotten woman is completely independent, insanely daring, meticulously observant and very, very bright; her determination to find the reason for the strange conduct of her employer impressing the wits out of Holmes, even inspiring him to favour her with the rare compliment of calling her ‘quite exceptional.’ She kicks an impressive amount of conspiracy ass with Holmes and Watson, before disappearing as quickly as Holmes’ interest in her, now that she’s no longer one of his clients.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

One of many glorious Tolkien originals, Éowyn is multi-faceted and wild. Suffocated by the tradition that puts a sword in her hand but only allows her to use it in the defence of hearth and home, this shieldmaiden is possessed by a deep sadness at Sauron’s gradual poisoning of Middle Earth; a sadness that metamorphoses to a fiery anger both at the enemy and at her being forbidden to fight, as men do, to protect what she loves. It is both this and her desperate unrequited love for Aragorn that leads her to the battlefield at Pellennor Fields, where she endures an agonising dark night of the soul that is followed, eventually, by a blindingly incandescent catharsis.

Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

More than anything else, Jane Eyre is free – penniless and without family, but free to go where she chooses and to do as she pleases. Ruled by a sense of right that is her own and not society’s, Jane’s strength is her ability to remain true to herself, even if it means making an unbearable choice between that and the person she loves. There’s none of the usual cooing about strong feelings being wrong and unbecoming: she knows, and admits, that she’s passionate, but doesn’t let that passion control her. This is particularly exemplified in the year she spends away from Rochester following the catastrophe at their wedding: she accepts that there is fulfillment and even, to a certain extent, happiness, to be found in retaining that self. Thankfully, she’s also perceptive and sensitive enough to realise that, where real love is concerned, being true to the other person and to oneself sometimes cannot be separated.

Polgara – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Polgara cover art.

Polgara cover art.

The sorceress Polgara is several thousand years old. Daughter to the great if crotchety Belgarath, one of several immortal sorcerer disciples of the god Aldur, she is simply ‘Aunt Pol’ to generations and generations of ordinary tradesmen and craftsmen that she protects both from the knowledge that they are the direct descendants of the assassinated King of Riva, Overlord of the West and from the generations and generations of bad guys who know the bloodline still exists and will do anything to extinguish it. She suffers tremendously from what one might call ‘the immortal complex,’ a harrowing, ever-present sadness and knowledge that she will outlive the ones she loves many hundreds of times over and that she will never be able to engage fully with that grief: there will always be another child to raise, another family to be strong for. Her joys in life are simplicity, domesticity and solid, profound goodness, as exemplified in her marriage to the blacksmith Durnik, BUT: terrifyingly powerful and fatally beautiful, she is as formidable an enemy as she is a friend.

Arya Stark – A Song of Ice and Fire

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

A staunch believer that she has a hole where her heart used to be, Arya, who was eleven the last time we saw her, is ruled by anger and vengeance. Already possessing a naturally iron, angry disposition when she witnesses her father beheaded for treason, long months on the road posing as a boy, both free and in captivity, have ensured her daily exposure to the most horrifying cruelty, torture and injustice. This has led to a merciless, eye-for-an-eye view of the world and willingness to commit murder at a moment’s notice, though she still possesses an immensely strong moral compass and confines her bloodlust to those that she believes deserve to die, the most important of whom feature on a list which she recites each night before going to sleep, rather like other people say their prayers. Furthermore, being on the run from most people in the Seven Kingdoms, she has been forced to adopt a wide variety of different identities and smother her own in the name of staying alive. Every day, she tries to kill the little girl by forcing herself to look at each corpse and each hideous injury she comes across, but is also haunted by a childlike fear that she will face rejection if reunited with her family, because of all the people she’s killed.

Marian Halcombe – The Woman in White

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

By far the most interesting woman in the whole of Victorian literature, Marian is the charismatic, ugly and highly intelligent half-sister of the highly annoying Laura Fairlie, the love interest of the novel’s protagonist, Walter Hartwright.

When her beloved Laura turns out to have married an abusive fortune hunter who wants to murder her for her money, and Laura herself turns out to be utterly useless in a crisis, Marian must do everything she can to keep Laura alive and unmask her husband’s plot in the house where they are both trapped. This involves climbing out of her bedroom window in her underwear and eavesdropping in the pouring rain for over an hour, somehow managing to get over the resulting fever in time to fake Laura’s death, and to break her out of a highly secure asylum in broad daylight. She also gets into a somewhat creepy understanding with her new brother in law’s friend and partner in crime, the redoubtable Count Fosco, with whom she shares volcanic ‘hate’ chemistry, hides for months in London (once again taking care of her pathologically useless sister, who has now added insanity to her infinite charms), and, when it’s all over, determines to spend the rest of her life as a companion to her sister rather than search for a serviceable husband to justify her existence.

