Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock.
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear. There is no bad blood between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Indeed, says Cumberbatch, the two actors who play modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes “adore each other”.
They grew close when they starred together in Frankenstein on the London stage three years ago, and while Cumberbatch admits he got a shock when he heard Miller was going to play Holmes, they now enjoy watching each other’s work (Miller’s Elementary resumes on Ten after the winter Olympics, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is on Nine at 8.30 Wednesdays).
“It’s watching an actor I really like playing a part I really like and enjoy playing,” Cumberbatch told The Hollywood Reporter. “No matter what bullshit the press has tried to whip up in the past, we’re really good friends.”
Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary.
The same cannot be said for the writers and producers of the rival dramedies. Back in 2012, the producer of Sherlock, Sue Vertue, was furious when the CBS network announced it was doing Elementary.
She told The Independent: "It's interesting, as they approached us a while back about remaking our show. At the time, they made great assurances about their integrity, so we have to assume that their modernised Sherlock Holmes doesn't resemble ours in any way, as that would be extremely worrying."
The head writer for Elementary, Rob Doherty, didn’t see any problem. "Most shows have a Sherlock in them -- they just happen to be named someone else,” he told an audience at Comic-Con. "Arthur Conan Doyle knew what he was doing."
Miller and Cumberbatch in Frankenstein.
As it’s turned out, Elementary became a tight mainstream TV thriller with comic elements, while Sherlock has become a self-indulgent celebration of Benedict Cumberbatch’s charisma – a gift for the fanclub that calls itself “the Cumberbitches”.
In the series currently on Nine, we meet Holmes’s parents (played by Cumberbatch’s parents) and Dr Watson’s sweetheart (played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner) and sit through slapstick scenes in which Holmes and Watson demonstrate their mutual affection (though not in a gay way, as Watson keeps assuring their landlady, Mrs Hudson).
What happened to the intriguing story twists that are part of Elementary? They are very much secondary to the boys’ banter. Apparently the co-creator of Sherlock, Steven Moffat, doesn’t see plot as a priority. Moffatt told the audience at a BAFTA screening in London:
“The fascinating thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories, if you go back to the original: they’re … weirdly paced, because the opening few pages of every single story – and it’s the best bit – are just Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson chatting by the fireside. And eventually someone will turn up and they go off and have a case but what upstages everything is those two characters all the time.
“It’s not a detective show, it’s a show about a detective. There’s plenty of detection in it but that’s not what it’s about -- it’s about the hero. It’s the first example really of the main character being more interesting than the story.”
That rather depends on how strongly you share the passion of the Cumberbitches.
The US version of Rake, showing on the Fox network immediately after American Idol, been praised with faint damns by US critics. Apparently the leading man is simply not as sexy as Richard Roxburgh.
According to Willa Paskin in Slate, Greg Kinnear is “a passable actor” but “does not project a strong sexual allure, and what he does project comes in the sexy accountant, sexy dad, sexy middle-manager range. He is not, in other words, in any way rakish.” The critic concludes: “One day, I fervently hope I will be able to write ‘… and the remake is vastly superior to the original’ but today is not that day.”
The Australian original, starting Sunday on ABC1, has a big advantage over the US version – it can make in-jokes about local politics. The last season opened with Cleaver Greene having sex in the back of a limo with the blonde beautiful Premier of NSW. The producer, Ian Collie, told me he doesn't know if Kristina Keneally ever saw it, but "I hope someone has given her the DVD and she’s had a chuckle.”
According to Collie, the new series opens with Greene starting a jail sentence and finding he's surrounded by old mates, including a former Attorney-General of NSW. Collie admits that one character “might have been inspired” by Craig Thomson, and when Rake gets out of jail, "he finds Sydney is awash with inquiries and royal commissions". So, no relevance to real life there.
The Tribal Mind column, by David Dale, appears in a printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a director's cut on this website, where it welcomes your comments.
David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia - A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.