Whether by accident or design, Martin Freeman let the world in on the secret of Sherlock’s 2015 one-off episode weeks ago. Though the C-word was absent from the BBC’s official announcement, Freeman’s rogue comments identified the episode as “a Christmas special”, which is motivation enough for us to fire up the wild speculation engines.
As Arthur Conan Doyle readers will tell you, one Sherlock Holmes story in particular is ripe for adaptation as a Christmas special. With its playful plot, lack of murder or violence, and frothy story of a hapless jewel theft, The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle essentially is a nineteenth century Christmas special. It’s a quirky 27-page mystery with a happy ending that finds the Great Detective in a jocund, sportive mood. It features a goose, a shiny gemstone and a punch line punning on Holmes and Watson’s Christmas dinner. In crime fiction, it doesn’t get much more festive.
A quick refresher of the Doyle story: a commissionaire witnesses an affray which leaves a worn-out hat and dead goose abandoned on a London pavement, and takes said items to Sherlock Holmes for identification. Holmes sends the man off to cook and eat the goose, while he and Watson make several deductions about the hat’s impoverished owner, to whom it is later returned. The commissionaire comes back to show Holmes a precious stone found inside the mysterious goose, which is identified as the Countess of Morcar’s Blue Carbuncle, a jewel that a plumber at her hotel had recently been arrested for stealing. Further investigations turn up the gem’s amateurish thief, who had hidden the jewel in one of his goose-breeding sister’s birds and then mistakenly taken the wrong fowl and lost track of the bird containing the stone. After ensuring the innocent plumber’s freedom, Holmes lets the real thief go free explaining that prison would only have made him a criminal for life, and citing “the season of forgiveness”.
Christmas geese? Rare jewels? A host of bumbling Dickensian characters, from the repentant crook to the down-on-his-luck hat owner? It’s little wonder The Blue Carbuncle is a fan-favourite among Doyle readers. Its popularity hasn’t escaped Sherlock co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat either. Speaking at a round-table interview last April, Mark Gatiss talked of making mischief about the popular fervour for the story, saying, “It was great, we leaked some photographs of Baker Street at Christmas [for A Scandal In Belgravia] and everyone then assumed it was The Blue Carbuncle”.
Indeed, one element of The Blue Carbuncle has already found its way into the BBC’s Sherlock. In series three’s Mark Gatiss-written The Empty Hearse, the Holmes brothers play a round of childhood game “deductions”. Tossing a hat between them, each attempts to outdo the conclusions the other draws about the headgear’s owner’s gender, occupation, habits and so on, just as Sherlock does in the original story.
(Incidentally for Watson-watchers, the hat game is a point of interest in the two existing television adaptations of The Blue Carbuncle – the BBC’s 1968 version with Peter Cushing and Grenada Television’s 1984 version with Jeremy Brett. In the earlier adaptation, Nigel Stock’s Watson is portrayed with a generous amount of nous compared to the original story in which Watson hands the hat back to Holmes after a brief inspection with the words “I see nothing”. Stock’s character makes several of the deductions given to Holmes in the Doyle story, while David Burke’s Watson in the 1984 version is back to his largely clueless self.)
Being set at Christmas doesn’t make The Blue Carbuncle a cert to appear in a Sherlock Christmas special of course, but it seems likelier than not. (It’s a different show, but every Doctor Who festive special so far has been a turkey and tinsel-fest). Besides, Sherlock hasn’t been historically shy of the yuletide period, between A Scandal In Belgravia’s party scene and much of the series three finale, His Last Vow, taking place on the day itself. If the 2015 Christmas special follows directly on from that (as a certain cliff-hanger suggests it must), it would put Holmes and Watson in the exact period of The Blue Carbuncle, which starts in the original story on “the second morning after Christmas”.
Continuing straight on from His Last Vow to a faithful adaptation of The Blue Carbuncle could present some tonal problems for the BBC’s Sherlock – though nothing that its writing team won’t be able to handle. The “miss me?” crisis in which the series three finale left Sherlock is at a complete contrast to the relaxed mood of The Blue Carbuncle’s opening, which sees the detective “lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing gown” (move over purple shirt of sex…). The original adventure unravels at a languorous pace, with Holmes and Watson waiting days to hear a response to their newspaper advertisement about the lost-and-found goose. The story is more amusing than urgent, with none of the high-tension chases, waterfall wrestling and poison-dart-blowing dwarfs of other Conan Doyle tales.
Otherwise largely faithful adaptations, The Blue Carbuncle’s stakes were one thing that both the Cushing and Brett versions found necessary to raise in order to make decent TV drama. The Brett version adds in a loving wife and children for the framed plumber to lose, then tearfully regain once his name was cleared. The Cushing adaptation goes one further by having said plumber attempt suicide in his cell (which, according to figures released every year by The Samaritans, is actually a fairly realistic Christmassy addition). Spritely fun as it is, unadulterated, The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle doesn’t quite have the high drama expected of an episode of the much-anticipated Sherlock.
No matter, because should The Blue Carbuncle find its way into the 2015 Christmas special, we can count on it not being anything like a straightforward adaptation. Much more characteristic for the modern-day retelling would be for elements from the original story – names, objects, plot points – to be woven in to a new adventure. (If I can make one fangirl request to Sherlock’s writers at this point, please can Benedict Cumberbatch be asked to pay homage to Jeremy Brett’s deliciously louche, deliberate delivery of the line “Put down your goose”? Tumblr will thank you).
We await 2015 to learn more about the one-off Sherlock special and to see whether we’ve been sent on a wild goose chase…
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