Some Books: William Rushton’s ‘W.G. Grace’s Last Case’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The books in this feature usually come from the Library, but this is only the second that I actually bought with my own money. Of all places, I brought it home from Headingley, Yorkshire CC’s ground, the club shop, where I saw it one lunch interval in an Eighties Roses Match.
William Rushton, better known as Willie, was from the great satire boom of the early Sixties, and the early Private Eye, of which he was a co-founder. He was a great, jovial, bearded figure with a very posh accent and a gleeful, mocking sense of humour, which made him very popular as both a writer and a performer. W.G.Grace’s Last Case was one of two books by him that I owned, the other (Superpig) being a humourous look at how to live a bachelor life that I actually found to contain much practical advice in amongst the witty remarks, which made it very useful when I finally found myself looking after myself.
I always thought this was Rushton’s only novel but Wikipedia corrects me by confirming there were two others, the last being a spoof of the infamous Spycatcher. It’s a cross between W.G. Grace, the great Victorian cricketer, and a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, and the premise, plus a read of the first page in the shop, was enough to persuade me to buy it.
Just as with Paperback Writer, I found the book incredibly funny at first, but on subsequent re-readings, diminishing returns set in until I let it go, or at least so I thought. Having had the book recalled to mind, a cheap Amazon copy was easy to procure, and I started again. Not long after, a bout of re-organisation brought about the discovery that I still had my original copy from all those years ago.
Exactly as the first time, I found the book instantly funny. I’d forgotten however just how dense it was with jokes, and with literary references that were out of copyright. To give you a quick example, the book opens at Lords with Grace just putting up a half century and plotting to delay his hundred until there’s a decent crowd and a decent collection. His batting partner is A.J. Raffles.
The bowling, by Castor Vilebastard (pronounced Vilibart but not by Grace), is interrupted by an Apache arrow between the shoulder blades. The first Medical Doctor on the scene to pronounce a pretty obvious death is Dr John Watson, currently on the look-out for a new stream of articles for The Strand magazine, his usual leader having gone over the Reichenbach Falls.
In short, everything is being set up for a madcap meeting of characters from all over the place, all mingled into some amazing and confusing piece of mischief which just happens to be taking place in the year of an invasion by tripod like creatures from another planet… Stir frequently and watch the pot bubble.
And the book is dense to the point of head-whirling with its references and jokes, line after line knowing and silly and hilarious. A decent familiarity, of not an expert eye for Victorian fiction, and sometimes not fiction, such as Oscar Wilde and Toulouse Letrec, is needed to keep up.
Unfortunately, Rushton almost immediately bogs the book down with a long, no, interminable flashback, narrated in persona propre by the Doctor himself, of an MCC Cricket tour of America and the Wild West, organised by the Vilebastard Brothers, who are twins. This goes on for nearly half the book, addressed by Grace to Watson and Lestrade, and it kills the story especially due to how Rushton has framed it. An unbroken narration would have let the flashback stand on its own terms and had the advantage of some brevity, though to be frank it’s too long-winded as it is and far from funny. Filtering it out piecemeal, with continual ‘editorial’ comment from Watson’s thought processes, and Lestrade’s rising eagerness to go off and arrest someone, only drags it out and, worst of all, echoes the reader’s growing indifference to this elephantine explanation. Watson and Lestrade want Grace to get to the point in the same way the reader wants Rushton to get there: it’s like a feedback loop.
By the time we catch up to the present day and can return to the point of the story, i.e., to cram in as much and many of the period’s figures, all trace of momentum is lost and whilst Rushton regains a lot of ground, he can’t recover that freewheeling rush of hilarity with which the book opens.
Nevertheless, the plot rumbles forward, taking our intrepid heroes to Paris to meet the Impressionists, to experience the Folies Bergere (there’s a rather out-of-place sequence where Dr Grace experiences the rather wider-ranging possibilities of intercourse with La Goulue, a famed Can-Can dancer, whilst Dr Watson has to make do with getting off with Queen Victoria…) but the steam is leaking out by now and the story is starting to merge into War of the Worlds, with the Eifell Tower as a rocket ship…
The ending is weak, as if Rushton ultimately didn’t know where to stop. Grace, Raffles, Watson, Lestrade and everyone else involved in defeating the Martians wind up on the moon, eighty years before Armstrong and Aldrin. The invasion has been thwarted and the only ones who might expose the story are stranded without a return ticket. Or are they?
It’s an equivocal ending, and far from the kind of organic conclusion that a well-considered story demands, but maybe I’m being too demanding, expecting high standards of plotting to accompany the intended silliness. But it is a disappointment.
Overall, it’s the plotting that let’s the book down. A firmer, more carefully constructed story would have allowed Rushton full rein with the gags. It’s like the early Goon Shows. Spike Milligan’s writing was hilarious and anarchic but unfocussed and sloppy. Pairing him with Eric Sykes as a writer was an act of genius on the part of the Producer who first conceived it: Sykes imposed a structure that anchored Milligan’s flights of lunacy to a storyline that, instead of restricting him, disciplined him to a more effective, and funnier way of writing. Rushton lacks a Sykes and the book ultimately fails because of it.
Though whilst it fails it’s still very funny. Just not as funny as it could so easily have been. Still, having kept it for so many years, I’ll keep it still.

