The Adventure of the Missing Transcript
This is Mark Gatiss's Speech to the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's Annual Dinner, which he gave in January 2006.
Photo credit: Jean Upton
The speech is a genius piece of writing. The writing (this is Mark we are talking about after all) is wonderful, funny, intelligent, cannonical, clever ... I could go on and on.
Ladies and gentlemen, I must begin with an apology. Whilst working on my speech last night, I rang the bell for some coffee to clear my brain. When I recalled that I don’t, in fact, have any servants I popped downstairs to get the Nescafe myself. Upon my return, a scant two minutes later, I discovered that the speech had vanished! Half-mad with anxiety I dashed into the street- bare-headed- and was the importuned by the most frightful apparition I have ever come upon: a two-foot tall mulatto Lascar with a wooden bottom and his ears pierced for rings. He pressed a telegram into my palm and ran off into the fog, his breath reeking of liquorice allsorts. ‘Come to the House of Commons at once, if convenient’, ran the cable. ‘If inconvenient, don’t bother’. I rushed to St Stephen’s Green and there, under a stained carpet, on the top of an underground train inside a battered tin-despatch box I finally found... the speech.
It runs something like this.
One day in 2002 I was at the BBC. I’d been called in for a chat as the Corporation was thinking of doing a new Sherlock Holmes adaptation as a Christmas treat and they knew I was a Holmes purist. ‘Which one are you doing?’ I asked on the phone. ‘Maybe ‘The Copper Beeches,’ came the reply. ‘Unusual choice,’ I said. ‘Yes. It gets going a bit after the second murder’. I spluttered into my receiver: ‘There aren’t any murders in The Copper Beeches’. Pause. ‘There are now’. Programme commissioners, when they go wrong, are the worst of criminals. So, I raced round the endless circular corridors, frothing at the mouth at what these philistines might be planning and not giving a thought to the big news story of the week, which was that the hated Taliban regime had been overthrown.
I was brought up short by the sight of none other than veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson emerging from the lift. The liberator of Khabul in person! I’d never met Mr Simpson but I knew this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As he passed me, I touched him on the arm and whispered: ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive’. For as long as I can remember I have been completely besotted by Holmes’s world of Prussian spies, London Particulars and wide-awake hats: the form and language of Conan Doyle’s wonderful work embedding into my speech and writing with the tenacity of a bull-terrier frozen onto the ankle.
Only a few years ago, I seized a Doyle-ish moment upon the unexpected demise of The Queen Mother. Raising a glass at a dinner party I solemnly announced, ‘Gentlemen, the old Queen is dead’. Though, that’s no way to speak about Rupert Everett.
But my story doesn’t begin there. I was a morbid child, obsessed with horror, Victoriana and all things outré. My mother even went so far as to draw up a curious list of facts about me on the occasion of my fifth birthday.
Knowledge of Philosophy: Nil
Knowledge of Politics: Feeble. Can do a good impression of Ted Heath Knowledge of Literature: Variable. Is well up on Enid Blyton Knowledge of Sensational Literature: Immense!
I knew the details of every Edwardian murder, every Hammer horror, every gore-stained, yellow-backed penny dreadful so it’s only appropriate that tonight we should be celebrating the Sussex vampire. Of course, it was natural in these circumstances that I should stumble upon the Great Detective and his loyal Boswell, but it was actually through film and television that I came to love them. Caught on the curst, as it were, between Cushing and Brett, I didn’t have a definitive Holmes. He was, instead, an admixture of Basil Rathbone, Robert Stephens, Christopher Plummer, Tom Baker and a dozen others who popped up in everything from TV movies to ‘Crackerjack’.
But I knew the Rathbone films weren’t right even though I had only a vague idea of the stories upon which they were based. Could the Hoxton Creeper really feature in ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’? And what of ‘The Finger Murders’ and all those suicides in pyjamas? Did they figure in the canon? No, they were dead wrong. No frock-coats, no hansom cabs, no opium dens. No point.
But, with a plastic pipe full of coconut tobacco (can you believe that was once sold to children?), home-made waistcoat and Marks and Sparks dressing gown I still showed no desire to read the damned stories themselves. Instead, I lounged around the house bemoaning the dearth of great criminal minds, taking a seven percent solution of ginger beer, my long, thin nervous fingers drumming on the MFI stereo.
Rather excitingly, I had a brother three years my senior but he stubbornly refused to be absolutely corpulent or to have that far away, introspective look in his eyes that I only had when I was exerting my full powers. Instead, he used to hit me and tell me not to be such a poof.
And then, in the year 1977, like many of my generation I was swept up in the great ‘Star Wars’ brain-fever. Besotted by the Force, we allowed more storm-troopers across our borders than had advanced during the whole of the Second World War. With shameful fickleness, old favourites were thrown over for Darth Vader place-mats, Obi Wan Kenobi underpants and plastic action figures that, true to the spirit of the times, looked nothing like the characters. We couldn’t get enough of this stuff and, suddenly, word came that there was something new to be had. A sequel to “Star Wars”- this was long before the Empire even thought of striking back- in book form, written by Alan Dean Foster and called ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’. Unable to find the book locally, I naturally gravitated to London- the great cesspool into which all the idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained- on a National Express coach with my Mam. But- horror!- the book wasn’t available even here in the great metropolis. What to do? The seventy five pence had been set aside, my little palms itched for it and so an alternative had to be found. And so it was, dear listener. That on that fateful day I finally, finally picked up ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. It was a gorgeous little edition, as plum coloured as one of Holmes’ dressing gowns and, in the introduction, I found the plaintive sentence ‘I wish I were reading these stories for the first time’. A little thrill went through me. I was!
