Sherlock Holmes with a scraggly manbun? Why not. The Irregulars is a competent re-imagining

The Irregulars  - Matt Squire
The Irregulars - Matt Squire

Whether a four-hour Justice League or a $1 billion Amazon TV series based on the glossary at the back of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that nobody ever reads, expanded universes are all the rage. And no fictional world has been bent into wonkier shapes than that created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887 when he began to write about a sleuth with a low-grade cocaine addiction and a love for games of of logic.

Sherlock Holmes spin-offs come in every configuration, from the delightful (the first season of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock) to the unwatchable (the final season season of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock). And in this league table of Baker Street by-products The Irregulars is bang in the middle.

Netflix’s new series is a thunderingly competent re-imagining of the story of the Baker Street Irregulars, those sooty-faced scamps who served as Sherlock’s eyes and ears in London’s underworld. From Hollyoaks-level acting to mid-tier production values and storylines that owe more to Doctor Who than Doctor Watson, it is stonkingly adequate.

The show’s big innovation is to turn the Irregulars into angsty teens. They are led by sisters Bea (Thaddea Graham) and Jessie (Darci Shaw), who negotiate the travails of 19th-century London with a suspiciously 21st-century outlook (“Sherlock’s a w----r” Jessie observes at one point). Aiding the duo are bantering ne’er do wells Spike (Mckell David) and Billy (Jojo Macari), plus honorary gang member “Leo” (Harrison Osterfield), the incognito alias of Queen Victoria’s haemophiliac youngest son Prince Leopold.

Henry Lloyd-Hughes stars as Sherlock Holmes - Matt Squire
Henry Lloyd-Hughes stars as Sherlock Holmes - Matt Squire

Sherlock himself pops along eventually. The casting in The Irregulars is diverse (Doctor Watson is played by a black actor, Royce Pierreson). Holmes, by contrast, is thoroughly pale and male.

As portrayed by Henry Lloyd-Hughes (The Inbetweeners) he also seems newly arrived from a illegal rave circa 1989. In flashbacks to his mystery-solving heyday, Sherlock has a scraggly manbun, a jittery manner and a faraway look in his eye. You half expect to find him up a tree bopping to Spiral Tribe while protesting the construction of a motorway. Along with that, he is happy to take credit for the Irregulars’ work.

The other major upgrade by writer Tom Bidwell (who oversaw the BBC’s un-warranted remake of Watership Down) is the introduction of a esoteric component. Conan Doyle went out of his way to ground his Holmes stories in the real world. However, Bidwell has justified the introduction of an occult component on that basis that, in his private life, the author was obsessed with spiritualism and the paranormal.

The monsters are, it must be said, rather ripe (and scary too – The Irregulars is not a kids’ show). Among the villains with which the Irregulars must do battle are a killer nun, a ghost who steals children’s teeth and a sorceress with a connection to Bea and Jessie who is trying to break through from another dimension.

As Bea and Jessie confront the woman holding this deeply personal grip over them, Sherlock die-hards may well be reaching for the laudanum. Though never less than a romp, The Irregulars is puckishly irreverent towards Holmesian lore, feeling as much inspired by 19th-century ghost stories as by Arthur Conan Doyle. But it at least tries to be different. And whatever hardcore Baker Street buffs make of it, lovers of hokum will find the time passing at a giddy clip.

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