The Flashman Papers 1878 & 1883-1884, 1890 – 1891 and 1879 & 1894 – Flashman and The Tiger

The Eleventh Packet differs from all the other Flashman Papers in not being an actual Packet (though I’ll continue to refer to it as such for consistency’s sake). Flashman and the Tiger was published almost twenty years after the short story of that name had appeared in the Sunday Times, and after many years of clamour from Flashman fans who wanted the chance to read it.
Fraser’s conceit was to now reveal, in the traditional Explanatory Note, that from time to time Flashman had set down his thoughts on various simpler incidents of his past, and tucked these shorter narratives into various Packets. Since the first of these had come to light, he said, two further narratives had also been discovered, hence this volume was a convenient way of publishing the same.
All three narratives post-date any other part of Flashman’s career, in which the furthest we’ve got thus far is 1876. The narratives cover a variety of dates, from 1878 to 1894, hop-scotching about, as is appropriate for the elder Flashman, who is not as mobile as he once was and who, by the latest of these dates, appears to have given up chasing young women, if you can believe that.
Before we turn to the narratives, Fraser also chooses this volume to provide us with a vastly expanded Who’s Who entry for General Sir Harry Flashman. Like genuine entries, it is broken down into different categories, dealing with official campaigns and honours, private travels and Flashman’s more commercial ventures. I’ll be looking more closely at this under History and Memories

The first narrative, ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, is by far the longest in the book, almost two hundred pages, which would represent a bit over half a standard Packet.
Like both the other narratives, the story takes place in two different time periods. The set-up for the story, which is all but a separate account. It is 1878, and Flashman is inveigled into attending the Congress of Berlin by the famous journalist, Stefan Blowitz. Flashy knows the energetic little man from the Franco-Prussian business in 1870, and the busy journalist has already more or less procured for him the Order d’Honneur, conferred by the French President, MacMahon, in a ceremony attended by former President Grant, who has begged Flashy to attend as his personal translator.
As well as this indication towards Flashy’s presence during the Siege of Paris, the Order is given for his otherwise unidentified service with the French Foreign Legion, possibly in Algeria.
The Congress in Berlin is to rewrite the terms of a treaty between Russia and Turkey, following the conclusion of a recent war that threatens to roll back the Turkish presence in the Balkans far further than the rest of Europe feels comfortable with, and give the Russian Empire a much stronger hold. Blowitz intends to be first with the Treaty.
Flashman’s part is simple and engaging. Blowitz’s contact is Caprice, a delightfully gamine seductress, who will seduce details out of a loose-lipped Russian diplomat in bed, and then pass these on to Flashman – also in bed – for exchange with Blowitz.
A splendid time is had by all, and Blowitz gets the Treaty, as well as the mutual enjoyment for himself and Flashman of knowing that it’s bugging the hell out of Bismarck as to how it was done. Which leads us to the second and larger part of the story.
It is now 1883. Flashman has been out in Egypt, at war under Sir Garnett Wolseley, in what seems to have been the most insignificant and completely incident-free campaign of his life. Now he’s back in England, but trouble is brewing in the Sudan, under the Mad Mahdi, and General Gordon is being sent out there. Flashy knows that if he can be found, he’s going to be impressed, so he’s looking for something to get himself clear, when a letter arrives, summoning him to Paris, where a titled woman of whom he has never heard desires his company.
Hang on a minute. Haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t this a re-run of Royal Flash? To which the answer is, it bloody well is, and in too many details for this to be at all comfortable.
Now Blowitz is involved, and delighted to be repaying Flashman for his assistance at the Congress of Berlin, because Blowitz is also setting up Flashy with a berth on the Orient Express, on the occasion of its inaugural run (not that Harry’s impressed in the least). But the Austrian Princess Kralta is waiting for him on board, and splendid carnal company she proves but there’s a hitch, and when that hitch becomes a snag, you can almost check off the correspondences. Threat of blackmail over the supposed rape of that Bavarian Countess, yes, plot by Bismarck, yes, Rudi von Starnberg, well almost yes, this time it’s his son Willem Rupert (‘Call me Bill’) who combines all the characteristics of old Rudi with a high leavening of Public School banter, having been educated in England.
Unfortunately, Fraser is once again repeating himself, albeit to a different end, but just as the first time round, with treachery in the mix and Flashman as the intended scapegoat once more.
