Grandma's Tales

December 28, 2006

Sherlock Holmes is back! He makes History!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:08 pm

History channel is now showing Sherlock Holmes episodes on Tuesday nights. These are hour-long mini movies each dramatising one story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous collection of mysteries. The first half hour of the telecast is without a break, yes, no tiresome ads, but after that you see them regularly, diluting the suspense. Towards the end of the hour they bombard you with more frequency. But there is no mystery in that, is there?

I’m watching it after many years (Sherlock Holmes, not the ads) and I find the stories have not lost any of the original zing and thrill, I mean they have not gone dated. The pace is tight, the editing sharp. The production scores hugely in recreating the time in which the detective practised his art of observation and deduction. The major delight for me is in the “dialogue”, the credit for which should go to the writer. Sample this:

Holmes: Well, it would be absurd to deny that the case is a very abstruse and complicated one, but I can promise you that I will look into the matter and let you know any points which may strike me.
Miss Harrison: Do you see any clue?
H:You have furnished me with seven, but of course I must test them before I can pronounce upon their value.
Ms. H: You suspect someone?
H: I suspect myself.
Ms. H: What!
Of coming to conclusions too rapidly.”

The story was first published by Penguin Books in 1930. This excerpt is from The Naval Treaty.

Our educators now argue, “Why do we need foreign literature? We need “functional” English (also called functional grammar, dry as a two-day-old chappati), just enough competence in the language to “communicate”. Textbooks should have lessons with a regional flavour. It’s colonial hangover to want to include lessons written by foreign authors.”

What they forget (don’t know/can’t make out) is this. [1] These very English stories tell you the correct use of the language. Read the excerpt again and see the way the phrasal verb “pronounce upon” is used. No, I’m not asking you to read Sherlock Holmes with grammar/usage in mind. Far from it. Learning to use the language well is a pleasantly surprising by-product of reading good stories.

Which is a better way to learn a language? Through books on its rules and grammar or through its wonderfully written stories, poems, riddles and plays? Our young have such a problem with the language because all they ever read is faulty SMSish.

Imagine your English teacher reading out one of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. As she reads, she gets a student to put down the clues on the board. At some point, the teacher stops and gets the kids to analyse the clues and try to solve the problem. They could even do it in groups. Which group has the most plausible solution?

In this case, the Naval Treaty, a highly valued government document is lost. Who is the thief? Who profits from taking it? Where could it be? Play Sherlock Holmes if you want to.

Meantime, I’m looking forward to next Tuesday, 9 pm, History channel.


  1. Are these hour-long mini movies available in DVD’s? I want to gift it to someone.

    Comment by Bala — February 5, 2007 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  2. Hi Bala, not in the regular shops. I discovered some at the British Council Library but I’m not sure if they are DVDs. Meantime, don’t miss the next episode tomorrow (Tuesday) night on History Channel. Each one is a gem!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — February 5, 2007 @ 9:56 pm | Reply

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