[The sad recent demise of editor Marvin Kaye means also the end of the magazine he edited, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine – which had quite a backlog of my film review in hand. I’m sharing those columns here.]
Created and mostly written by Tom Bidwell, Netflix’s eight-episode show The Irregulars is a different take on Sherlock Holmes’ street urchin allies from the BBC’s The Baker Street Boys serials (1983) – though it picks up one or two elements from the BBC’s reboot Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars (2007) before going its own grimy steampunk fantasy route. The set-up is that a quartet of teenage orphans – Spike (McKell David), Bea (Thaddea Graham), Billy (Jojo Macari) and Jessie (Darci Shaw) – live in a vile basement near Baker Street, which they rent from slumlord Mrs Hudson (Denise Black). Top-billed McKell must have the best agent, since Spike is the only character who doesn’t get a sub-plot to himself – while alpha irregular Bea is plainly the lead but gets billed second. The quartet expands with the arrival of runaway haemophiliac Prince Leopold (Harrison Osterfield), one of ‘fifty or so children’ of the unnamed Queen (Leopold is an Actual Historical Character), who cosies up to Bea, making pugilist Billy jealous (he’s ‘racist against posh people’, we’re told). Bea looks after her fragile younger sister Jessie, who has psychic visions rooted in the backstory – which is that a ‘rip’ (dimensional breach) once troubled London, and only got closed thanks to Bea and Jessie’s mother Alice (Eileen O’Higgins), who was teamed up with Sherlock Holmes (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and John Watson (Royce Pierreson).
Flashbacks are doled out to explain why these versions of Doyle’s characters are in such a shabby state – Watson is a manipulative creep and Holmes an incontinent addict. A fresh rip creates monster-of-the-episode magical villains for individual cases, but also draws in a mystery man in a white linen suit (Clarke Peters) and sets up a comic book-style finale involving an underground encounter with a big glowing void. The fate of the city – nay, the entire universe – is in play, but the show (like so many other recent fantasy franchises) treats all that as a B story while a tight-knit set of characters sort out their actual and metaphorical family issues. Everyone here is presented as selfish and self-involved, even on their best days. Sometimes, this can really work as drama, but often it becomes wearisome and for all the game efforts of a solid British cast this winds up feeling like Doctor Who on a really bad night littered with pointlessly mean-spirited takes on its own new-made characters let alone the refugees from Doyle.
Shifting Holmes into a setting where the supernatural is accepted is a risky prospect, though it’s been done well several times. Here, it’s more of an issue that Holmes is terminally insensitive to people around him than that he cracks up when reaching the limits of a rational explanation. Lloyd-Hughes’ Holmes is a long-haired showoff in the flashbacks and a grimy basket case in the present day, riffing on Robert Downey Jr and Jonny Lee Miller. There’s a germ of an idea in Watson having to hold the business together while Holmes is incapable and needing outside help from the kids because he’s just not clever enough – and it’s complicated by making Watson a) gay, with a crush on his best friend and b) black. The Irregulars picks up from the recent David Copperfield and Bridgerton a vision of the past with colour-blind casting. Not only are ragamuffins and slum-dwellers multiracial, so are the nobility and indeed it’s not uncommon for black, white and Asian characters to be related to each other without explanation.
This is as much a fantasy element as the magic powers and Frankensteinian mad science, but raises issues the show can’t deal with. The Irregulars takes place in a Victorian London without race prejudice but with acute class distinctions, displacing racism into a dislike of ‘freaks’ that evokes the allegorical anti-mutant feeling of the X-Men franchise, with Inspector Lestrade (Aidan McArdle) characterised as a bigot because he hates a shapeshifting culprit. Somehow, I can go along with all this – Conan Doyle realised that the Holmes canon was rooted in a nostalgic fantasy of Victorian London, and I’ve no issue with more fantastical visions – but find the use of anachronistic language far more of a pitfall. Here, circa 1870, kids say ‘what the actual fuck’ and use ‘clones’ as shorthand for artificially-grown doppelgangers. The show can’t get through a minute without sounding some dreadfully wrong note in the dialogue. It’s not just that people didn’t talk like this in the 19th century – it’s that nobody outside TV drama even talks like this now. By comparison, the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015), from the novel by Susannah Clarke, managed to feel fantastical, historical and credible without being inaccessible.
Another Young Adult trait is that all the kids are smart and the adults limited (as was the case in Netflix’s last Holmes effort, Enola Holmes), which means too many scenes of knowall brats lecturing older, squarer people on why they’re at fault … but otherwise sulk and brood and complain about how unfair life is like stroppy teenagers with a thin layer of make-up department grime on their pretty faces. Prince Leo, in particular, wants slapping. A few episodes rise a bit above the rut – ‘Ipsissimus’, with Mycroft (Jonjo O’Neill) sending the Irregulars undercover to a country house murder mystery with occult elements, is probably the standout – but the series arc is too familiar (the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer lingers). It’s been cancelled.
I swear, Guy Ritchie is the worst thing to happen to Sherlock Holmes since… I dunno when. Every adaptation outside of the Moffat/Gatiss version tries to emulate it, it seems.
Dragging in 21st C social politics to Victorian era fiction is also insulting, because it ignores the real problems facing non-white people in those days, which are the basis for real life issues two centuries later, but which have evolved since then too.
The Strange and Norrell series was excellent because it refused to ignore how a black servant would be treated then, but gave him the dignity of a proper personality and character arc that arguably made him the most interesting person in the story. But I guess that’s too much like hard work for most of these retro projects.
I’d have no problem with a black Victorian Sherlock Holmes if they were sensitive about the contemporary matters it would bring up. I’m not interested in complaints about “wokeness”, when that could stretch fiction imaginatively if used well.
Detective Dee > Ritchie’s Sherlock