Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
– Vincent Starrett, 1942
Vincent Starrett was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, one of the earliest fan societies dedicated to Doyle’s detective. His sonnet, above, is a famous characterisation of Holmes and Watson as a timeless, enduring pair whose identity is quintessentially tied up both in their relationship, and in the strong sense of Victorian idyll which pervades the poem. The BBC Sherlock embodies this sense of Holmes and Watson as somehow iconic, their meaning enduring to an extent which makes them capable of re-invention in a new century; the series hinges on the recognisability of the two men and their shared life even divorced from their Victorian setting. Interestingly, the Granada series does not adapt A Study in Scarlet, despite its importance as the text in which Holmes and Watson meet; I cannot help but read their omission in the light of Starrett’s poem, so that in the Granada series Holmes and Watson remain timeless and unending, a continual present of the two of them in Baker Street without either a starting point or (given that the series also omits Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan) an ending to their lives together.
(Why 1895? While John Watson’s blog, the BBC media tie-in, references this Sherlockian in-joke in the stuck hit counter in its original layout (since changed, but explicitly referenced in “A Scandal in Bohemia”), it makes no attempt to explain the significance of the date. I choose to link it to Watson’s description of Holmes in “The Adventure of Black Peter”, where he notes that “I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95. His increasing fame had brought with it an immense practice.” It is entirely inevitable that John/Sherlock fanfic shippers also relate the date to the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, citing Doyle’s friendship with and support of Wilde).
“A Study in Pink” works hard to establish its terms of reference: a close dialogue with Doyle’s stories (while this is not a faithful adaptation its intertextual relationship with “Study in Scarlet” and other stories is very strong), a focus on the emotional significance of John and Sherlock’s relationship, and the visual encodings which underscore both London as a character in its own right, and the pivotal importance of Sherlock’s deductive process externalised as visual cues. The episode establishes its relatively marginal play with Victorian codes in the cluttered, wallpapered interior of 221B, and in the frock-coat-invoking silhouette of Sherlock’s iconic coat.