'The Game's Afoot, Doyle!'

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Aug. 6, 2002 at 3:15 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- The body of a freshly murdered man is found inside an ancient Egyptian mummy. A murderous fiend stalks the gas-lit streets, seeking to document scientific proof of the immortal soul by photographing his victims in their moment of death. Loved ones send eerie messages from beyond the grave. Or do they?

This is the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary hero Sherlock Holmes. But it is also the world of gloomy, fog-shrouded Victorian Britain that inspired Doyle's writing. And this understanding has inspired the conceit of the most welcome addition to Public Television's venerable "Mystery" series in many a year -- "The Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes."

"The Murder Rooms", created by talented writer David Pirie, begins with an inspiration so obvious -- as wonderful ideas usually are -- that it appear astonishing no one had ever thought of it before. It has been known for many decades that Conan Doyle, as an impecunious young doctor trying to earn needed cash by writing mystery stories, used as the primary model for the legendary Holmes his own remarkable teacher in his medical studies in Edinburgh, Dr. Joseph Bell. Suppose then, that Bell's inspiration was far more literal to the young Doyle. Suppose that Bell, a pathologist of genius, really did solve bizarre murder mysteries in Edinburgh and England with the young Doyle as his own Dr. Watson figure by his side. And suppose it was these experiences that gave Doyle the raw material he later used to create his own immortal Holmes stories.

"The Murder Rooms" takes this conceit and builds upon it with the formidably finest period drama that British television is capable of producing. The original pilot story ran two years ago on BBC2, the British Broadcasting Corporation's relatively elite specialist channel. It was so popular it even outdrew "The Simpsons" and "Robot Wars" on rival channels. PBS ran that film a few months ago and is currently running the series of four more 90-minute "chillers" that followed by popular demand. A third series is already planned.

Robin Laing played the part of Conan Doyle well in the pilot film. Charles Edwards took over in the current series and is even better. He is less boyish, less handsome, but still earnest and a striking and intriguing mix of genius, masterful intellect and ingenue.

However, the real star of the series is arguably Britain's greatest living television actor, the superb Sir Ian Richardson. He made an unforgettable impact on American audiences playing Prime Minister Francis Urquhart -- FU to his friends and even more numerous enemies -- in the wittily satirical "House of Cards" trilogy of drama series, written by Michael Dobbs. Before that, he was also a memorable Field Marshal Montgomery in "Churchill and the Generals" saving that film from the buffoon-ish performance of the ostensible lead, Timothy West. And he was a commanding Bill Hayden, the treacherous "mole," in the classic TV version of John Le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" starring the late Sir Alec Guinness.

Richardson's performance as Bell is another masterful triumph right down to his soft and subtle Edinburgh accent, and deserves to win him an Emmy next year. He suggests Holmes at every step, yet he manifestly is not. He creates an entirely credible late 19th century rational man of science with a warm heart beating strongly within a framework of proper Victorian decorum. For the first time, since the lamented, relatively early death of Jeremy Brett, here is a "Holmesian" interpretation of the great detective that can stand up to and is visibly independent of Brett's previously definitive one on the famous Grenada Television series. Coming in the same year we have lost "Inspector Morse" -- John Thaw -- and "Rumpole of the Bailey" -- Leo McKern, Richardson's triumph serves heartening notice that the wells of British popular culture hero inspiration are far from running dry.

Richardson and Edwards are also served exceptionally well by the scripts, direction and general production values. "The Murder Rooms" presents a totally convincing sense of life in Victorian England. The feel of it is right and the sense of the fragility of the rational structure of society is something that no previous period television drama, not even the Grenada-Brett Holmes series, has ever been able to evoke so chillingly well.

Here is a world where often the only thing a well-meaning doctor can do when summoned to a tragically young and dying patient is to effectively practice euthanasia upon them in a mercy killing by stealth to put them out of their misery. Here is a world where the prolonged agonized suffering of loved ones can make the most admirable and honorable of people homicidally insane. Here is a world where all the impressive superstructure of the greatest technological and cultural civilization the world had ever known rests uneasily as a thin crust atop a heaving mass of poverty and despair, depravity and crazed madness. This fragility of hope and reason as a stretched veneer over the rumbling unknown is evoked frighteningly by every episode of "The Murder Rooms." Imagine the emotional wallop of half a dozen of the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone" wrapped into a single package. You will find all that here.

The conceit of imagining that Doyle's later work was inspired by his own investigations with Bell enables "The Murder Rooms" to be simultaneously enjoyed at multiple levels. And if, as Umberto Eco maintains, the novel is a machine to generate ambiguity and multiple interpretations, this series succeeds as few detective series ever have before.

Doyle's Holmes canon is deconstructed and interpreted by the prior fictional framework that is imposed upon it. Yet that new fictional framework stands robustly on its own merits. It presents amazing mysteries, brilliant feats of detection and the drama of two very frail and all too human heroes armed only with the magic sword of science and deductive reason as their weapons to hunt out and destroy the fearsome dragons of the night.

It may be that in our post Sept. 11 existence, the recognition of the frailty of virtue and reason in a world best by demons affects us even more than it did in the age of Nazism and Communism. Who would have thought only a few months ago that the 21st century might be in such need of moral inspiration from the 19th ? One does not expect period drama or simple detective stories to evoke such considerations. But "The Murder Rooms" is no ordinary or predictable detective drama. It cannot be recommended too highly.

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