What Harry is doing is, ostensibly, preventing the First World War happening thirty years ahead of history. A group of Hungarian patriots plan to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to win Hungary’s freedom, despite the inconvenient fact that this will precipitate nationalist fervour throughout the Balkans, leading to the overthrow of the Turkish Empire (the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ as it was referred to in my A-level history books): the very thing that Berlin Congress at the start of the story was designed to avert.
Relying on how Flashy is known to Emperor Franz-Joseph over his unavailing service to his brother Maximilian in Mexico, Bill and Flashy will inveigle themselves into the Emperor’s Summer Lodge to act as silent bodyguards. It’s all in a good cause, even if it is being orchestrated at the behest of Chancellor Bismarck (which worries Flashman enormously: he has read this story before, as well).
And just like before, it’s a fraud intended to do the exact opposite of rescue, and leave Flashy to hold the bag, exactly as before. The variation on the first story is that Bismarck and his agents are completely genuine and it is only Bill von Starnberg who’s false: a Hungarian patriot using the opportunity to get to Franz-Joseph and assassinate him.
As usual, a combination of funk, paranoia and the familiar unlikely coincidence combines to alert Flashy to how he’s being had, well past the eleventh hour but not quite at midnight, and this is where we see the effects of years that have softened Flashman from his original creation as the complete poltroon. Whereas the Flashy of Royal Flash would have run screaming from the scene, by ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, the older Harry runs screaming towards it. True, Fraser convincingly wraps it up in time and experience and understanding that sometimes you have to take the slightly longer term view, but we’re still a long way from the unvarnished Flashman. Like all series, it’s inevitable: anti-heroes can only go so far before they need to ‘grow’.
So Flashy foils the plot but at the cost of his own safety. He’s dragged into some nearby caves, with an icy lake, a bottomless crevasse and a Bill intent on honouring his promise to the old man that he’ll run Flashman through. It’s not really a contest, given the difference in age and stamina, not to mention swordsmanship, between the duellist, and Flashy can’t even coward his way out of it because his fame as a hero has impressed itself upon Bill, via Rudi, who just writes it off as all gammon, meant to confuse.
And he runs Flashman through.
It’s not a fatal wound, though it’s good enough given enough time, and there’s that crevasse at hand. But before Flashman can get pitched down this natural oubliette (once again echoing Royal Flash and the Strakenzian dungeons), enter a Guardian Angel, another sword-wielding duellist who proves to be von Starnberg’s equal, who first disarms him, then runs him through with rather more finality than the hapless Bill did with Harry.
And who is this Angel? Why, none other than French Intelligence Service Agent (retired but on temporary re-enlistment), Caprice, the gamine girl. Did I overlook mentioning that, whilst he’s been kidnapped and blackmailed into the original scapegrace plot, Flashy discovered that it was known to and had the blessings of both the British and French Intelligence Services. So there was no backing out? Ok, I mention it now.
All is well, Flashman is saved, Bill’s dead and everybody’s looking the other way over the obvious evidence that sweet, innocent Caprice executed a helpless man, and there’s an unusually long coda to the tale, because Fraser needs to spin Flashman’s wheels for a considerable period so as to fit in his punchline. Some of this is taken up by the genuine fact that Flashman, now in his Sixties, needs an extended period to regain his strength after his quite serious wound.
And Fraser uses this section to try to re-blacken Flashy the cad: though she’s saved him, the now-married Caprice won’t shag him, so Harry plots to disturb her marital bliss. It’s disgusting and vile, but it backfires by making Flashy look petty in his old age.
But more time is needed yet, so once he’s functioning again, Flashman accepts Princess Kralta’s invitation to Vienna, to bull her all over the shop all over Xmas, with the complaisance of, and in the home of her husband, who’s bouncing his own mistresses around under the same roof. |the decadence of it all, besides the fact that it’s much less fun screwing another bloke’s missus if he’s waving you on, gallantly, eventually palls and Harry decides it’s time to offer his attentions to Elspeth again, and heads home.
Just in time, as Fraser needed, to disembark at Charing Cross Station (you wondered about the title?), have his trunk lost by a drunken porter, wander curiously in search of it and walk smack into a leaving party. General Gordon’s leaving party, for the Sudan. The very thing Flashman left the country to avoid, and here he is, being swept straight back on the train, to head Chinese Gordon’s Intelligence staff. At Khartoum.
That, sadly, was another story we never got to read.

