The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes And Arthur Conan Doyle, BBC2

by | Jul 27, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

A masterly insight into the possible motivation behind why Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, all of which was played-out in the form of a thrilling and engaging drama.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A drab pseudo-biography of one of the dullest authors in the history of literature, who created Sherlock Holmes a character directly responsible for the existence of Waking The Dead.

What was good about it?

• The patchwork scene-shifts such as when Conan Doyle paces the long, winding path in the asylum to his father’s cell, his journey is spliced with a conversation he had with his mother on his father’s incarceration.

• A fantastic cast of Douglas Henshall as the capricious Conan Doyle, Tim McInnerny as “Mr Selden”, Sinead Cusack as Conan Doyle’s mother and Brian Cox as Dr Bell, Conan Doyle’s mentor at university. Plus Saskia Reeves and Emily Blunt.

• The fastidious attention to period detail from Conan Doyle’s crude, but at the time innovative, gyroscope model of the Earth (complete with a fixed-wire attached Moon) to the vivid anatomical etchings adorning Dr Bell’s office walls.

• The platonic intimacy exchanged between Conan Doyle and Jean Leckie (Emily Blunt).

• While the first chapter of the story was a little stodgy, as soon as Mr Selden arrived the whole drama was transformed. Initially, Mr Selden, ostensibly Conan Doyle’s biographer, is bumbling and humble in the presence of his subject and his mother. But soon, as he begins to collate the tales of what inspired the character of Holmes (and ultimately provoked Conan Doyle to kill him off) he is transformed into a perspicacious inquisitor.

• Mr Selden deducing the root of Conan Doyle’s antipathy towards Holmes being the way in which the fictional detective had “more obituaries than kings”, while his own father (over whose death Conan Doyle felt guilt) was mourned by nobody.

• The flashbacks to Conan Doyle’s student days where his tutor Dr Bell, reckoned to be the main inspiration for Holmes, schooled the class in deduction to show how to “observe the small facts upon which larger inferences depend”.

• The revelation that Mr Selden is a manifestation of Sherlock Holmes created from Conan Doyle’s imagination, and who then sets about clinically dissecting Conan Doyle’s reasons for killing Holmes and how he came to view Dr Bell as his father while his real father was packed off to an asylum to enable his mother to continue her illicit dalliance with a wealthy doctor.

What was bad about it?

• When Holmes visits his father in the asylum, the lighting cast on his father’s wan body, exaggerating his crumpled skin, unkempt beard and emaciated features, is too precise and too bleached to have fallen there naturally awarding it an artificial sheen.

• When Conan Doyle kills off Holmes, the London Daily Post headline screams “Sherlock Holmes is dead”. If this is a factual archive then we stand corrected, but we find it hard to comprehend in the austere Victorian era that newspapers operated with same level of moral scruples as the Daily Star. Still journalists share the same traits throughout the ages in the same way as serial killers do, only you’d probably invite Jack the Ripper to your wedding.

• Until the introduction of Mr Selden the narrative was rather too splintered; scenes passed by in the bat of an eyelid and major threads, such as Conan Doyle’s wife Louise contracting consumption, were quickly marginalised.

• The moment when the script seemed to step into a Victorian version of Blind Date as Conan Doyle tries to charm Jean Leckie. “I can’t be much of a writer,” Conan Doyle simpers. “Why not?” replies Jean. “Because I can’t express how wonderful it feels to see you.”

• The problem of using flashbacks, such as the scenes of Conan Doyle’s lectures as a student at university, was that Douglas Henshall still looked like the 35-year-old Conan Doyle and no matter how many times Dr Bell called him “young Doyle” was going to douse him in the fountain of youth.

While the insertion of Holmes, in the guise of Mr Selden, to solve the mystery of his own “death” was inspired, the ruse did, not surprisingly, have a few holes. If Mr Selden had conversed with Conan Doyle alone, there wouldn’t have been a problem, but his

interaction with Conan Doyle’s mother meant he had a corporeal presence. Furthermore, if the whole story had been wholly entrenched in fiction even then it wouldn’t have been disruptive, but introducing phantoms of the imagination into tales loosely based on fact stretched the credibility a little too far.

• That said the character of Mr Selden was otherwise so perfectly scripted it was probably worth it.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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