From the very first stories, there has always been a sense of mystery surrounding the adventures of Sherlock Holmes an John Watson. While that might seem like a bit of an obvious statement for a series concerning the lives of a detective and his ever faithful companion, it's not the mystery of the cases that I'm referring to.
In a conversation between Holmes and Watson in the beginning of The Sign of the Four, where Holmes insists to Watson that "some facts should be suppressed," (in context, the facts he's referring to are the elements of romance present in the first story) the attentive reader is clued into the idea that something about Holmes and Watson's relationship is being kept from them. A romance is being suppressed.
And in the Victorian Era, a romance between two men would have been. 1895, the most famous year of the Holmes canon, was coincidentally one of the most dangerous times to be a man attracted to other men in London, due in large part to the very public trial of Oscar Wilde, whose writings were used as evidence against him, apparently showing him to be "guilty of a certain tendency."
Conveniently, Watson mentions in "The Adventure of The Three Students," a story which takes place in 1895 that "a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great university towns," far away from the trial. There's an elusive sense in the stories that the characters are in hiding, even from their audience, because if the truth were to be revealed, they would be in danger.
That sense of mystery didn't dissipate when Doyle stopped writing the Holmes stories. While it's clear that not every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes has been aware of the hidden nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, some have been. One of the most famous examples is Billy Wilder's film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. As you'd expect with that title, the film was intended to explore the pieces of Holmes' life kept from the stories. The film opens with a secret journal of Watson's being read for the first time 50 years after his death, claiming to hold sensitive information as to the true nature of Holmes' heart.
Unfortunately, the film was censored due to the Motion Picture Code in place at the time, and so all Private Life was able to do was hint at the truth. One noteworthy piece of symbolism within the film is the way Holmes shuts himself away when he's overcome with emotion. His true self cannot be seen, even by Watson. The scene where Watson confronts Holmes for insinuating they're in a relationship is, perhaps, the most infamous example. After Watson has reigned in his anger at Holmes for suggesting that they are lovers, he smugly states that there are women all over the world who could verify his attraction to women (alluding to a moment in The Sign of The Four when Watson says he has "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents,").
He turns to Holmes and slyly remarks that there are women who could do the same for him, only to be met with silence. Watson, slightly panicked now, approaches Holmes, standing only a foot away from him, and pleadingly asks him to clarify that there are women, only for Holmes to silently walk away. Watson stops him and asks one last time about his sexual history. Here's the exchange that occurs.
WATSON: Holmes, let me ask you a question. I hope I'm not being presumptuous- but there have been women in your life?
HOLMES: The answer is yes. [a pause where Watson looks considerably relieved] You're being presumptuous. [The smile falls from Watson's face] Good night.
Holmes then turns away and heads into his room, resolutely shutting the door behind him. Watson, suddenly much softer, quietly says Holmes' name like a question, but he his given no response from behind the door.
In 1970, the truth could be hinted at, but never fully revealed, still carefully kept under lock and key.
It's much the same at the end of the film, when Holmes receives the news of Ilse's death. He asks Watson to tell him where he's hidden his drugs, and once he finds them, takes them into his room and shuts the door. We aren't allowed to see the true nature of Holmes' feelings for Ilse, not because they are romantic, but because they are not. He was taking drugs to suppress his pain long before he met her, and so the cause of his heartbreak must lie elsewhere. From the other side of the door, Watson takes up his pen and starts writing his account of this case, never knowing the true nature of Holmes' heart.
It's a truly heartbreaking film, but for a considerable length of time, it was the closest anyone had come to truly exploring the nature of the relationship of Holmes and Watson. Is it any wonder then that when Mark Gatiss first saw the film when he was young it "profoundly affected" him? Mark has referred to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes both as his favorite Holmes adaptation and the film that changed his life.
It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that when he was given the opportunity to create his own adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, that he drew heavy inspiration from Billy Wilder's version, including that element of a carefully hidden truth surrounding Sherlock's sexuality. (It's not just Mark, by the way. You only have to watch A Scandal in Belgravia after seeing Private Life to know that Steven Moffat has also been deeply influenced by that version).
As Mark Gatiss has said though, bringing Sherlock Holmes into the modern day, making Sherlock Holmes in the modern day, allows for one big difference. That difference is that in this version, by the end of the story, the truth will no longer be concealed. It will be explicitly confirmed that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are in love and always have been. That's why the writers have chosen to present the story the way they have; the slowly unfolding romance eases audiences into the truth that was always there without them ever noticing the shift. Because the romance has always been there, right from A Study in Scarlet. It was only being suppressed.
In BBC Sherlock, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the distinction between public appearances and the character's private lives, and in bridging the gap between them. Many of the most intimate scenes take place in Baker Street with the curtains drawn and the door shut, safe from prying eyes. But a fair number of these scenes happen in the staircase up to 221b, perhaps because it's the place within the confines of Baker Street closest to the outside world, demonstrating how close the series is to unveiling the truth.
One such moment of intimacy occurs in A Study in Pink. Sherlock and John have just returned from their first chase through the streets and over the rooftops of London together, and they are breathlessly laughing side by side, propped up against the wall, when there is a knock at the door. John opens it and realizes when Angelo hands him back his cane that Sherlock has cured his psychosomatic limp. He looks at back at Sherlock in the hallway, and their smiles for each other light up the screen. For a moment, with the door to Baker Street wide open, it seems certain that it's only a matter of minutes before they declare their feelings.
Unbeknownst to them though, the police are already inside. Now is not the time for their relationship to begin; they would literally be caught in the act.