‘The Subtleties of Baccarat’ is, by comparison, a very short and very slight thing. It treats with the infamous Tranby Croft affair, an allegation of gambling at a Yorkshire country house, which led to scandal at it involving the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
The scandal is now an historical footnote: Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cummings was accused of cheating, over two nights, at baccarat. Despite defending himself vigorously,  Gordon-Cummings eventually signed a declaration that he would never play cards again. This seems to have been done to keep things secret and keep the Prince of Wales being affected by the scandal (Edward was the dealer/banker).
In this it failed: the story came out, Gordon-Cummings sued for libel, the Prince was questioned in Court to much public opprobrium, Gordon-Cummings lost and was ruined.
The short story involves both Flashmans. Harry knows Gordon-Cummings from the Army, and the pair cordially detest each other: Flashy suggests the ‘no cards’ letter out of devilment. After the trial, Elspeth confesses to him that Gordon-Cummings was innocent: it was she who created the appearance of cheating, out of spite at Gordon-Cummings having, years earlier, traduced her husband’s courage!
Which leaves Flashman once again doubting his spouse’s fidelity, given that such accusations are not made in ordinary conversation over afternoon tea. But he still can’t come to a decision.

‘Flashman and the Tiger’, though short, was the highlight of the book, the long overdue chance to read the 1972 story, and it is a bit of a gem, the best thing here. Once again, the tale is solid between two periods, this time widely-separated, but linked by the Tiger of the title. Tiger Jack, Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran.
Not being a Sherlock Holmes fan, the name, and its occasional passing references elsewhere in the packets, had no connotations for me, so I began the story as a complete novice. For once, Fraser began in situ and in media res: Flashman is in South Africa (inspecting a mine that Elspeth has inherited from a cousin, according to a line in ‘The Road to Charing Cross’) and has somehow become involved in the Zulu War.
In fact, we start with Flashy hightailing it out of Isan’lwana the moment the Zulus break through. His flight only takes him to Rorke’s Drift, where a badly outnumbered and under-provisioned British Force defeats the Zulus, And that’s all we get of the Zulu War, not even the oft-mentioned Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu impi, because that’s not what ‘Flashman and the Tiger’ is about. That’s just the set-up, the MacGuffin, for Flashman’s meeting, en route from one famous battle to another, with a laconic but sharp-shooting English Major, who helps Flashy escape, hair-raisingly, and whose name Flashman doesn’t learn, nor Moran his, until its all over. And Flashman’s name means something to Moran, not that Harry can guess at it.
That’s all we get of the Zulu War, and it’s unusually thin gruel for Fraser and Flashman, but that’s because the point of the story lies not in South Africa but London, in 1894, the absolute furthest point we get of Flashman’s career (discounting his involvement as a supporting character in Fraser’s novel, Mr American). Flashy’s now in his seventies, settling into old age, his reputation secure and doting upon his grandchildren, in particular sweet Selina, who’s engaged to be married. All is serene, he’s off the active list, enjoying his old age, teasing Oscar Wilde at the theatre over the younger men clustered round him – except that one of them isn’t so young. In fact, he’s nearer Flashy’s age, and it’s Colonel Moran.
Sherlockians will have already picked up on where we are, as Flashman has mentioned a Society rumble over the death of someone called Ronny Adair, which places us in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty Room. But Flashy is more concerned with the fact that, a few days later, his beloved Selina turns up in tears.
It appears that her empty-headed fiancé has been led into deep gambling debts by Colonel Moran, to the extent that he’s gambled away Regimental Funds in trying to recover them. It’s a stupid move and if it comes out, it’s an invitation to take a pistol into a quiet room time, that is, unless Selina surrenders herself to Colonel Moran.
Sir Harry’s first thought is to buy Moran off: it’ll be damned expensive but for his little Selly, nothing’s too much. Except that Moran isn’t after money but revenge, against Flashman, in the most painful manner possible.
Why? Because Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran was once a cabin boy on a slave ship, back in the 1840s. A slave ship commanded by John Charity Spring. Which left a cabin boy behind with King Dahomey of Gozo. And Tiger Jack is looking for revenge against the men who abandoned him.
Which leaves Flashman with only one option, dangerous though it will be: he will have to kill Tiger Jack Moran. At his age.
So Flashy sets out a murderer to be, but Fraser, having tickled the Sherlockians’ expectations, plays Flashman into the Holmes and Watson story: Flashman trails Moran to a seemingly empty house in which, concentrating upon his own murderous plans, he is right in Flashy’s sights. But at the last second, Flashy senses other people around and withholds his shot, just in time for Holmes, Watson, Lestrade et al to leap out and arrest Professor Moriarty’s chief assassin.
There’s still one big snag to overcome, namely getting out of a police-filled empty house without being identified and this is the bit for which it’s obvious Fraser has written the story. Flashy, who has dressed down for the occasion, slumps in a corner, pours brandy down his jacket and plays drunk. Watson, the doctor, shows concern and almost recognises the General, but it is Holmes who applies his methods of observance to make detailed deductions about Flashy’s class, character, nationality, employment and criminality that is in every respect completely wrong.
You could say it’s funny, which it is, and you could say it’s entirely disrespectful, and you wouldn’t be wrong there either.
Anyway, the sting in the tale is that, on his way home, Flashy passes the little set of rooms he keeps for assignations and which he lends out to the Prince of Wales. Who is in residence, awaiting his latest popsy. Who is just arriving. And who is Selina.
Once a Flashman, always a Flashman, eh?