The interminable coach journey home became instead a glorious thrill ride with red-headed men, a packet of orange pips, severed thumbs and, of course, the woman. Or is it THE woman? And it wasn’t until I picked up the ‘Adventures’ that the love affair properly commenced.
I then did a silly thing. In my childish desire to be able to say, yes, I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories I... well, read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. Throughout a long summer holiday, I ploughed my way through the entire canon- at random!- relishing the glories of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ and ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’, baffled by Holmes’s absence from so much of the novels- occasionally pulling myself up short thinking, ‘Hang on, I’ve read this one before’, only to discover I was reading ‘The Cardboard Box’ and I had indeed read some of it before.
And with the whole canon surging giddily through my brain, Holmes got into my blood as insidiously as Devil’s Foot root. On the bus to school I would try to deduce people’s occupation from the state of their trouser-knees. They all turned out to be school-boys, funnily enough. I would examine the ash from my Dad’s Player’s No. 6 to see if it was distinguishable from that of Mr Clary’s Hamlet cigars on the next door lawn and I even described a late relative- much to everyone’s embarrassment- as ‘the best and wisest man whom I have ever known’.
Utterly possessed by Holmes I became even more snottily pedantic, gleefully pointing out that Holmes never wore a deer-staled, smoked a Meerschaum and would rather have been seen dead than wear tweed in town. The Rathbone films now seemed almost beyond the pale. Modern dress! A Watson with all the intellect of a Christmas pudding! I drank in the Granada series, when it came, like a parched Mormon on the Great Alkali Plain. Despite my Fundamentalist approach to the canon, though, I began to develop a taste for that most dangerously addictive of narcotics: the rotten pastiche! For every ‘Tangled Skein’ or ‘Adventure of the Purple Hand’ there’s a ‘Sherlock Holmes in New York’ or ‘The Whitechapel Vampire’- the latter one of the Canadian TV efforts starring Matt Frewer which are so giddily awful that they almost approach genius. Hop,es, grey-collared and hatless- hatless!- in a Baker Street full of brownstones and a Lestrade (or is it Lestrayde?) who sounds like Scotty from ‘Star Trek’ after he’s been hit over the head with a cricket bat.
These and most other pastiches, it seems to me, always founder on their over-ambition. Personally, I don’t want Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler (or is it Irenee?) roped into a horribly convoluted attempt to get Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Theodore Roosevelt and Crippen into the same scenario. Give me, instead, the quiet understatement of stolen papers or a purloined jewel! The best in recent times have to be the BBC Radio series by Bert Coules and starring the magnificent Clive Merrison. Having given us marvellous versions of the whole canon, the Further Adventures go... well... further by offering delicate, gorgeous scenarios turning on such splendidly Victorian themes as Music Hall, Spiritualism and baby farming. You can imagine my joy when I was asked to be in one of the plays, ‘The Shameful Betrayal of Miss Emily Smith’. I loved every minute of it and I even got to say ‘I didn’t do it, Mr ‘Olmes!’ The only problem came in communicating my excitement to a team who were on something like their sixty-eighth adventure.
Elsewhere, however, a curious change seemed to be coming over me. Ever since that meeting re the BBC’s Christmas Holmes, I’d begun to change my mind. ‘The Copper Beeches’ had become, of course, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and I found myself thinking, as Holmes himself fell into the great Grimpen Mire- ‘Well, at least they’re doing something different’. Different! Was I mad? Should I take to the couch like Tadpole Phelps with a cold compress on my fevered brow? Despite the shoddily computer-generated Hound (when the whole point of the story is that the hound is real!) and the miscasting of Richard Roxborough I felt a sneaking regard for what the Corporation were up to. The story was so familiar, what were they to do? The Great Detective, I believe, has reached something of a cross-roads. We’ve had so many Holmes and Watsons over the years, skinny ones, strangely fat ones, mad ones, bland ones, dubbed ones, German ones- even a Jack Russell in a deer-stalker. So many four-wheelers and broughams and waistcoats and fog [sic] and yet this can’t be the reason these beloved stories have endured.
During recent long train journeys to Cardiff I found myself sharing a carriage with my esteemed colleague, Mr Steven Moffat, Our conversation, which had roamed in a spasmodic, desultory fashion from British Rail sandwiches to the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic came round at last to the question of Sherlock Holmes. Oh, the joy of finding a fellow addict! We indulged in happy hours discussing the minutiae of the canon until we began to realise that we had independently come to the same conclusions. The immortality of Sherlock Holmes lies not in the trappings, nor even in the stories but in the characters themselves. We began to reminisce about the Rathbone films. Oh ‘The Pearl of Death’! And what about ‘The Scarlet Claw’! And ‘Spider Woman’! How glorious was ‘Spider Woman’! Suddenly I saw these films for what they are. Wonderful. And far preferable to careful but dry-as-dust recreations of the original stories.
Through a fug of tobacco we began to discuss the question: could Holmes be brought alive for a whole new generation?
A young army doctor, wounded in Afghanistan finds himself alone and friendless in London. Short of cash, he bumps into an old medical acquaintance who tells him he knows of someone looking for a flat-mate. This bloke’s alright but a little odd. And so Dr John Watson- wounded in the taking of Khabul from the Taliban meets Sherlock Holmes, a geeky, nervous young man rather too fond of drugs who’s amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge on his laptop... It’s only a thought. A beginning. But it’s got us both very excited. If my young self- who dreamed of silver-topped canes and monkey glands and vitriol throwing- could hear me now he would thrill with horror. But to prove Holmes immoral it’s essential he’s not preserved in Victorian aspic but allowed to live again!
Let us take this weekend to consider out plans. To think carefully about what the future holes... sorry, that’s Charles Kennedy’s resignation speech...
It’s been an absolute privilege to address you. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Forever.
copyright © Mark Gatiss 2011