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The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It

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Star, London, 1977
(price: 95p; 128 pages)

The blurb on the back:

'As I see it gentlemen, if we don't make Moriarty inoperative, as of NOW, its an end of civilization as we know it situation...'
And so they were until A. Sherlock Holmes, slightly amazing grandson of the legendary detective, and his partially trusty colleague, Dr. Watson, arrived at the scene - raising the question whether the end of civilisation as we know it might not be a bad idea - all things considered.
JOHN CLEESE is Arthur Sherlock Holmes
ARTHUR LOWE is Dr William Watson
and Irene Handl is not Orson Welles

opening lines:
Few people know that when the legendary Sherlock Holmes ended his life, the Holmes family tree continued and produced, in time, a grandson named Arthur.

If you don't remember this 1977 one-off comedy from London Weekend Television, then it might sound like an attractive proposition. It featured the fantasy pairing of John Cleese and Arthur Lowe as Holmes and Watson (or at least, in a rip-off of Young Frankenstein, the descendants of Holmes and Watson), and boasted an impressive supporting cast: Ron Moody, Burt Kwouk, Denholm Elliott, Stratford Johns - what more could you ask?

Well, you could start by asking for different lead actors. Cleese and Lowe, both fine actors in their own right, simply didn't gel as a team, with the gap between the two traditions of British comedy - Ensa and Oxbridge - painfully apparent. And you could ask for a much better script. This one is typical of that self-conscious school of writing that yearns to be referred to as 'anarchic fun' and, needless to say, is neither anarchic nor fun.

Which is not to say that it's completely rubbish. Obviously, given the talent involved, there are some good gags in here. This, for example, is an American security adviser at an international conference, eating the English language:

We have to accept a rethink of a whole new methodology to probe out the ongoing re-evaluation of the potential situation, before handling this phase of the operation, at this moment in time to seek out an overly acceptable situation which is not only intrinsically basic as of now but also operative at this time in a potential let-sleeping-dogs-lie-situation, as of the previously stated, moment in time. Speaking for myself, as of now, this makes the whole goddam shebang acceptable in my book, which refers back to the original hypothesis that... (p.22)

Well, okay, it's an easy joke, a somewhat lazy bit of national stereotyping, but still quite funny, I thought. Except that towards the end of this speech, we cut to the 'African delegate' (no country specified) who is having the American's words translated in his earphones onto 'jungle drums'. He responds by giving a Black Power salute and saying 'Right on, Comrade'.

Cos that's what these funny black people do.

I suppose we should be grateful that it was Christopher Asante playing the role, rather than Spike Milligan doing one of his side-splitting blacked-up characters, but still those are crap jokes. And there's a vast difference between employing stereotypes of powerful white Americans and racist portrayals of primitive black people.

I get emails occasionally saying that I overstress the racism in British comedy from the 1960s and '70s - see it in the context of its times, people say, it wasn't meant nastily, just a bit of fun, shouldn't project today's attitudes back into that world. All of which is nonsense. This is 1977, for god's sake: sixteen years after the Sharpeville massacres in South Africa, fourteen years after Martin Luther King Jr had led the largest demonstration ever seen in America, demanding that black people be treated with respect, nine years after Enoch Powell had given us his rivers of blood speech. How ignorant do Cleese and his co-writers have to be that they were still having 'a bit of fun' with the idea that those black savages in the monoculture that is 'Africa' talk to each other with drums and behave like extras in a blaxploitation movie? Let's not mince words: this is racist. And the fact that other bits of British culture were also racist is neither here nor there.

Apart from that, this still isn't funny. Maybe a novelization would have been a better idea. Then at least a pastiche of the Doyle style could have salvaged something, but as a straight teleplay, it's not good.

Trivia Note: Cleese had earlier played Holmes himself in NF Simpson's 1973 TV play Elementary, My Dear Watson with Willie Rushton as the good Doctor.

Pipe rating:

Sherlock Holmes
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