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P6. Flashman’s vastly expanded Who’s Who entry intrigues. Most of his military career is familiar to us, if some of the more unofficial posts are somewhat gilded, and no campaigns of which we do not know are disclosed. It’s made clear that Flashman joined the Union Army in the American Civil War as a Major in 1862, but that he was a Colonel in the Confederate Army the following year: his return to the Union ranks in 1864 is not specifically referenced. Equally, his role in Mexico with Maximilian is dated to 1867, indicating a short involvement. The Zulu War, Egypt and the Sudan, all of which appear in this packet to one extent or another are also included.
Of more interest are the gaps. The final Packet places Flashman on military duties in Abyssinia in 1868, omitted from this account so we can’t safely take unreferenced periods as evidence of Flashman enjoying some long overdue rest and recuperation.
There is also reference to Flashman’s variegated roles at one time and another, suitably varnished. Again, we recognise most of them, whether they are detailed or not, but one or two are suitably mysterious, such as lottery supervisor in Manila, and ‘trader and missionary’ attributed to Solomon Islands, Fly River etc. This puts Flashman in the South Pacific, in and about Papua New Guinea, and not a million miles away from either the Philippines or Australia. I will be giving a theory about these entries in a near future post.
P14. Flashman first met Blowitz at the time of ‘the Franco-Prussian farce in ’70’. It’s long been rumoured that Flashman was trapped in Paris during at least part of the siege, but this is too unspecific to justify that.
P19. Flashman confirms that at some time he had served in/with the French Foreign Legion, as had Macmahon. The latter describes himself as an ‘old Algeria hand himself’, which could be taken to mean that Flashy’s service had also been in North Africa, though Fraser speculates in a foot-note – and he should know – that this may have been part of his Mexico service with Maximilian in 1867.
P28. Flashman has not been in Germany since 1848: wherever his missing periods were spent, it was not there.
P47. Flashman confirms that he was once more in the public eye over supposed heroics in South Africa – the Zulu War – in 1879, though he was only in the country due to Elspeth’s cousin’s supposed mine. He also confirms that he soldiered with Sir Garnet Wolseley in Egypt in 1882 against the Khedive, though this appears to have been his only painless campaign.
P84. Flashman met Emperor Franz-Joseph on his yacht off Corfu in 1868, after returning from Mexico having failed to rescue Maximilian from the firing squad, for which he received the Order of Maria Theresa. Apparently Maximilian refused to be rescued, and Flashman escaped thanks to the combined (?) efforts of Princess Aggie Salm-Salm and Jesus Montero’s bandits, who thought Flashy knew the whereabouts of Montezuma’s Treasure. Clearly, Fraser had seriously considered the Mexico adventure as a subject, though only its ever tail-end would be utilised to set up the final Packet.
P89. Amongst those who have press-ganged Flashman into desperate schemes he would have preferred to avoid are several familiar names, including Lincoln, but now extended to Ulysses Grant and Wild Bill Hickok.
P195. Flashman bumps into General Gordon at Charing Cross station and is whisked off to the Sudan, and Khartoum.
P223. Flashman reminds us of his affair with Lily Langtry which, having begun before she became the Prince of Wales’ mistress, continued after that time, unbeknownst to the future King.
P224. Flashman addresses his suspicions that Gordon-Cumming had had an affair with Elspeth in the 1860s. He also soldiered with Gordon-Cumming in Zululand.
P262. Elspeth cut Gordon-Cumming because he had accused Flashman of cowardice, of running away at Isan’lwana (which he did).

Crap Journalism: Party Lines

It’s never difficult to tell when the Guardian has decided to take a party line on something.

There was the astonishing vehemence with which it attacked the Steven Speilberg CGI Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn back in 2011, with nearly two-dozen different articles, frequently appearing on a daily basis, slagging off the film unmercifully. This was in contrast to the generally positive tones of reviews worldwide. To the Guardian, however, the film was a personal insult to Herge, a complete misrepresentation of the series, the rape of Tintin the character himself.

Basically, the audience was ordered to boycott the film, and if they ignored that advice, to hate the film. By the time I saw it, I was determined to like it, just because the response was so hysterical, unreasoning and dictatorial. And enjoy it I did (although, despite Andy Serkis being brilliant in it, Captain Haddock still wasn’t right, because he didn’t sound like the guy who voiced the old Tele-Hachette/Belvision cartoons).

Then there’s Jeremy Corbyn, whose every word, thought and deed has been slagged off by the Guardian, relentlessly, since it became apparent that he was going to be voted Labour Party leader.

And now the screw is being turned on Sherlock.

Whilst criticism of the opening episode of the current season was legitimate to some extent, it’s plain that the Guardian has a major mad on again, and the series is to be ripped to shreds. I refrained from comment two days ago when the buffoon Stuart Heritage wrote a full-length and wrong-headed condemnation of the programme based on what hasn’t yet happened in the final episode, and they’re at it again today demanding that all of television give up including ghosts, with Sherlock as its principal target.

Heritage chooses to describe the programme as ‘gutless’ and professes his personal and projected disappointment at the cliffhanger which, in case you didn’t watch it yourself, consisted of the revelation of the third Holmes sibling as being female and shooting directly at John Watson’s face.

Apparently, the programme can only be tolerated – not appreciated or enjoyed – if Watson is dead. Otherwise, it reveals itself as being permanently contemptible. What can you say? Would it help to mention that the Sherlock Holmes novels, and every last colourable adaptation from them, are about the duo of Holmes and Watson? No, the party-line is in. A cliffhanger has been set up and instead of the hero freeing himself, by one mighty bound or, more likely some ingenious twist (is the pistol actually loaded or is this another element of the psychological game Euros Holmes is playing with her younger brother?), the idiot Heritage puts himself in the stupid position of demanding that the co-star dies.

I mean, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the basis of the series that we expect a complex, implausible escape and the fun is finding out how it was done. Only the Guardian, in its new, get-Sherlock phase would imagine anything different.

But it’s today’s piece of idiocy that makes plain there is an agenda. Gwylim Mumford’s piece is ostensibly an attack on a TV trope, which he describes as cheap and lazy writing, and demands it be banned instantly. The piece quotes other series guilty of this factor, which has been overused to the point of cliche, except on Mr Robot, where it’s apparently fundamental to the series’ success. Hmm.

But no, this is another excuse to slag off Sherlock. The trope in question is having dead characters appear on screen as psychological projections visible only to the audience and to the grieving character to whom they relate. This is Mary Watson turning up and having conversations with John, during which she reminds him several times over that she’s dead and has no more knowledge than he has.

