Not Impressed: Sue Vertue on “Elementary” Casting

Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch have already played the same character(s) once, in last year’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Now, thanks to CBS, they’ll (sort of) be doing it again.

News appeared this week that Miller has been cast as the lead role in the CBS pilot Elementary - and that lead role happens to be a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. Unless you live on Mars you won’t have missed Cumberbatch filling the same shoes in the BBC’s Sherlock, a portrayal which has sent him straight into the Hollywood stratosphere. Sherlock regularly grabbed over eight million viewers on a Sunday night and has become one of the most loved dramas on British television, by both audiences and critics – which is probably why CBS originally enquired about doing a US remake. With that idea shot down, they’ve turned to writer Rob Doherty to give them a modern Sherlock all of their own.

Multiple Sherlock Holmes adaptations have already proved that they can co-exist, from the silent days of early cinema to Guy Ritchie’s big screen franchise, to Sherlock, and the new Russian series airing in late 2012. It’s the idea of modernisation that’s new, and where the problem arises. When the CBS pilot was first announced Sherlock producer Sue Vertue tweeted, “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!” Although the copyright on Sherlock Holmes is in the British public domain, too much of a similarity between Elementary and Sherlock could provide grounds for Hartswood Films to take legal action, and it sounds like a very real possibility.

Covering the subject in  The Independent, Sue Vertue said: “We are very proud of our show and like any proud parent, will protect the interest and wellbeing of our offspring.” Then, with the release of the CBS casting news, the undertones in Vertue’s words became apparent: “Let’s hope their pilot script has stayed further away from our Sherlock than their casting choice. We have been in touch with CBS and informed them that we will be looking at their finished pilot very closely for any infringement of our rights.”

It’s an explicit calls to arms and one that CBS should take very seriously. Sherlock has sold to numerous countries, including the US, and developed an incredibly loyal following to add to the already huge fanbase for Conon Doyle’s works, who have accepted Sherlock as a worthy addition to the original (relocation to New York has caused far more dissent that jumping to the modern day ever did). If the style of the CBS pilot wanders too close to Sherlock, as much indicates that it will, then they’re in real trouble.

Copycat claims aside, Jonny Lee Miller is a talented actor who has already been chosen once as a foil to Cumberbatch – but, with his counterpart having carved out such an icionic version of the role, can Miller really hope to beat him? Perhaps his casting is simply a clever piece of publicity designed to bring the pilot to the world’s attention, and with commission Miller will make way for someone less associated with their natural enemy. Or maybe he really is the best man for the job.

A way to gauge the possibility of success for Elementary may lie in the title. Considering the cardinal mistake (Arthur Conan Doyle never actually wrote  the words “Elementary, my dear Watson”), you have to wonder if CBS can hope to replicate some of the fundamental success of Sherlock – that it was adapted by people who genuinely adore the canon itself, and know it inside out.