Sherlock series 2 episode 1: A Scandal In Belgravia spoiler-free review

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman return for more Sherlock. Here's our spoiler-free review of A Scandal In Belgravia...

Sherlock and Watson - Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

 

“Don’t be boring” Holmes tells a witness in A Scandal in Belgravia, the first episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ second three-part BBC series. That seems to have been the mantra adopted by Sherlock’s creators in this massively-anticipated follow-up to series one, because boring it is not.

Clever, funny, cheeky, dark, complex, and visually imaginative yes, but boring? Not for a minute.

A Scandal in Belgravia is what happens when an already great show gets a well-deserved confidence boost. Working on series one, Moffat and Gattiss must have had the inkling that they had something special on their hands, but no idea how warmly Sherlock would be welcomed by the viewing public, or how eagerly awaited a follow-up would be. 

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Last time around, Sherlock was something of a punt. This time, Moffat and Gattiss have their audience, and they don’t half know it. If that sounds cocky, it’s because it is, and that’s no criticism. Cockiness is so typical a Holmesian trait the character practically wrote the monograph on it, so what better approach could the show’s creators take?

Take the dramatic cliffhanger ending of series one, which had Sherlock viewers baying for more and venting their delighted frustration online. A Scandal in Belgravia provides an audacious resolution, there’s no other word for it. Bold, and more than likely to prod some viewing trolls into online fury, the sheer confidence exhibited by the move is applause-worthy. And tonight, people did applaud it, as well you might when you see it unfurl.

The fearlessness doesn’t stop there. Just look at the story choices for the three episodes of series two: first up is Irene Adler kicking things off, then the turn of The Hound of the Baskervilles, followed by the final problem of the Reichenbach Falls. The three best-known entries in Holmes’ case book, tackled head-on. Why delay the gratification, is Moffat’s argument, and amen to that.

Gratification is something of a speciality in A Scandal in Belgravia, not just thematically, but in terms of giving the audience what they want. While suspense and action are still present and correct, Sherlock knows there are plenty of other places to go for TV car chases and alleyway fistfights, but only one combining them with high camp, humour, and the sort of verbal speed and agility that makes you wish Aaron Sorkin screenplays would get a move on. 

The 90 minute duration of each episode means there’s room for several swift changes in tone, which ensures the drama doesn’t outstay its welcome, the comedy never grates, and the camp is never cringeworthy. It’s a devil of a balance they’ve achieved, but achieve it they have.

To the story then. Staying spoiler-free is something of an odd task when your subject has been in the public domain since the late nineteenth century, but here goes. 

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Once the small matter of the swimming pool confrontation has been tidied away, things move off at a fair whack. Holmes is beset by a parade of potential clients and cases, most of whom he dismisses, the rest he solves without breaking so much as a sweat. The reason he’s in-demand? Watson’s blog, of course, which happens to be getting more hits than Sherlock’s, not that he minds of course…

Soon a more interesting case is brought to Holmes’ attention, and one involving a matter of national security. Cue the entrance of one Irene Adler, a woman in possession of some rare incriminating evidence and something even rarer: the wits to outsmart Sherlock Holmes.

The novelty of this story and of choosing Adler as counterpart is that it gives the opportunity to show Holmes being bested. We’re presented with Holmes the buffoon, Holmes the baffled, Holmes having rings run around him, temporarily at least. It’s a chance to up the comedy, and make good use of Cumberbatch’s clowning skills. If none of that sounds very attractive to you, not to worry, it’s by no means a permanent shift, but it is a strangely enjoyable one while it lasts.

One of the great things about the BBC’s Sherlock is that it’s the first adaptation to underscore quite how annoying Sherlock Holmes would be to live with. The character’s cavalier arrogance and dismissal of lesser mortals such as foreigners, women, and the constabulary of Greater London are well documented in Conan Doyle’s stories, but until now, nobody’s made it quite so clear how punch-able Holmes is. That’s where the enjoyment at seeing him temporarily flummoxed comes in.

There’s also plenty of cheekbone-y deductive goodness for Cumberbatch fans, including one fairly special appearance from a bed sheet (I’ll say no more).

Holmes’ relationships with Watson, his brother Mycroft, and Mrs Hudson are all developed pleasingly, but the most tantalising relationship in A Scandal in Belgravia is that between Holmes and the woman: Irene Adler.

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Lara Pulver turns in a game performance as Irene Adler, proving a great addition to the already wonderful cast of Cumberbatch, Freeman, Gatiss and Stubbs (oh yes, and Andrew Scott of course making an appearance which is not to be his last in the series…). It’s a fairly saucy role for Pulver, and she slots in very nicely indeed.

Adler’s inclusion makes for the raunchiest episode of Sherlock to date, in which Holmes’ attitude to sex and the heart come under scrutiny. Again, if you’re afeard of seeing the great rationalist brought mawkishly to his knees by love, don’t worry, it’s nothing so gauche or simple. Everything’s much more satisfyingly difficult than that. As Mark Gatiss specifies, the episode isn’t about Sherlock Holmes in love, but Sherlock Holmes and love. There’s quite a distinction.

Story-wise, A Scandal in Belgravia isn’t as self-contained as series one’s A Study in Pink or The Blind Banker, but more akin to The Great Game for the number of plot threads running through it. Without revealing too much, it’s fair to say that there are plenty of surprises and treats in store even for those familiar with A Scandal in Bohemia, which episode 2.1 is based upon. 

Any talk of Sherlock’s treats and surprises would be remiss not to mention Paul McGuigan’s creative direction, which is, if anything better exploited in this episode than in any of the previous three. The now-characteristic text on screen is still being used to good effect, but in addition are some great visual ideas executed well. 

McGuigan’s camera spins, cranes, tilts the horizon, and pulls some other nifty effects tricks which I won’t spoil save to say that they’re inventive and lots of fun. What that distinctive visual style does for Sherlock is beautifully disguise the fact that a large proportion of the show is just people sat in chairs, talking. The long monologues and quick-fire explanations are illustrated by fluid camerawork and imaginative editing, cleaving once again to that mantra: “Don’t be boring”. 

If I were forced at gunpoint to have to have a quibble with A Scandal in Belgravia, then it’s this: the phrase ‘camera phone’ is used repeatedly in the episode, a phrase not to my knowledge in common use since 2002. If that’s all that’s wrong with this hugely funny, clever, entertaining series, then I expect Moffat, Gatiss and co. don’t have too many sleepless nights before them.

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A welcome return then, to a tremendous show firing on every cylinder. In short, fabulous stuff.

Sherlock series 2 is set for transmission in January 2012.

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