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December 21 2011

Sherlock Holmes is still a man for today

Conan Doyle's detective was born in an age of empire and intrigue, much like our own. That's why Sherlock is still relevant

Sherlock Holmes is back. As usual. This Christmas holiday, the engaging modern-times Sherlock returns to the BBC while a second Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film tops the UK box office. But these are just the latest in an inexhaustible sequence of Holmes adaptations.

It is no secret that Sherlock Holmes is one of the world's best-loved fictional characters (and the one people find hardest to accept as fiction rather than fact). But why was late-Victorian Britain so good at inventing timeless heroes and villains?

Holmes, who first appeared in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, is the contemporary of some other extraordinary gentlemen. In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; in 1897, Bram Stoker was to give the world Dracula. Other famous fictions of the age include H Rider Haggard's She and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Modern horror, crime fiction, adventure stories and science fiction all originate in Britain in the period 1880-1914. In fact, this is Britain's greatest contribution to modern culture. While the French gave birth to the avant garde, we were seeding the 20th-century popular imagination. But what set off these rich fantasies?

It surely has something to do with the British empire. The heyday of Holmes is the era of imperial zenith. Britain was the centre of the biggest empire in history, and troubling shadows of this power permeated the domestic imagination. Readers at home in gaslit parlours turned from newspaper reports on the latest colonial war to fantastic stories in which poisonous snakes obtained overseas invade the quiet of English life. The exotic is eerie and uncanny in these stories. The web of world trade and structure of military might on which the wealth of Britain rests brings with it hidden networks of crime and intrigue.

Just as the Danish TV crime serial The Killing 2 unravels a plot in which the war in Afghanistan has uncanny effects deep in Danish minds, so Sherlock Holmes detects the buried truths of the British empire. We still live in the world that empire shaped. This is why Sherlock is our contemporary.


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October 07 2011

TV highlights 07/10/2011

The Culture Show | Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello | Autumnwatch 2011 | Criminal Minds | A League Of Their Own | Chris Addison: My Funniest Year

The Culture Show
7pm, BBC2

Another week, another eclectic collection of reports from the arts show, which this week visits Glasgow. Top of the bill is host Andrew Graham-Dixon interviewing Grayson Perry, who's lately curated an installation of new works mixed up with objects drawn from the British Museum collection. Mark Kermode discusses We Need To Talk About Kevin with its director Lynne Ramsay, Simon Armitage celebrates National Poetry Day, and critic Michael Collins considers representations of working-class characters in the theatre. Plus, choreographer Akram Khan and the work of artist Gerhard Richter. Jonathan Wright

Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello
7.30pm, BBC4

The cello is the closest orchestral instrument to the human voice in its range of expression. It has achieved a pre-eminence in the classical repertoire, growing throughout the 20th century. Much of this is to do with the tireless brilliance of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This profile, rich with footage, depicts a man whose energy and lust for life, as well its joys and sadnesses, informed his playing, and whose excessiveness broke the banks of mere virtuosity. David Stubbs

Autumnwatch 2011
8.30pm, BBC2

Once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be hoping something happens. Presenters Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan will be travelling the country to try to catch wildlife in action. The live locations include the wetlands at Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where kingfishers, otters and 35,000 wildfowl are all potential stars, and the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, which will probably be worth a visit for the stunning seasonal colours alone. Martin Skegg

Chris Addison: My Funniest Year
11.10pm, Channel 4

Addison takes to the stage of the Hackney Empire to deliver a live clip show based around his favourite year. His comedy odyssey takes us back to 2001, when Bush Jr came to power and ITV's Popstars gave us Hear'Say. News footage shows the year to be not that funny at all, with the twin towers falling and mass culling of foot and mouth-infected livestock, but this just gives Addison a chance to deploy the stockpile of gags he's had a decade to gather. Phelim O'Neill

Criminal Minds
9pm, Sky Living

A show based around the FBI's behavioural analysis unit, which psychologically profiles killers. For this seventh season, Criminal Minds departs forensic reality for a slightly far-fetched fantasy. Last series, it seemed that team member Emily Prentiss was a goner – stabbed in the abdomen by her arms-dealer former lover. How straightforward that would have been. In fact, Prentiss is alive, and hiding out in Paris until she finds an opportune moment to rejoin the unit. Fun stuff – and look out for Mad Men's Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) guest-starring as a member of a senate committee. John Robinson

A League Of Their Own
10pm, Sky1

While its antecedent, They Think It's All Over, managed to show the surprisingly sharp side of sporting figures such as David Gower and Steve Davis, A League Of Their Own merely plays down to expectations. Team captains Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp, though likable enough, aren't terribly interesting, leaving the burden of entertainment on James Corden and his interchangeable support staff of panel-show comics, which, for this fourth series, includes Jack Whitehall, Jason Manford and Lee Mack. Gwilym Mumford


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