It's not usually the police they have to mindful of however, it's the press. In The Reichenbach Fall, as Sherlock and John prepare for Moriarty's trial, we see the two make furtive glances at each other as they get dressed before heading downstairs. They approach the front door and pause for a moment, facing one another. John takes a deep breath and asks if Sherlock is ready to face the press. This ties back to an earlier scene where, instead of wondering how the press could possibly think he has feelings for Sherlock, John tells Sherlock that they need to be more careful about how they handle themselves in public. It's the true nature of their feelings that must be hidden, and a great deal of care is necessary to conceal it. Sherlock quietly affirms that he's ready and John opens the door, shielding Sherlock from the press as they go, the same way Watson has been hiding the true Holmes from the public eye for over a century.
A similar scenario plays out in The Empty Hearse. This time, before facing the press, Sherlock and John have a tender conversation about the speech John made when he thought Sherlock was dead. John tells Sherlock that he asked him for a miracle, to stop being dead, and Sherlock softly tells John that he heard him. The two gently stare at each other and again, for an instant, it seems as if they are on the cusp of announcing the truth.
But Sherlock turns away and says "It's time to go be Sherlock Holmes" for the press. This includes putting on the deerstalker, which has been part of Sherlock Holmes' public image since nearly the beginning despite not having any factual basis, a symbol of the distorted view the public has of Holmes' character, including his relationship with John Watson. Even though Sherlock and John look happy standing side by side in front of the cameras in this scene, this line makes it clear that they are at least partially putting on an act. There are still some things that are only discussed behind closed doors. Or not at all.
In the very next episode, Sherlock and John nearly fall asleep together on the stairs and have a barely coherent conversation about their reputations. Sherlock states that he's known all over the world, although he can't quite remember what he's known for, despite having previously said that he was married to his work. John on the other hand, says he doesn't have an international reputation, a direct rebuttal to Watson's defense in Private Life. In this vulnerable moment, with their defenses down, those excuses aren't needed. They can be open about what they prioritize most: each other.
At the end of the episode, John mentions having danced with Sherlock in Baker Street, but only behind closed curtains, and the look on Sherlock's face is wistful. While John is making light of the situation, there's something deeper going on here. There's some truth to those rumors of what happens when Baker Street can't be seen from the outside world. In the very first scene of the episode, we see Mrs. Hudson walk up the stairs and open the door to find Sherlock dancing alone, arms perfectly placed so that John would fit inside them, planting the image of her walking in on them, and reinforcing the idea that the stairs bridge the gap between Sherlock and John's private life, and the pieces of their relationship that everyone can see.
Which leads to The Abominable Bride, where Holmes and Watson have a conversation that plays out quite similarly to the one in Private Life. While this conversation doesn't happen in the staircase to 221b, it does happen in a greenhouse, so that while Holmes and Watson are shut inside behind a door and walls, those walls are transparent. We can begin to see inside.
Our Watson is much more direct that Colin Blakely's rendition; he asks about Holmes' past not as a defense mechanism, but out of genuine curiosity. This Watson knows that Holmes is flesh and blood, that he has "impulses," and he plainly asks about them. This conversation becomes much more revealing when you know that it's playing out in Sherlock's head, and he's telling himself to talk to John about his impulses and desires. While Holmes refused to answer the question in Private Life and shut himself away, here they are interrupted before Holmes can reveal anything. And as they run off to chase the ghost, we hear glass shattering- a barrier has been removed.
In the final scene of The Abominable Bride, we see Holmes and Watson back together in Baker Street, more warm and open towards each other than ever before (and conspicuously putting pipes in their mouths after every sentence). In this scene, the entirety of BBC Sherlock is presented as a dream Holmes has been describing to Watson. Watson thinks Holmes' imagined future is ridiculous, and Holmes allows that he might have gotten a bit carried away.
But he appears to reconsider, and with eyes full of longing goes on to say "but perhaps such things could come to pass." His eyes briefly flit up to Watson's face as he says this. Holmes goes on to declare that not only would he be more at home in that world, but that Watson would be as well. They belong in that imagined future together, because Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were created as men out of their time.
But how could that be true? To many, the fact that the Holmes stories take place in the Victorian Era is one of the most important elements. How could a character from the Victorian Period, whose stories were published in the serial format, the defining medium of the era, not belong in his time?
It goes back to that truth that has been concealed since the beginning. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been in love since they were created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but they have only been free to express that love within the confines of Baker Street: behind closed curtains, never in view of the outside world. Notice that as Holmes approaches the open window, it is not the interior of Baker Street nor his own appearance that change, but rather that of the outside world. Because it was the world that needed to change, not Holmes, Watson, or their life together. In a modern world, despite all the obstacles Sherlock and John have already faced and will continue to face in the coming series, Sherlock and John will finally have the freedom to be together for all the world to see.
I've always found it interesting that while "The Adventure of The Retired Colourman" was neither the last story to be published, nor the last to occur chronologically, in most Sherlock Holmes collections, it's placed as the final story. I've always gotten the sense that the first person to make that choice knew what was at the core of the stories. Presented in this order, the parting line of the Sherlock Holmes canon is Holmes remarking to Watson that "Some day the true story may be told." This leaves the reader with the sense that something has been left unresolved, that even though they've read all that is available to them of the lives of Holmes and Watson, there are still some mysteries left to be unveiled.
What Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done is softly, slowly, gently lift that veil, bit by bit. It has been handled in such a loving way that it's obvious that these writers are thrilled to be the ones to finally tell this version of the Holmes stories. They've pulled out all the stops in telling not only the first explicit love story between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, but one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. It's everything that these characters deserve after waiting for so long. For now the truth is still partially hidden, but that won't be the case much longer. One day very soon, the rug will be pulled, the curtain lifted, and everyone will see the romance that has been at the heart of the adventures since the very start.
And on that day, the true story will finally be told.