One problem is that Mumford analyses the problem as being that “(w)e all know exactly how the dead person vision will pan out. The dead person appears to the living person to help them work through something monumental. Because the dead person is aware of the deep truth about the living person, they’re almost always an insufferable know-it-all, prone to saying things like “I see you’ve finally figured it out” while lying on a chaise longue reading the newspaper. These people aren’t just dead, they’re dead smug. Then when the living character has finally realised what was causing them such angst, the dead character disappears for good, leaving the living person staring into space and looking confused.” And the apparition of Mary Watson does none of that.

But no, the party-line demands another attack, in case the audience gets a bad case of thinking for itself, and decides it knows its own tastes better.

In a couple of months time, I will have been reading the Guardian for thirty-six years. I started buying it not long after it started publishing Doonesbury every day. I haven’t kept buying the paper this long because of that alone, especially not when it went into daily reprints. But day by day, as the paper betrays every (small l) liberal and social instinct it once had, as it gets rid of good writers because they cost and installs ever more right-wing writers who tell us that Theresa May is the ideal Prime Minister, I re-evaluate that decision, day in, day out.

At the moment, the biggest factor in keeping me buying this excuse for a newspaper is the Cryptic Crossword. Doing it on-line just doesn’t compare. And some of the sports writers are still good.

But crap journalism like this grows ever more prevalent. I wouldn’t mind if it were just a difference of opinion, argued out by someone who doesn’t think he’s a great wit or that his personal opinion is the word of a secular God. I like reading dissenting opinions, testing them against what I believe. But that’s not what I’m getting, and the cost of the paper each day becomes harder to justify to myself.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4 episode 2

I said last week that I couldn’t be objective about Sherlock and I still can’t. Last week’s episode got a lot of abuse for its ‘sexing-up’ and the Bond-ification of Sherlock, instead of the clever, witty, cerebral case solving that, apparently, was the only thing remotely interesting about the first series or two. Some of that criticism was the old, old thing about not letting things change or grow. Some of it, to be fair, was justifiable: I said I never liked the idea of Mary Watson, assassin and mercenary.

Well, given the nature of ‘The Lying Detective’, all about cerebral deduction and the careful trapping of a monster into confessing crimes that, though undetailed, were beautifully conveyed as monstrous by the simple device of having Greg Lestrade push back his chair and suspend the interrogation until the following morning, you’d almost think that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (writer of this week’s episode) had been playing for just such a response. Nah, they ain’t that clever, are they?

But this episode was undoubtedly clever, winding an astonishingly convoluted, yet very simple plot into so many curlicues, with hidden motivations and hidden crimes folded into it like the micro-dimensions of string theory, that it became impossible to believe that what we were watching took only ninety minutes of our lives.

To put it at its most basic: John Watson is having therapy for his appalling loss and the unbridgeable gulf it has created between him and Sherlock, only one of which conditions he wishes to resolve. Sherlock, in turn, is back on the smack, collapsing in on himself, driving himself towards death, unable to control his own intelligence.

Both appear to be hallucinating. John is carrying on conversations with Mary, despite her constant reminders that she isn’t real, nor is she independent of his mind. And Sherlock spends an entire night being put onto a complex case by the walking-cane carrying daughter of Culverton Smith, millionaire businessman/philanthropist/serial killer, only to discover that she, too, doesn’t exist (actually, the woman, Faith, does exist, it’s just that Sherlock’s hallucination isn’t her, she just looks alike. She’s not even an hallucination, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).

Sherlock sets out to prove that this highly respected public figure is indeed that most despicable of creatures, a serial killer. Toby Jones plays the part masterfully, a creature of vast intelligence, intellectually the equal of Sherlock, publicly streets ahead of him. Jones treads the delicate line of hiding in plain sight, his every utterance an invitation to see through him, if you actually dare think that. The message that, if you reach a certain level of power and public recognition, you can do anything, was written before Donald Trump was elected, but it’s ghastly apt.

John is drawn into this, against his will, constantly treading his own line between believing Sherlock’s deductive capacities and fearing that it’s all because he’s off his tits. John even puts Sherlock in the hospital where he is directly in Smith’s power, his frustrations leading him to smash Sherlock’s face in.

But it’s a game. An elaborate put-on, a fake. Yes, Culverton Smith is a serial killer, and yes, Sherlock has picked a fight with him because he is a big, powerful, evil figure who needs to be stopped, but that’s not why. It’s not why until we – and John – see the rest of Mary’s DVD, the one where she charges Sherlock with saving John. Where she identifies John Watson as a man who cannot be helped, who will not let himself be helped, but who cannot refuse to help. Who will move mountains to save Sherlock, if only Sherlock can create a scenario where he is in danger. Real, true, palpable danger.

And thus it all comes together, and in a manner that is wholly satisfying and completely believable (to the value of belief that this extraordinarily clever and mannered programme operates), the friendship is restored: Holmes and Watson live on.

Or do they?

There’s a third episode to come and there’s a handful of scattered clues lying around. There’s the hints of a third Holmes brother, Sherringford, that even John Watson susses out. There’s his therapist, with her French accent, the ‘hallucinatory Faith’ and her northern accent, not to mention last week’s girl on the bus with whom John text-cheated. She had a pronounced accent too. All the same woman, Sian Brooke, beautifully disguised.