Number 10: Bloodline, with Jeremy Brett (Review)

I don’t usually review individual episodes unless I’m in the process of watching the entire series. I shall make an exception, however, to honour a truly inspired performance by a truly inspiring man. Ladies and gents, Number 10: Bloodline, starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett.

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Brett plays British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, a genius who’s been used to accomplishing any number of intellectual feats from a very young age (i.e. translating six pages of Thucydides a night in front of his father), as well as drinking a bottle of port a day (from an equally young age) to strengthen his sickly constitution. Now middle-aged, William is Prime Minister at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and his port-drinking has increased rather exponentially with adulthood and has become interspersed with overly-enthusiastic doses of claret and Madeira. He also spends most of his (rare) free time attempting to continue his meticulous, lifelong imitation of the cold serenity that characterises his mother’s side of the family and to fight off the madness that has poisoned his paternal bloodline for generations. It is only when he is reunited with Eleanor Eden (Caroline Langrishe), the intelligent and utterly adorable daughter of good friends whom he has not seen since she was fourteen, that he is finally confronted with the true nature of his existence. Apart from everybody else, belonging nowhere, lonely, and terrified of losing his mind, William realises that his youth has been lost in service to his country and that he has never known the joy that comes from the recognition of a sister-solitude. Through Eleanor, who is more than twenty years his junior and shares his feelings with equal candour, he’s ‘set alight’, as Florence would say, and is completely overcome by the elation and power of that recognition…before people begin to talk, and a terrible promise that has haunted him since the death of his father has the most horrifying and inhuman consequences for both William and Eleanor.

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Most people today know Jeremy Brett from his dazzling and macabre performance as Sherlock Holmes, and people like me who have watched Holmes to distraction may, while watching this episode, observe his refined manner of seating himself on the couch at Downing Street and half expect him to draw his knees up and sit on his haunches at any second. Mercifully, as this episode proves, Brett is spectacularly original as an actor and pours more effort into this one-hour guest appearance than most actors today would bother with on an entire series. William inhabits Brett completely and shines out through his eyes. When a fit of madness seizes him, we get a terrifying glimpse into what is prowling beneath his composed and unruffled demeanour, before this transgression is brushed away as one would a fly and we’re left facing a neat and perfectly tranquil man, hands folded, contemplating the mess he has made of the sitting room; that mass of broken glass and smashed china a symbolic portrait both of his despair and of the side of his personality that causes it. His command of facial expression is exquisite: when he fixes his eyes on Eleanor, or reads her letters, you could not imagine a more touching representation of complete contentment, and, most profoundly of all, fulfilment. When it comes to the possibility of being parted from her, his entire face screws up in such a contortion of agony that you want to look away, as if you’re intruding on something private. Caroline Langrishe, best known for her adorable performance as Kitty Scherbatsky in 1977’s Anna Karenina, is a perfect choice as intellectual sparring partner Eleanor, her disarming and spirited demeanour an ideal match for Brett’s towering screen presence; her final conversation with William at the end of the episode a shattering, head-on collision of youthful optimism and experienced cynicism that leaves you feeling like you’ve been whacked on the head with a sledgehammer.

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With such a heart-rending narrative and such fierce, astonishing acting, this is an episode for people who love humanity, who love acting and who love great stories.

The 10 Best Sherlock Holmes Fanvids on YouTube

Artwork courtesy of avikstudio.files.wordpress.com

Artwork courtesy of avikstudio.files.wordpress.com

Let us praise the faceless rock stars and the consummate artists that most of us only know through an alias: the YouTube vidders who open up the many dimensions of Holmes and permit us to see into them as they do. Collected here are my top ten Sherlock Holmes fanvids from the timeless interpretations of Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch in no particular order (I reserve the right to omit the Downey Jnr movies, this being my blog): some of them are hilarious, some of them disturbing and some simply make you cry. Whatever the intention of the vidder was, these fanvids make up the cream of the crop in an extremely crowded online market.

1. Title:  Sherlock: No Light, No Light. (A Reichenbach Fall Fanvideo).

    Vidder: RockPrincessMarta

2. Title: Holmes & Watson- Fix You

     Vidder: givemeanimeanyday

3. Title: two fools in love | sherlock bbc

     Vidder: Deductism.

4. Title: Holmes/Watson My Life Would Suck Without You

     Vidder: B Smith

5. Title: Seven Nation Army- [Sherlock] [Series 2]

     Vidder: Sherlock Whovian

6. Title: Sherlock Holmes – Dangerous Mind

     Vidder: VHunter07

7. Title: Sherlock: I Am Not A Robot

      Vidder: ShortAngryRedHead

8. Title: The Way You Move- Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

     Vidder: givemeanimeanyday

9. Title: losing your memory | sherlock

Vidder: OMNJJ134•

10. Title: If Everyone Cared

Vidder: MishaFromPoland