The return of the telly (as opposed to the Robert Downey Jnr film) version of Sherlock had been hugely anticipated after the triumphantly brilliant trio of episodes a year ago. And A Scandal in Belgravia did not disappoint. Forgive me, I have to say it, it was a spanking good episode. Whipsmart in fact. Slightly more by way of raunchy undergarments and methods of restraint than I’d bargained for at 8.10pm on a Sunday evening, watching, as I was, with a nine year old, but it sparkled with fun and mischief from start to finish. Some possibly dodgy sexual politics too, more of which later, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it.
It began where the last episode left off, at the beautifully lit swimming baths with a standoff between Moriarty and Holmes. Moriarty’s ‘bomb’ jacket is on the ground and red dot scopes from anonymous rifles are trained on the foreheads of Holmes and Watson. But the crisis gets literally called off when Irene Adler, whom Moffat has made into a dominatrix, phones Moriarty on his mobile, and he leaves.
And then we’re off, with so much to enjoy. Much playing with modern culture in a droll, witty way. Best use of a text alert ever. And Watson is writing a blog about cases, including a man dying mysteriously by a loch (the blog ‘exists’, you can see it here). The rapidly increasing number of blog fans leads to Holmes trying to hide his face from fans trying to take his picture as he leaves a theatre – grabbing a random hat from the props box. A Deerstalker, of course. And there’s a ‘real’ Twitter account for Irene’s dominatrix business (@TheWhipHand).
So. To the plot. Holmes and Watson are summoned to an anonymous client by scary men with hair from “three small dogs” on their trousers. The world’s greatest detective (apart from Dangermouse) works out whom the dog owner might be. Corgies anyone? Holmes and Watson get taken to Buckingham Palace where they meet Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, the wonderful Mark Gatiss. And, all this time, Holmes has no pants on. No clothes at all in fact. Just the sheet he wore when he was summoned.
I won’t lie. I enjoyed a naked Benedict Cumberbatch. And so it is that we see him wrapped in a sheet on a Royal sofa, awaiting an audience with what we assume is the Queen. All most deliciously done. Holmes does put some clothes on before meeting her, after Mycroft treads on the edge of the sheet and the whole thing slips down (LAWKS!). But I bet no-one asked Her Maj what she’d have liked to see him wearing.
The veiled suggestion is that the ‘scandal in Belgravia’ concerns possible blackmail over incriminating photographs of a female Royal (and we’re all thinking “squeaky clean party planning Princess”), having some hot S&M sex with Irene Adler. I loved this, since it healed some of the irkedness created during 2011, when some of us had got heartily sick of Royal Family Mania whipped up around the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and we also found the public slobbering over bridesmaid Pippa Middleton’s arse to be faintly revolting. A nasty reminder that, in many ways, society seems to have reverted to casual 1970s sexism.
Now, the character of Irene Adler (played here by Lara Pulver from Spooks and True Blood) is a magnificent fictional construct. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made her an opera singer in the first of his fifty-six stories published in The Strand magazine, A Scandal in Bohemia. The plot concerned blackmail over her affair with a member of a socially high-ranking European family, and Adler is a smart, mysterious, sexy, gorgeous, morally ambivalent woman who out-foxes Holmes and causes him to fall in love with her.
I’m pretty certain Conan Doyle doesn’t suggest Adler is gay or even bisexual. Whereas Moffat explicitly does here. Lara Pulver is gorgeous, and Steven Moffat writes her character as smart and sexy. She summons Holmes to her house, and greets him starkers (foiling his habit of learning about strangers from their clothes).
What we then get is a plot unfolding around what internationally sensitive secrets she has hidden on her iPhone, which she extracted from her powerful clients whilst they were willingly paying wads of cash to be tied-up, insulted, bound, smacked, whipped, humiliated, upside down etc (all I ever got as career suggestions were ‘teacher’ or ‘librarian’, when dominatrix sounds so much more fun).
Anyway, these bits of evidence Adler keeps for her own ‘protection’. Holmes gets hold of the phone, but can’t guess her password. At one stage, his landlady, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is done over by thugs also after the phone, but they are no match for her (she put the phone down her bra, as all women would do. Men know nothing).
Irene and Sherlock share a ‘moment’ and there are lots of exchanges of entertaining, sexually-charged banter, with the interesting suggestion at one point that Holmes may not be as knowledgable about sex as he is about the many types of cigarette ash.
A cunning ploy to foil a bomb plot by international terrorists involving a plane full of corpses is scuppered by Holmes being too clever for his own good (Adler is in league with Moriarty). Adler almost extracts lots of money from Mycroft for the rest of the contents of her phone. But Holmes then guesses the phone code by means of realising the hard-ass Adler has gone all soppy and sentimental by falling in love with him. The up-shot of all of this is that Holmes out-smarts, and ends up saving the life of, Adler. Which is a great pity. Moffat should have let her keep the whip hand, not let him have the upper one.
Moffat has her state she’s gay, so why does she then fall head over heels in love with a man? And gorgeous as Benedict Cumberbatch is, the politics are dodgy. A very good blog has been written on this subject by @Stavvers, here.
In the Conan Doyle world there are few enough strong, sexually alluring women characters. Watson’s girlfriends are drawn as being so bland they are literally interchangeable and forgettable. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are both clever chaps, and having thought about it, my view is that they should have left the Irene Adler character intact as the only person who ever bested Holmes.
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