And a killer. The real therapist is in the airing cupboard. She’s holding John Watson at gunpoint. Her real name is Euros (the East Wind). Her parents had a thing for convoluted names for their children. Euros. Mycroft. Sherlock. The third Holmes brother is a sister. John’s making a silly face. She thinks she’ll put a hole in it. She pulls the trigger.

Oh, mother.

I think we now know how Jim Moriarty has seemingly risen from the dead.


A Very Sherlock Xmas

That’s about it, actually. The BBC aren’t releasing their Xmas schedule until next week, and it’s not going to be full of innovative material, but it does include a ‘festive’ edition of Sherlock, so unless we’re talking about a repeat of the last one-off, get ready to clear the decks.

Ninety minutes of great TV is better than none.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock – The Abominable Bride

If we’re only going to get one of these this tear instead of the customary three, then it’s a bloody good job this one was as good as it was. I’m not sure if any spoilers got out, apart from the long-trailed one about the episode being set in Victorian London, but if they did I managed to miss all of them. The Abominable Bride was happily virgin territory for me and I loved (nearly) every minute of it.

Yes, nearly. There’s always something, but we’ll get to that later on.

For the first near hour of the programme, going by the rough estimate of time I was making in my head, it was an immaculate spoof. It was a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes in every respect, enlivened by a simple metafiction. Gatiss and Moffat took the step of translating their Sherlock and John and their modern relationship very precisely into Victorian terms and introducing this as the ‘real’ Holmes and Watson, both well aware of the public version portrayed in the latter’s immensely popular stories in ‘The Strand’.

Not once did this version of our leading lights lapse into anything verging on 21st century language or behaviour. The closest the programme came to overtipping its hand, and it was dealt with deliberately briefly in order to contain any audience twitching, was the revelation that 19C Mary Watson was herself a highly competent agent, working for the fat Mycroft Holmes.

Actually, the writers could have blown it seriously badly with Mrs Hudson, offended at the limited role given to her literary persona and indulging in bringing her restrictions over to real-life, but the conviction – and straight-facedness – that all the regulars brought to playing their alternate versions carried us over any hurdles this comic approach placed in the audiences’ way.

In fact, for as long as this phase continued, The Abominable Bride was shaping up to be the funniest thing on TV all year (I know this is only Day 1 of 366, but considering how little TV I actually watch now, it’s six, four and evens that it’ll still be so on 31 December).

But of course it wasn’t just a spoof. Why did we ever expect something so simple? The tag attached to the dead Sir Eustace Carmichael read ‘Miss Me?’ Given that the episode had started with a brief rundown of Sherlock-to-date, ending with those very words, was there a viewer who didn’t suddenly tense up and start wondering what was coming?

And a few achronological phrases between Sherlock and fat Mycroft, each commented upon by the other, rammed home that this was suddenly not an amusing little diversion at all. Enter Moriarty for a confrontation with Sherlock (I cannot say how much I love Andrew Scott in this role) and suddenly the plane bringing Sherlock home from his four-minute exile after the killing of Troels Hartman is landing and the whole thing has been a drug-created inner fantasy by 21C Sherlock, trying to work out how Moriarty can be back after blowing his own brains out at the end of series 2.

To do so, he’s built a memory palace to enable him to investigate an unsolved Victorian case where a suicide victim who used the same method as Moriarty came back to life to commit murder and where, by using Victorian methods to solve that riddle, he hopes to work out just how Moriarty survived his own suicide.

It’s been exceedingly clever, and perfectly written and performed up to date, and it retains that level throughout John Watson’s unspoken review of the list of what Sherlock has taken, but once Sherlock gets back into his ‘mind palace’ to conclude his investigation, the programme loses a level of conviction.

We’re invited back into what, so far, has been a perfectly-executed and inexplicable alternate world. Once we go back, we return with the knowledge that this isn’t ‘real’, that it’s all in Sherlock’s mind. The intrigue has gone, and taken with it the intensity, and the uppermost level of conviction. It’s not only not ‘real’, it’s an hallucination, and the rules for how this might happen are rewritten. Anything can happen. The episode has even taken the trouble, earlier on, to remind us of Holmes’ famous dictum about when you have eliminated the impossible…

Now, the show has eliminated the impossible as being impossible.

The Ricotti case is solved with absurd ease, giving 21C Moriarty his way out, but the Carmichael case is given a portentous and ultimately metaphysical solution that digs too deep into metafiction and political correctness. That’s not a term I like, nor one I usually use, but the deliberation in which the secret society is set up, and how it’s been foreshadowed by fat Mycroft as a dangerous, unstoppable opponent who will and must win because they’re right, means that PC is for once an apt term.

Many, myself included, have accused Moffat of being a misogynist writer and the awkwardness with which this solution is applied smells of being an intentional riposte to us critics. Sorry buddy, you need to be a bit more natural than that, especially within an episode that has demonstrated itself as being naturalistic.

