Since the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, the hearts of many generations have been captured by the stories of the famous detective and his intimate companion. Many Victorian readers believed that he was a real man who actually existed and resided in 221B Baker Street, solving crimes with his partner. I have been a massive fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years; I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books years ago, I’ve watched many screen adaptations and I’ve also read other Sherlock Holmes related books by various authors. I’m not here to talk about the books, though. Maybe I’ll write another blog post some other time and talk about them. If you know me in real life then you are probably aware that I am one of those people who firmly believe that Holmes and Watson’s relationship was not strictly platonic. There was something more to it. This is a subject I’m very passionate about so I just had to write about it. As I’ve said, in this blog post I won’t go through the mountains of evidence from the books but I’ll talk about the way their relationship was portrayed in two screen adaptations: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and BBC’s Sherlock (2010-).
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Billy Wilder’s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not one of the most well-known screen adaptations. Why did I choose to write about this one then? Well… According to Billy Wilder, he should have been more daring and made Holmes openly gay. However, Conan Doyle’s son was there at the time and he didn’t allow it. Instead, Holmes is portrayed as gay but it is desperately unspoken and, according to Wilder, keeping it a secret is the reason he took drugs. Robert Stephens’ Holmes is quite effeminate, almost camp, and you can definitely see a hint of mascara in a few scenes. It is an unconventional portrayal of Sherlock Holmes but I am fond of it.
I must admit though that I don’t particularly like this film, and I especially dislike this version of Watson; still, I find it interesting that this could have been the first openly gay Sherlock Holmes if Conan Doyle’s son hadn’t objected. There is one scene where Watson, wanting to confirm that Holmes is heterosexual, asks him if there have been women in his life. Holmes shuts him down by telling him that he is being presumptuous. Brilliant.
Another scene I like is when a famous Russian ballerina wants Holmes to father her child; that way the child will inherit her beauty and his intellect. The man acting as a translator between them informs Holmes that they have also asked Tchaikovsky to be the father but “women are not his glass of tea”. Holmes declines her offer by hinting that he is in a relationship with Watson (wishful thinking?). Below is the dialogue and the link to the Youtube video:
HOLMES: You see, I am not a free man.
MAN: Not free? But you’re bachelor!
HOLMES: A bachelor living with another bachelor for the last five years. Five very happy years.
MAN: What is it you’re trying to tell us?
HOLMES: […] The point is that Tchaikovsky is not an isolated case.
MAN: You mean you and Dr Watson..? He is your glass of tea? (x)
I promised myself I won’t do this, I won’t spend time and energy writing about something that makes me so frustrated but I just can’t help it. So here it goes. I first watched Sherlock a couple of months after it first aired back in 2010. Of course, I was hooked. I had never seen anything like it and I found it brilliant. For some reason, I loved it so much and felt such a connection that I didn’t talk to anyone about it for almost 2 years because it was too precious to me. Seven years later and now I don’t even want to hear a single word about this show. But let’s take it from the beginning, shall we? From the very first episode I could see that there was something more between Sherlock and John. Was it the way they looked at each other? The things they said? Their body language? So many things. Sherlock’s disinterest in women is evident from the start. From the very first episode Sherlock explicitly says that women are not his area and when asked if he has a boyfriend he simply says “No”. I’ll stop here because this post will turn into a book if I list every single thing that supports the argument that Sherlock Holmes is not straight.
I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only person who believed that, there were hundreds of fans on the internet who believed the same thing. Throughout the years it became even more obvious to us that this show is leading up to a relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson for the first time! If we only knew. Not only was the show full of gay subtext and gay jokes but the way they chose to promote it was also something that gave hope to the fans. I mean, you only have to look at the promotional photos. Who the hell instructed them to look longingly at each other and appear so heartbroken?
A person counted and found 157 romantic tropes in Sherlock; pretty impressive, right? Here’s the link for anyone who is interested, I strongly urge you to read it (x). Some of my favourite ones are:
- Aborted declaration of love
- Break his heart to save him
- Converse with the unconscious—How Dare You Die on Me!
- Everyone can see it
- Intense held gaze
- Will they or won’t they (Unresolved Sexual Tension)
For all the fans, including myself, who watched this show and spent years analysing it, the only obvious outcome was John and Sherlock finally getting together. Many of us almost gave up after series 3 aired because the show started to get really bad but the evidence and subtext were more blatant than ever! And don’t be fooled; when I say “fans” I don’t just mean teenage girls, there are actual books and academic papers written about the relationship between those two characters (either about their relationship in screen adaptations, or in the original books).
Most of the characters in the show believe that Sherlock and John are couple, especially people who know Sherlock quite well. Which leaves fans wondering “well, if all those people who are close to Sherlock believe he is gay then it must be true, right?”. Below you can see a part of Digital Spy’s review of series 3 of Sherlock (x). Couldn’t have said it any better.
After the third series, it wasn’t only “crazy fans” on the internet who were complaining about the writers’ writing and the blatant queerbaiting. After series 4 aired in January 2017, leaving most fans outraged and devastated, I couldn’t help but notice that critics hated it as well. It seemed like the quality of the show went downhill after series 2; the thing was full of major plot-holes that were never explained and the story lines got more and more ridiculous. The writers, having apparently too much faith in themselves, desperately tried to appear smart -claiming that maybe the show isn’t for us if we can’t understand it- but is it really our fault if your plot is all over the place? No one was pleased, neither the casual viewers nor the devoted fans.
The writers had repeatedly said that their main inspiration for their show was Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and even admitted that they’ve played with homoeroticism in their own show. According to the creators:
“This wasn’t a case of, “Let’s grab that off the shelf and update it.” It was, “We love this, we think everybody’s been getting wrong, and we think we can get it right.” Unless you think you’re correcting everyone else, you shouldn’t be doing something. You should be saying, “Now this is the way it should be done.”” (x)
So what did they want to get right? What did they think everyone else was getting wrong? What is the point of bringing Sherlock Holmes into the 21st century? To give him an iPhone and write cheap gay jokes? And to think that one of the two writers is a gay man himself. Pretty disappointing. If the writers insist that there is no romance between John and Sherlock then why do they deliberately frame them with romantic tropes, both in writing and filming? Although I am not sure how much more they can ruin it, I sincerely hope series 4 was the last one. It only gets worse and worse.
So, the year is 2017 and the closest thing we have to an openly gay Sherlock Holmes is a film from the 1970s. If one of them was a woman, they would have been in a relationship since episode 1 and suddenly everyone would be able to see the obvious romantic undertones. But for it to end up a cheap gay joke is simply sad. The blatant queerbaiting is something that has left me -and hundreds of fans around the world- bitter, disappointed and angry. I’m not losing hope just yet, though; I am sure that my generation will be the one who will finally give us the adaptation we long for. Here’s to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Victorian lovers and in the closet for 130 years!