Next month sees production begin on the next series of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat’s excellent adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novels and short stories. I await its return with baited breath; it’s been one of my favourite shows on television recently. It’s a real challenge to adapt something like Sherlock Holmes for a mass audience. Those not versed in the books need to be able to enjoy them without feeling excluded, whereas fans of the books present an even more difficult conundrum. The adaptations need to have an element of faithfulness to Conan Doyle’s stories, without being too similar that any element of mystery is removed. This is done expertly in Sherlock, by playing relatively fast and loose with the storylines, but putting enough nods and winks to the original canon into each episode to keep even the most die-hard fans happy.
This, of course, doesn’t even take into account the two greatest challenges of adaptations that Sherlock faces head-on; that of adapting historical texts into a modern mise-en-scene, and that of injecting humour into a largely humourless source material. In the original texts, Sherlock Holmes is certainly a wit, but the remake focuses much more on the badinage and interplay between Holmes and Watson. This is largely what I believe makes Sherlock so popular amongst modern audiences. The storylines have become much more based around human interest, something which Holmes of course would have despised.
The relationship between Holmes and Watson is what interests me particularly. The new Holmes and Watson closely resemble a phenomenon that is thus far restricted largely to pockets of the internet known as ‘gay bait’. This is a theory that TV shows will create close same-sex friendships that resemble relationships to appeal to gay audiences. In some cases this is a Ross and Rachel will-they-won’t-they scenario, and in some, it’s more of a sweet and unrequited thing, similar to the straight guy crush that forms a large part of the formative years of so many gay men.
I’m not suggesting that the writes of Sherlock, or indeed any other TV writers do this intentionally (though it’s not hard to find that opinion online), but it’s certainly an interesting theory. There are certainly resemblances between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson, and the kings of ‘gay-bait’ couples, Troy Barnes and Abed Nadir from the American sitcom Community. Both seem to need each other to survive, both have occasional rows and tender moments, and both are mistaken for couples regularly. Indeed, a characteristic of ‘gay-bait’ characters tends to be silly jokes in which the characters’ dialogue or actions ape the tropes of TV relationships.
Obviously, the Sherlock Holmes canon rules out a consummation of that particular relationship anywhere other than the dark and baffling world of internet slash fiction (the ultimate bellwether of a ‘gay-bait’ couple), but I tend to think there might be some truth behind it. There appears to be a frisson between Holmes and Watson that goes beyond the overall humanisation of the storylines. Think of how many same-sex TV partnerships whose conflicts and resolutions would, were they man and woman, or both gay, could pass as sexual tension. Since reading about the idea of ‘gay-bait’, I’ve had to bite my tongue to avoid shouting ‘Get a room!’ at numerous TV shows. But that might say more about me.