There are few things in life quite so subjective as comedy, and few comic double-acts of recent years have proven to be quite as divisive as that of David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Active on TV and radio since the mid-nineties, and perhaps still best-known for their controversial Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show (2003-), the pair are no strangers to edgy humour, and were at the forefront of the ‘comedy of embarrassment’ which dominated the noughties - a wave spurred on by the efforts of other high-profile performers such as Ricky Gervaise in The Office and the improvisations of Sacha Baron Cohen in the guise of his characters Ali G. and Borat. However, in spite of their ready engagement with contentious subject matter throughout their careers, it took until the production of their BBC sketch-show That Mitchell and Webb Look (2006-10) before they would address the issue of dementia... and, when they did so, it was to be in the least conventional of ways.
That Mitchell and Webb Look split opinion even amongst the duo’s most die-hard fans, with many finding the self-conscious deviation from the anxious, discomfiting contemporary realism of Peep Show to be stylistically jarring. Featuring a varied range of sketches, many of which called upon a nostalgic, backward-looking view of popular culture (including parodies of Terry and June-style situation comedy and Carry On-inspired bawdy humour) as well as that of modern TV staples such as surreal quiz shows and off-the-wall reality programmes, the series proved to be an acquired taste to many. Despite critical discord amongst commentators, however, That Mitchell and Webb Look went on to win a BAFTA television award, and has been broadcast worldwide as well as subsequently released on home entertainment formats. With a healthy audience and a dedicated fan following, their take on dementia was therefore guaranteed to garner attention, and in the tradition of their most prominent material the sketch was to subvert expectation by leaving the public unsure exactly how to react to its premise.
Featuring in an episode which concluded the fourth series of the programme, first broadcast in 2010, Mitchell and Webb present us with Sherlock Holmes (played by Mitchell) in a state of advanced age. Now resident in a nursing home designed to mimic his famous rooms at 221B Baker Street, he is visited every day by his devoted friend Dr John Watson (Webb) who tries his utmost to convince his ailing colleague that he is still in his prime. In the style of much of the writers’ retro-seventies material, the sketch is free from the trappings of political correctness and - at least initially - is guaranteed to offend anyone who works with, or has ever had direct involvement with, someone who has dementia. There are deeply unsubtle jokes about incontinence, memory loss, and difficulty with identifying close acquaintances. Modern design principles relating to dementia are co-opted into the sketch; the door of Holmes’s room consists of the digits 221 followed by a picture of a bee, to signify his illustrious address in a manner that is more readily recognisable to him. To further reinforce the negative effects of dementia upon Holmes, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade arrives to request the great detective’s assistance on a complicated case, only to discover that the older man is experiencing major difficulties with basic tasks such as eating and drinking. The Inspector and Watson watch in quiet despondency, realising that Holmes’s days of detection are at an end.
But just when the entire sketch seems doomed towards simply restating outmoded and insulting clichés about dementia, something unexpected happens. In a moment of poignant sadness which occurs just before the episode’s climax, Holmes has a heart-rending instance of lucidity. After several minutes of underscoring just how much this towering intellect has been deleteriously affected by dementia, the canned laughter suddenly falls silent. Drained and resigned, Holmes confides to Watson that he is entirely aware of the nature of his condition and knows all too well that his mental capacity is deteriorating. It is as though a mist has descended upon him, he mutters quietly, lamenting that he is completely unable to see through it. The look which passes between the two men speaks of both distress and inevitability. His old companion Watson is at a loss, unsure how to respond, as the scene fades to black.
This total shift in emphasis may make for uncomfortable and unanticipated viewing, but it is highly effective in its execution. The first three-quarters of the sketch sees Holmes repeatedly humiliated, his legendary skills of deduction blunted by a condition which is entirely beyond his control. Mitchell and Webb’s choice of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated character seems entirely deliberate; Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most cerebral of literary figures, and more than many others he stands to be profoundly affected by any decline in his cognitive powers. Yet for those willing to look beyond the acute tastelessness of the sketch’s opening gambit, there appears to be a deeper message at work.
Having employed just about every imaginable dementia-related truism throughout the sketch for comic effect, suddenly the viewer is reminded that this is a real condition which is affecting a human being... and that he is powerless to do anything about it. If dementia can impact so intensely upon the mental wellbeing of even an intellectual powerhouse like Holmes, the audience are informed, then it has just as much chance of affecting the viewers themselves, or someone close to them. Watson is transformed from a comic stooge into a concerned and thoughtful companion, the relationship between Holmes and himself being developed into something much more significant during those closing moments. His role has shifted from professional associate to concerned friend, even a compassionate carer. Public familiarity with this timeless crime-fighting further bolsters in the moving nature of the situation as it is presented.
Many people may find the sketch difficult to watch, and for some the bad taste of the initial premise will not justify the sentiment which lies behind its conclusion. However, by building up a deliberately hackneyed portrayal of dementia only to demolish it so powerfully Mitchell and Webb seem determined to attack the very kind of lazy assumptions that they parody so relentlessly in their opening gambit. The audience, having been prepared to expect a particular pay-off, find themselves with an unforeseen conclusion which is genuinely disconcerting when first encountered, but it is one which challenges viewers to think carefully about what they have been laughing at, and to deliberate upon whether they should reconsider their response.