Blightyvision: “Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes”

Written by David Pirie
Directed by Paul Marcus
Starring Ian Richardson and Charles Edwards

Well, ’tis the season and all that. A Game of Shadows comes out tomorrow, with the second season of the Cumberbatch/Moff “Sherlock” premiering on New Year’s Day.  And thus the Sherlockians divide themselves even further — which, other than giving me fodder for one of the magazine comics I draw, does absolutely nothing for anyone.  So I’ve been continuing my efforts to watch as many different earlier versions as I can.

Meanwhile, I put a call out to my personal Twitter army for more stuff featuring Charles Edwards after adoring his performance in Holy Flying Circus.  Pretty much five seconds later I was made aware of “Murder Rooms,” a decent-length 4×90 watch starring Edwards as Arthur Conan Doyle.  As a friend of mine would say, “Sold.”

“Murder Rooms” is yet another quasi-historical piece heightened for the purposes of drama.  Doyle mentioned his famous detective being based loosely on Joseph Bell, a Scottish lecturer whose expertise in forensic pathology pretty well changed the way criminal investigations are handled.  But any sense of “loosely” here goes completely out the window — in this, Bell is Holmes and Doyle serves very closely as his Watson.  There are still several references to Doyle as himself, mainly whenever Bell gets his hands on one of his clerk’s attempts at writing.  But overall, it’s as good as being another Holmes series.

One of this show’s safety nets is that, as we’re not really looking at Holmes and Watson, the only comparisons made will be favorable and toward the literary originals.  Which is not to say that watching Ian Richardson as Bell makes one feel that he would have nailed it as Holmes.  But it lands the mysteries, and the character depictions, in a nice safe area where the show can stand alone without becoming embroiled in comparisons to other shows.

As for the mysteries themselves, it’s fortunate that the writers decided on movie-length episodes for each story.  The storylines are so complex that smashing them down to an hour or less could have been the series’s downfall.  As it is, they have plenty of room to breathe.  They’re also very down to earth stories, possibly with the exception of “The Photographer’s Chair” (in my mind the best of the set, dealing with supposed psychics and spirit photography).  And once in a while you get a nice cameo — Ian McNeice and Rik Mayall both make appearances as certain unsavory characters.

Do I have complaints?  Two.  For one thing, and this is always a sore point with me, a large part of it was shot very dark.  I understand that the time and place and mood call for that, but in several of the interiors it felt like a bit much.  As for the other … another sore point: it leaves off.  Yes, they solve the crime of the episode.  But we’re left with a promise of more, darker, scarier stories ahead.  What happened?  Probably ran out of money.  Didn’t get the ratings.  Regardless, despite Watson’s promise of “worse” to come, the four episodes are all we get.

There was a pilot, featuring Robin Laing as Doyle, but I was unable to get my hands on it for reviewing purposes.  It’s not necessary to watch, though, as the first episode of the series proper serves as all the lead-in we need.  If you’re a Holmes fan, it’s a good watch, provided you don’t get wrapped up in the fact that, you know, the stuff you’re seeing isn’t even remotely true.  In other words, don’t even begin to approach it looking for historical fact just because it’s presented as such.  It’s a fun bit of mostly-fiction with just enough real life to make it something new.  And yes, you can show up just wanting to watch Richardson and Edwards be awesome.  Because it’s about that, too.

“Murder Rooms” is available in its entirety (minus the pilot) on DVD … and you can also get the pilot on its own if you so desire, though we can’t vouch for the quality of that.  Not appropriate for anyone with a fear of ghosts, doctors, or deerstalkers.