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Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-01)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-01)
BBC2, tx. 4 & 5/1/2000 (pilot); BBC1 tx. 4/9-2/10/2001
2 x 60 min, 4 x 90 min episodes, colour
DirectorPaul Seed
Production CompaniesBBC Films, WGBH (Boston)
ProducerIan Madden
ScriptDavid Pirie
PhotographyJohn Kenway
MusicJim Parker

Cast: Ian Richardson (Joseph Bell); Charles Dance (Sir Henry Carlyle); Robin Laing (Arthur Conan Doyle); Dolly Wells (Elspeth); Ruth Platt (Lady Sarah Carlyle); Sean McGinley (Inspector Beecher)

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The adventures of the pioneer of forensic medicine Dr Joseph Bell and his young student Arthur Conan Doyle, who would later achieve fame and fortune as the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

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Having touched on the relationship between an author's real life and his fictional work in Ashenden (BBC, 1991), David Pirie turned to the world of literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes in Murder Rooms, offering an original and refreshingly oblique exploration of the work of his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and its relation to Dr Joseph Bell, Doyle's mentor as a student.

The two-part pilot story is set in 1878 Edinburgh and dramatises the first meeting between the young Doyle and Bell, whose forensic methods were later the inspiration for Holmes. Ian Richardson, who also played Holmes in two television films in the 1980s, plays Bell with customary flamboyance (especially in a sequence prefiguring the events in Doyle's classic story 'The Speckled Band'), but also infuses him with great warmth and humanity. Also present are prototypes for such Holmesian characters as Irene Adler, Inspector Lestrade and even Moriarty, in the shape of the real-life mass-murderer Dr Thomas Neil Cream. Pirie here suggests that it was Cream's execution in 1892 that prompted Doyle's desire to stop writing the Holmes stories.

The subsequent series was set four years later, with Simon Chandler taking over as a more rugged Doyle, trying to make a living as a GP in Southsea. 'The Patient's Eyes' (tx. 4/9/2001) written by Pirie, is particularly powerful and skilfully recreates incidents from many of Doyle's original stories (including 'The Solitary Cyclist'). The other equally atmospheric episodes were 'The Photographer's Chair' (tx. 18/9/2001) by Paul Billing, 'The Kingdom of Bones' (tx. 25/9/2001) by horror specialist Stephen Gallagher and 'The White Knight Stratagem' (tx. 2/10/2001), a clever whodunit by Daniel Boyle which returns Doyle and Bell to Edinburgh and features Rik Mayall as a violent police detective.

Although Murder Rooms sadly didn't return for a second series, Pirie continued the adventures in three novels and the stand-alone play, The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle (BBC2, tx. 27/7/2005), with Doyle and Bell here played by Douglas Henshall and Brian Cox respectively. As its title suggests, this look at the symbiotic relationship between the author and his creation was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's Edinburgh-set Jekyll and Hyde story. Pirie revisits many of the scenes and motifs of Murder Rooms, but here concludes that Doyle's decision to kill off Holmes was due to his grief over the death of his father.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Bell investigates (4:29)
2. The cyclist (3:32)
3. Body in the woods (3:59)
Dance, Charles (1946-)
Pirie, David (1953-)