BBC's Sherlock. Illustrating typical Englishness?

Term Paper, 2014
7 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Great Britain and England are often confused because the stereotypes towards the British seemed to be compatible with those referring to English people. Britishness, however is a construction for the sake of uniting England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. “Britishness was defined as a ‘common identity’ which was founded in the imperialist project.” (Wachinger, 24) The definition of an English identity is narrowly bound to Britishness because “Englishness […] was not simply contained as just one part of the essential pluralist shape of Britishness. As a more narrowly defined identity Englishness exercised and always has exercised hegemony.” (Wachinger, 24) Since the Scots and the Welsh became more independent and the power of England was diminished (cf. Berger, 24) the identity of the English was questioned because there were clearly distinguishing cultural identities that separated the Welsh and the Scots from the concept of being British but English identity is still an abstract thing and rather a result of diversity within regional, social and historical past. (cf. Berger, 25) According to Freud „members of a group identify with the same object and therefore enter into a common identification with each other.” (Easthope, 16) Objects that refer to this definition are customs, behaviour and simple things like humour. The following analysis BBC’s Sherlock is my tool to analyse typical Englishness but this analysis goes beyond describing the tea drinking habits of Mrs Hudson. Sherlock does not only reflect a typical Englishman but seems to be an exaggeration of Englishness towards the level of a brilliant madman and confirms the assumption that one’s behaviour is relative. The focus will be on the first two seasons and I will refer to the respective episodes as 1/1, 2/1, 3/1, 1/2, 2/2 and 3/2. Features of typical Englishness in this analysis are humour, social dis-ease and English intuition.

According to Kate Fox the English humour is a “reflex” and a “default mode”, which is “like breathing” (Fox, 46) As well as typical English humour, Sherlock’s humour is mainly based on irony and understatements. When he is asked about the meaning of the scull in his living room he answers: “A friend of mine - well I wouldn’t say friend.” (Sherlock, 1/1) English humour is said to be different from others for the “English have no soul - they have the understatement instead.” (Mikes, 24) The understatement is an important tool because it proves a certain degree of self-control. Instead of showing emotions English people tend to downplay things. (cf. Berger, 235) Irony is important because it shows how the English are distanced towards themselves. They are capable of what Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf has to learn. They can laugh about themselves. When readers of the Time Magazine were asked for a new national motto, sayings like “No problem left untaxed”1 or “May contain nuts” illustrate how the English tend not to take themselves too seriously. (Rice-Oxley, 69) Sherlock’s “I’m in shock - look, I’ve got a blanket,” (Sherlock, 1/1) shows how he makes fun of victims and how he is cynical towards social conventions and stuff normal people do. He ridicules anything and anyone so when he wants Watson to come with him in the episode The Great Game he says: “I’d be lost without my blogger.” (Sherlock, 3/1) Sherlock’s humour is different from other characters in this show because even though the English humour is a “reflex,” (Fox, 46) he manages to be humorous in inappropriate situations like when he receives diamond cufflinks for his work, he did not thank the person giving them to him:

“Diamond cufflinks - all my cuffs have buttons.” This is not only rude but also, Sherlock seems not to be able to react according to social conventions.

The English are said to be bad at social interaction. Fox calls it a “sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia”, which makes them over-polite, buttoned-up and awkwardly restrained or loud, crude and generally obnoxious in certain situations. (45) So Sherlock seems to be typically English in this respect because he also lacks the competence to behave appropriate in social interaction and seems to be “socially challenged” (Fox, 45) However, Sherlock’s social dis-ease reaches further because he is not capable to “understand the rules of society” (Watson’s blog, 7.Feb.) and he is “so cut off from everything, so cold, so lacking emotion.” (Watson’s blog, 25.Dec.) Observing Sherlock in social interaction proves Watson’s conclusions. He is very mean to Molly Hopper, he slams doors into people’s faces and he sits in Buckingham Palace only wearing a bed-sheet. So the question arises whether Moffat and Gatiss depict the modern Sherlock as a genius with a mental disorder. Watson even names “Asperger’s,” (Sherlock, 2/2) as an explanation for Sherlock’s behaviour. Several situations where Sherlock talks to Molly Hopper show that he is not able to interpret other people’s non-verbal signals. Sherlock does not see that she is almost crying although it is obvious that he hurt her. (cf. Sherlock, 3/1) He is not capable of “interacting and understanding other people” (NHS choices) and this fact hints at an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The definition says that people, who are diagnosed with an ASD, have difficulties in three areas: “social interaction, communication and social imagination.” (NHS choices) So, when Sherlock thanks Henry Knight for the “brilliant case,” although Henry is still in shock (Sherlock, 2/2) or says that a woman, who is bound to a bomb “doesn’t matter [because] she is just a hostage,” (Sherlock, 2/1) it is not just arrogance or lack of sympathy. It is rather a reaction of a person who is not able to empathize with others. This might be the reason why everyone thinks he is mad. Watson described him as a “madman,” when he first met him. (Watson’s blog, 7. Feb) Sergeant Sally Donovan even calls him “a psychopath” who “gets off on” his cases. (cf. Sherlock, 1/1) Sherlock seems to perceive the world different than others. “It’s nice not being me - must be so relaxing.” (Sherlock, 1/1) He characterizes himself as a “highly functional psychopath” and a “consulting detective.” (Sherlock, 1/1) The ASD also names “restricted and repetitive patterns of thought, interests and physical behaviours.” (NHS choices) These symptoms, however, cannot be confirmed by any of Sherlock’s actions but they are crucial for diagnosing ASD. So I would not go as far as to say he has a mentality disorder for he lacks important symptoms.


1 This is an allusion to high taxation during Thatcher area.

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BBC's Sherlock. Illustrating typical Englishness?
University of Regensburg
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sherlock, illustrating, englishness
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Jennifer Schulte (Author), 2014, BBC's Sherlock. Illustrating typical Englishness?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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