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Celebrity status: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes 

A quibbling critic ought to pick the BBC's Sherlock apart. Admirers of Arthur Conan Doyle would expect nothing less than a fanatical concentration on minute flaws, after all. "The little things are infinitely the most important," says Holmes in A Case of Identity. His 21st-century successor accepted loose ends and unexplained solutions with a nonchalance the master would never have tolerated. 

In the opening episode, a taxi-driver forced his victims to choose from two pills — one deadly, one safe. Holmes never explained why the victim always picked the fatal poison and the driver always swallowed the harmless pill. In the final programme, Moriarty set Holmes multiple challenges and storylines careered across the screen with dizzying speed. Holmes tried to save pensioners and children from being turned into human bombs, unmask an art fraud, stop an insurance swindle, find stolen government secrets and solve an old case of a murdered teenage swimmer. Television's fear of allowing a plot the time to develop was on display once again. The action had to be relentless to stop the feckless viewer reaching for the remote.

Yet quibblers must learn to sit back and take in the show on occasion if we are not to turn into lawyers. The BBC made Sherlock to be enjoyed. The scripts by Steven Moffat, Stephen Thompson and Mark Gatiss were witty and beguiling — if you took your eye off the screen for a moment, you would miss a joke or clue. The actors in the minor roles were as good as the leads, always a sign of a well-made drama. Andrew Scott played Moriarty as a camp demon, alternately insinuating and frightening. Rupert Graves made Inspector Lestrade a dry observer of Holmes's frenzied theorising rather than a plodding copper.

The collective achievement of actors and production team can be summarised by saying that on Sunday evenings in the summer of 2010, millions of Britons revived a ritual I thought had died in the early 1990s. They cancelled all other engagements so that they could watch an exciting British drama.

A while ago, I asked in the Observer why British television cannot excite more often. In the 1970s and '80s, Britain produced world-beating dramas — Brideshead Revisited, Paradise Postponed, Jewel in the Crown, Boys from the Blackstuff, Inspector Morse and many others — and exported them. In return, the Americans supplied glitzy soaps — Dynasty and Dallas — and game-show formats. Now the roles are reversed. We are world leaders in exporting trash — Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing, Wife Swap, Top Gear — and take our quality drama from America: The Wire, House, Mad Men. My conclusion was that media grandees do not realise that they have presided over a precipitous artistic decline because many of them have become rich in the globalised TV market. Their financial success prevents them acknowledging their artistic failure, and seeking to rectify it. They cannot accept that their inability to create stories that will stay in the national memory means that little will be remembered of them when they are gone.

It was as if French chefs had replaced haute cuisine with Big Macs, and congratulated themselves on their good taste.

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David
September 2nd, 2010
8:09 PM
Nick: You seem to suggest that the writer is the auteur of a television show or movie, but really the producer or (at least in American tv) the "showrunner" (head writer) is the person with the vision (or lack thereof) that makes or breaks great entertainment.

John
September 2nd, 2010
12:09 PM
Spot on Nick. It's astonishing to think that Dennis Potter used to write for BBC One. Or that that Mike Leigh did. It's like a false memory. It isn't, is it?

windter
August 27th, 2010
3:08 PM
you're being too unfair to the BBC here. you can't compare mainstream BBC1 drama, whose market might need a recognisable face to succeed, with esoteric HBO dramas on specialist channels, like Mad Men. You can, however, compare Mistresses with a US show like CSI New york - both have recognisable stars, both are pretty ropey, both are for the mass market. notwithstanding the example of House, which is suffering from diminishing returns, you're comparing two very different media outlets - HBO and BBC1 are completely different things. also if you're so keen on Sherlock surely you should be keen on Doctor Who, as well? Another BBC hit that will be enjoyed long into the future - longer, I'd argue, than House... also I don't quite understand the problem with the BBC holding fire on re-commissioning Sherlock until they saw whether it was popular. surely that's exactly what happens on your beloved HBO - see Studio 60 on the sunset Strip, for example. What's the difference?

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