In 2013, shortly after the tragic death of one of it’s stars, Andrey Kavun’s Sherlock Holmes TV series was broadcast. After the success of its highly popular 1970s predecessor, the eight part series had a lot to live up to, and despite being a reimagining of the Victorian Holmes, it seems to have succeeded…
Heavily inspired by the Guy Ritchie film version (in spite of being announced before that had even been made), 2013’s Russian Sherlock Holmes TV series is, quite literally, a shot in the arm. Evoking the same gritty imagery seen in shows like Deadwood and Ripper Street, there are only occasional lapses where Russian cultural influences bleed into the show. With only on postmodern exception (where Holmes gives the name Basil Rathbone as a pseudonym), the script gives us a new but plausible take on Holmes. Imagining what he might be like from Watson’s perspective as a neighbour – before his tales have passed through the filter of a written account, and editor, and publication in The Strand magazine.
The first episode (and the others) is available on youtube.
Much is made of Watson’s time in Afghanistan – a telling point of commonality between Britain and Russia, both then and now – and the account described in the introduction is subtly different in a way that promises to explore it further (in the following episode, no less).
Watson himself is brilliantly portrayed by the late Andrei Panin (who sadly died from a head injury before post-production of the series was completed) as an intelligent, if a little lost, man of action, whose return from military service leaves him alone and in need of a friend. His meeting with Holmes is very different to tha seen in A Study in Scarlet, bringing them together in the midst of a case which can best be described as a portmanteau episode in which The Adventure of Black Peter has elements of A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton thrown in.
Watson is very clearly set up as the protagonist (with Holmes as the agonist), and the character is better served than in any version I have previously seen, taking a little of Holmes’ invincibility and transferring it to the doctor by making him the great detective’s boxing tutor. This slight shift has a fantastic impact on the dynamic between the two men, making them more like partners than master and apprentice.
Holmes, played by Igor Petrenko, also gets a makeover, looking more like the character of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment than the deerstalker (or even top hat) wearing Holmes. This, and his favouring of spirits over tobacco, show Holmes to be a younger man than Watson, and in need of just a little friendly restraint. His deceitful side is also less constrained, giving an altogether more human aspect to the character.
The other regulars – Lestrade and Mrs Hudson – are similarly made over. the former seems quite intent on treating Holmes as the villain, whilst adopting perhaps the most unconvincing costume of the show. Mrs Hudson, meanwhile, is gloriously described by Holmes as being ‘nasty’, and seems more attractive and respectable than we are used to, whilst the introduction of other lady lodgers keeps us guessing which of them is the landlady.
The mystery itself cracks on apace, and is well-structured so that the clues are readily apparent and almost incidental to the action. This works well, setting up a wonderful boxing sequence which goes to show that you don’t need the cinematic trickery of Ritchie to pack the action in.
A lot has been made of Russian cultural context elsewhere. Certainly the friendship between Holmes and Watson is more physically explicit than contextually implicit, but that works well for TV these days. Where the cracks occasionally show is in costume – Holmes and Lestrade’s sartorial choices notwithstanding, those Russian costumiers really do struggle with the shape of the old British policeman’s helmet, and uniforms in general (I definitely spotted a Russian sailor drinking in a London pub), but if feels authentically Victorian, although there are moments where a modern Russian perspective on the attitudes of the British Empire isn’t quite in keeping with a native’s viewpoint.
Still, it is an enjoyable and engaging drama, and the first episode – at 90 minutes – is enough to make you want to binge-watch the remaining seven.