Arthur & George

If Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss thought they’d pulled off the ultimate Sherlock Holmes reinvention – Baker Street has wi-fi! – then ITV have gone one better with a Sherlock Holmes mystery that doesn’t have Sherlock Holmes in it at all.

Instead, we get Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, attempting to outdo his own creation by solving The Case of the Great Wyrley and Walsall Horse-Maiming Outrage (newspaper headlines were a lot less snappy in 1903).

Based on Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur & George tells the true(ish) story of Doyle’s efforts to clear the name of an Anglo-Indian solicitor (Arsher Ali) jailed for attacking ponies – and allegedly threatening to kill a child – in rural Staffordshire.

Newly widowed, and burdened by guilt over his ‘adultery’ (even though all he’d done is promise to teach a woman how to ski, which is surely not even near first base), Doyle leaves Holmes in limbo and dons a metaphorical deerstalker himself in a bid to overturn a ‘shabby’ miscarriage of justice. ‘To hell with the publisher’s deadline,’ he declaims. ‘This is a chance to right a wrong!’

The temptation to frame the story like a Sherlock Holmes adventure is irresistible – especially when the game, once afoot, delivers so many Holmesian puzzles, including a trail of coins, a photograph in a milk churn and a child’s doll surrounded by burning candles in the woods. There’s even a good old-fashioned locked room mystery.

Martin Clunes may lack Benedict Cumberbatch’s tousled sex appeal (trust me, he does – I checked with my wife) but he’s thoroughly engaging as the kindly if somewhat self-regarding Scottish writer and physician – though a twinkly Charles Edwards threatens to steal the show from under his ’tache as Woodie, Doyle’s secretary and a Watson by any other name.

The intriguing – and satisfyingly spooky – three pipe problem at the heart of the story is given added weight by the suggestion poor George’s persecution was racially motivated. But our hero’s intentions are not beyond reproach either, the script subtly implying Doyle may have taken the case as much from boredom and the chance to glorify his name as a sense of burning injustice. In that sense, he’s exactly like the Great Detective himself. Except without the cheekbones. Or the smartphone.

 

TV extra:

DCI Banks

‘Hangdog’ doesn’t really do justice to Stephen Tompkinson, who always looks like he’s mentally rehearsing the burial of a beloved pet. So he’s right at home in these adaptations of Peter Robinson’s bestselling thrillers, which are as bleak as you’d expect from source material with names like Cold is the Grave and Abattoir Blues. There was a brief moment of respite from the grim litany of murder, prostitution and racial harassment in this week’s fourth series opener when Banks welcomed his mother to his birthday drinks. But then she died.

Mom

Alcoholism and drug dependency are not the standard stuff of US sitcoms, but Mom – from Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre – somehow manages to make AA meetings seem as attractively frothy as a visit to Central Perk. The script is so-so, but it’s hard to resist Anna Faris’ charm offensive as the world’s sunniest recovering addict, while the fabulous Allison Janney won a well-deserved Emmy for her role as her acidic, ex-drug dealing mother. I Love Lucy meets Trainspotting, it shouldn’t work, but sort of does.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 5, 2015

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