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Monday 17 August 2020

slow reviews | television | 2010


Helen Lewis on how Holmes cracked the case of on-screen mobile phone use

Ten years ago, at 9.05pm on 25 July, something revolutionary happened. The initial few scenes of the BBC drama Sherlock, which began airing at 9pm that night, are nothing special. The first episode starts with a low-budget combat montage, interspersed with shots of Martin Freeman, tossing and turning in bed. Then he’s with his therapist, talking about life after the army. Then we see three apparent suicides, people crying and taking pills under duress. Then a press conference held by Inspector Lestrade, who insists: “There’s no link yet, but there has to be one.”

After he says this, a single word starts to pop up all over the screen, ping-ping-ping, and the assembled journalists carry out a gesture which now feels as unconscious as breathing. They pick up their phones.


Lestrade stumbles through the rest of the press conference, and as it ends, another piece of text pops up beside his face. “You know where to find me. SH.”

Sherlock wasn’t the first show to incorporate text messages into a television drama; Hollyoaks got there before it, among others. But that early scene was showrunner Steven Moffat laying down a red line. Scriptwriters could no longer ignore the ubiquity of smartphones – nor their effect on narrative logic.

That reckoning had been creeping steadily closer. Before Sherlock, scriptwriters tended to make old plots work by jacking their characters back to a pre-phone world, with coincidentally dead batteries and forgotten handsets and signal dead zones.

The arrival of the iPhone in 2007 made that untenable: suddenly, far more people carried a mobile, and they treated it like an extension of their hand. The thought of leaving it at home when you went out was absurd.

Smartphones also created a new type of behaviour. Texts were now swooshy and colourful, and they began to seem less intrusive than the tinny insistence of interrupting someone’s life with a call. You could also access the internet, a great river of never-ending content, scrollable with a lazy flick of the finger. And so we began to live in two worlds at once, one made of shapes and people, and the other made of text. The most acute observation in that Sherlock press conference is that nothing could be so interesting – not even a briefing about a potential serial killer – that you wouldn’t still find yourself checking a new message on your phone.

Younger writers have grown up with smartphones, and so the technology now meshes seamlessly with their characters’ lives. In Normal People, Connell and Marianne’s phones flash subtly but incessantly, dragging them away from their surroundings to the virtual space where they are always together. (There’s a quiet sadness in the times the screen lights up, unseen, next to Marianne’s sleeping face.) In I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel goes further, seamlessly integrating selfies, podcasts and Grindr swipes into the flow of information shown on screen. In the first episode, Lara Rossi’s Kat leaves a night out early because her partner and his cousin are glued to their phones. The dialogue flicks between text and speech without distinction.

That’s all happened in just a decade. Within that time, scriptwriters have created a whole new grammar for television, one which reflects the fragmented, frenetic, only-half-attentive lives we now lead. And the moment when it changed came at 9.05pm on 25 July 2010. 

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill  

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Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Her latest book is ‘Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights’.