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Repent, Knave! ’Sherlock’ Co-Creator Mark Gatiss Confronts Critic in Rhyming Verse, Forsooth and Forthwith
January 10, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

'Tis nobler by half to withhold errant judgment o'er the arts
For this Sherlock doggerel is enough to try men's hearts.

Apologies. Days after the new season of Sherlock debuted, a reviewer’s remark in a prominent UK newspaper that Sherlock, to its detriment, has become more like James Bond and less like Sherlock Holmes in its most recent iteration (‘Sherlock is slowly and perversely morphing into Bond. This Cannot Stand,’ Ralph Jones, The Guardian, Jan. 3) prompted a furious response from Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss.

And not just any response. Gatiss wrote a poem of rhyming verse, and sent it to The Guardian’s op-ed pages — whereupon it was duly and promptly printed.

There is history here.

In 1912, Sherlock Holmes’ original creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, aggrieved by a disparaging remark in London Opinion magazine, wrote an angry poem in response, also in rhyming verse, and sent it to the magazine — which duly and promptly printed it.

Sherlock’s detractors, and they are growing in voice if not exactly in number, express concern — make that concern most grave — that Gatiss and Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat are taking their hero into an action-hero realm to which he is ill-suited and that rings false, despite Sherlock’s contemporary setting.

Jones wrote, for example, that Sherlock’s unofficial tagline was: “Brainy is the new sexy.”

It feels as if it gave up being brainy a while ago, though, Jones feels. “Soon it may even cease to be sexy.”

Gatiss was not amused.

Gatiss titled his poem, “To an Undiscerning Critic” — and had the grace and wit to add: “with apologies to AC Doyle.”

“Here is a critic who says with low blow, Gatiss wrote,
Sherlock’s no brain-box but become double-O
Says the Baker St boy is no man of action —
whilst ignoring the stories that could have put him in traction.”

But wait, there was more. The poem went on for several stanzas, before ending thusly,

“In shooting down pygmies and Hounds from hell
Did Sherlock on Victorian niceties dwell?
When Gruner’s men got him was Holmes quite compliant
Or did he give good account for The Illustrious Client?

“There’s no need to invoke in yarns that still thrill,
Her Majesty’s Secret Servant with licence to kill
From Rathbone through Brett to Cumberbatch dandy
With fists Mr. Holmes has always been handy.”

Conan Doyle wrote his original 1912 poem in response to a London Opinion writer’s assertion — in rhyming verse, no less — that Sherlock Holmes should not make disparaging remarks about fictional detectives when Conan Doyle himself owed so much to them.

Sir Arthur did not dwell on Victorian niceties in his reply:

“Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
Where are the limits of human stupidity?”

This is all in great fun, of course, and can’t help but boost Sherlock’s ratings when the season finale, “The Final Problem,” airs Sunday (Masterpiece, PBS, 9 ET/PT, and in the UK on BBC One).

This but a tempest in a teapot as the world’s problems go, true, but it’s a measure of Sherlock’s sophistication — and the respect with which Gatiss and Moffat hold for their audience — that a public spat between a critic and show writer should be so, um, well, civilized.

Gatiss’ stab at summoning the wit and verbal dexterity of Conan Doyle did not go over as well with Guardian readers as he might have hoped, though.

I am inclined to agree with Jones: I would prefer that Sherlock’s Holmes remain more as he was in A Scandal in Belgravia, and less like Daniel Craig in Spectre.

The gentleman doth protest too much seemed to be the general consensus of Guardian readers — at least those aggrieved enough to write letters. (Or emails. This is the post-internet age, after all.)

“The appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is the flawed genius using his wits to rise above the fight and win the day,” opined one John Withington, from Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands. “And the brooding menace of Moriarty’s potentially superior cunning is the sub-plot that drove previous outings, providing a twisting intellectual thread that holds the whole story together. Not the size of his assault rifle.”

Also weighing in: a certain Graham Ullathorne of Lower Pilsley, Derbyshire — who sounds as if he might be a character in an original Sherlock Holmes story — and a Michael Bulley from Chalon-sur-Saône, France, who wrote that Gatiss’ effort at verse “reminds me of Morecambe and Wise and the Grieg Piano Concerto: all the right rhythms are there, but not necessarily in the right order.”

Oh, dear. I thought it rather good, myself. Oh, well. All this doggerel is enough to try men’s hearts.

The game is afoot, in any event. For one more week, anyway.

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