Perhaps recognising that they had weakened their episode, Messrs Gatiss and Moffat decided to throw in a few extra levels of the fantasy, including a completely metafictional recreation of the Reichenbach Falls in which Moriarty outs himself as being dead but instead being the symbol of Sherlock’s failures. They’re about to go over the Falls together again when the symbol gets deliberately muddied by introducing 19C John Watson, with service revolver, to tip the balance. nd to tip Moriarty over the edge: it’s his turn this time, after all.

Let me emphasise that I emjoyed every minute of this, but I’m critically aware that the last thirty minutes didn’t hold up the first sixty, and given the closing scenes, I’m pretty sure Gatiss and Moffat were also aware of that.

First, we had Sherlock, refreshed after his O.D., walking away with John and Mary, telling them that he now knows what Moriarty has planned next: oh, by the way, he is dead, no-one survives blowing their own brains out. This neatly gets the writers off the task of coming up with an explanation of Moriarty’s survival, and making it different from Sherlock’s (which was never really explained in the end), though it makes it even harder to get Andrew Scott back for series 5 (I’m electing to treat this as series 4, sorry).

Then we cut back to Victorian London and Mr Holmes trying to convince Dr Watson that his mind-experiment of projecting the future 120 years hence is truly plausible. It’s a very lightweight attempt at a St Elsewhere ending which fooled no-one in the slightest, and thw writers’ lack of conviction showed by having 19C Sherlock looking out of 221b’s window onto a 21C Baker Street street scene.

But if this is the only one we’re getting until atheism-knows-when, then it were well that it be as good as it was, and it certainly was. And bearing in mind how badly Moffat has fucked up Dr Who for me, this was either a case of him remembering his mojo, or one of Gatiss carrying him like Sam carried Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin. I’d like to think it was the former.

Sherlock: series 3, episode 1: Uncollected Thoughts

Whatever they came up with, it was going to be a disappointment on some level. You can’t leave a climax like that hanging for two years and come up with the perfect explanation. Either it’s going to be so plausible that it could never have been a mystery in the first place, or so convoluted that the only mystery lies in how you let yourself be taken in by it.

So how did Sherlock Holmes survive The Reichenbach Fall? Mark Gattis, writing the opening episode of the third (and no longer intended to be final) series offered not one explanation but three. Two came from poor, obsessive, semi-demented Anderson or his group of like-minded conspiracy theorists and one from Sherlock himself, explaining it to Anderson, who professes himself, well… disappointed.

From that I think we are supposed to take the latter as gospel, but as it was no more plausible than the first explanation (the one about it being a plot between gay lovers Sherlock and Moriarty was a nod to fan slash-fiction and not meant to be taken seriously), and as Sherlock was immediately afterwards shown telling the most enormous lie of the story, I remain unconvinced. Clearly, like the best of all death-traps, we were never meant to know how it was really done. Having escaped from having to come up with anything serious, the writers heaved a sigh of relief.

So, and we do not do SPOILER SPACE here, so read on at your own risk, just what had Sherlock been doing these past two-planned-to-be-one-but-it-got-away-from-us years? The answer was, dismantling Moriarty’s network into unreconstructable pieces, which is a damned shame given how much I loved Andrew Collins’ Jim Moriarty (who deserved the soubriquet, Count). Now, with an underground terrorist threat aimed at London, Sherlock has to come home and come out into the open.

And he has to explain to his old colleague, Dr John Watson, both a) that he is, in fact, alive and b) that there was a good reason why he didn’t let John in on the closely-guarded but still mildly open secret that he’s still alive. The fact that Sherlock does not anticipate the remotest antipathy from John, who he interrupts just before the crucial ‘Will you marry me?’ bit of Watson’s marriage proposal, led to the absolute best and funniest part of the episode, which was John’s increasingly violent reaction to the whole thing.

(Mary does accept the never-delivered proposal, incidentally, as you might expect given that Amanda Abbington in Martin Freeman’s real life partner).

The terrorist threat is clearly intended to be the plot of this story, though it only plays a part for the final half-hour, and even then the main piece of drama – the drugging, kidnapping and near-death of John Watson in a bonfire seeingly being lit on November 4th – in fact relates to something else entirely, which will not become an issue until the third and final episode, much as Moriarty never emerged thus in series 1. I was a little bit disappointed with the notion of a tube-car-turned-bomb being left on a disused branch line directly beneath Parliament as that’s a direct steal from the finale of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.

But I was even more disappointed with Sherlock’s cruel and mocking deception of John Watson over the fact that he’d switched the bomb off without letting John know that he wasn’t going to die in ninety seconds time. Where the original Watson’s reaction to the reappearance of his dead friend had to be made more believably robust, this went too far in the opposite direction as most people in Watson’s shoes at that point would have killed Holmes, and in the case of one viewer at least have made this the last episode ever, in that this time I really would have never gone near Sherlock again.

But then I’m not being written into a stylised, highly enjoyable and not necessarily ultra-plausible TV drama.

The pattern of the two preceding series has been a superb first and third episode with a bit of a slump in the middle. Whilst I enjoyed The Empty Hearse overall, it wasn’t a match for either its predecessors as opening episode, so I’m hoping for something more completely satisfying next week. And the news of a confirmed series 4, in 2016, is welcome, though it puts a further delay on my plan not to get a DVD set of Sherlock until it’s of the Complete variety.