The Irregulars


The idea of a group of street urchins helping out the great detective Sherlock Holmes sounds like something dreamed up by a children’s programming producer in the 70s but they did feature in two of the original novels. The concept has been developed several times though rarely with the approach taken by Tom Bidwell’s series first shown in 2021 and filmed up here in Liverpool. He had considerable television writing experience by the time he came to make The Irregulars having worked on the likes of EastEnders, Casualty and My Mad Fat Diary amongst others. However, he described this series as his dream project and this definitely brings a sense of purpose to the narrative into which he toys with established Sherlock lore with glee. He introduces supernatural and fantasy elements into the mix and also changes a lot of the established story of Holmes as well as bringing a macabre touch especially to the first half of the series some of which is not suitable for the more sensitive viewer (and in instance me!)

In this storyline the Irregulars are slightly older teenagers than Conan Doyle’s originals and also a mixture of boys and girls. They still live in some squalor though their vocabulary suggests they have been educated.  The interplay between the gang is given a modern vernacular underscored by a mixture of contemporary music while the characters spark off each well. They are interesting characters, well cast and written to provide differing opinions of the horrors facing them. My favourite is Spike played by McKell David whose enthusiasm for getting stuck in is also matched by a wariness that makes the character really likeable and also funny. He brings the gang back together in the penultimate episode and is easily the most likeable of the group, the sort of friend everyone needs.  Bea is a  strong lead too, Thaddea Graham playing against her usual type (as seen in the likes of Wreck, Doctor Who and Us) by being more vulnerable and haunted though still with an inner steel. Later in the series she’s called upon to display a lot of conflicting emotions and she carries it off superbly showing versatility that suggests she could play anything.

Darci Shaw gives a compelling performance as Bea's often nightmare ridden sister Jessie, a so called Ipsissimas who can see incidents from someone's history by touching them. She brings a real sense of the terror all the kids are facing while the scripts pen the bond between siblings.  JoJo Macari is a real presence as the aggressive Billy. When he gets his own plotline regarding a former workhouse manager who beat up kids it shows that sometimes you don’t need gory effects to create strong drama. Harrison Osterfield plays Leopold a royal prince who seeks friendship beyond the stifling confines of the Palace and falls for Bea. Some of his extended absences from the palace are slightly unlikely though- doesn’t anyone ever look for him? Yet there is a good contrast between his pampered royal life and the down to earth existence of the gang.

I’m not sure how Holmes devotees felt about this portrayal of the great Detective or Doctor Watson for that matter.  In Bidwell's hands the latter becomes a mysterious character with a dark side quite unlike the avuncular friend to Holmes we are familiar with. The narrative does all it can to make us (and the Irregulars) believe he is some sort of villain even though is motives turn out to be more understandable albeit predictable it you've been paying attention. As for Sherlock there are still the references to  violins and so on but we see his paraphernalia long before we see the man himself. When finally contained, locked in a room by Bea, in what are over lengthy sequences we delve into why.  Henry Lloyd- Hughes offers a fresh version of Sherlock that thankfully loses some of the character’s irritating smugness other interpretations have focussed on presenting a more human though still clever person. 

Family connections turn out to be crucial as this is very much a series about belonging. Leo finds real friends with the gang while the separate stories, though initially appearing unconnected, link up towards finding Bea and Jessie’s long lost mother who vanished through a strange glowing “rip” fifteen years earlier. Her actions and the way to recover her form the spine of the plot as enabled by a mysterious figures Jess sees whom she dubs the Linen Man. At first this character, played with amiable American casualness by Clarke Peters seems to be a beacon for Jess, showing her a way to escape her terrible visions. Yet seasons genre watchers will suspect he is not all he seems as proves to be the case though when the reveal happens it is a strong moment and you really feel for poor Jess.  As you might expect the initially tight knit knot gang’s friendships are tested to a considerable degree both by the intrusion of Leo, the travails of Sherlock and Watson and a series of gory crimes. It’s to the credit of both writer and cast that when they all fall out you really sense how difficult it is for them. Normally that sort of plot would only work after a couple of seasons so it is impressive it comes off so well after a handful of episodes.

The Irregulars is a bit of hybrid series and certainly revels in an admirably conjured Victorian gothic style and impressive visual palette that renders the various scares and spooks very well. At the same time it has a modern style to it. Initially it seems to be aiming at an older audience with gruesome Victorian butchery and a morbid fascination with body horror, aspects that are sometimes startlingly rendered. The first three episodes alone show us an army of ravens gouging people’s eyes out, a Tooth Fairy who grows clones from stolen teeth (but how do people in this era even know the word `clone` let along what it is?) and bizarre ritualistic murders in a country house. Then there’s Jessie’s recurring nightmare of raven headed creatures in a dark mine.  That’s all before we get to episode four which, for me, goes a little too far in depicting a criminal who removes people’s faces to then impersonate them. This somehow magically transforms their clothes and body as well but let’s not dwell on that. The effect itself is certainly impressive especially one scene where we see a new face being stuck on without the shot cutting at all as you might expect. However this just feels too gory especially for the intended audience. When does realistic depiction of gore just become gratuitous? It is definitely not a scene I could watch again.

In the last third the show takes on more of a fantasy aspect with ideas straight from the Doctor Who playbook and these are both easier to watch and more emotionally rewarding. The powers that fizz about make people see their greatest fears and this is done by subtler means than some of the earlier shocks and has a greater impact. It should bode well for a series that the last episode is the best, all the plot lines coming together with a dramatic confrontation, emotional moments and plenty of jeopardy for everyone. Despite the incantations and objects, its satisfying that the resolution comes from a realisation of what true happiness is despite circumstances.

Like many a Netflix series before and since, The Irregulars was cancelled after just one season. It seems wasteful to invest what was clearly a significant amount of money in something with potential to run for at least three seasons and then scrap it. It may be that the first half was just too extreme and dark to entice some to watch further which would be a shame as the series finds its feet in the second half. Of course a series’ domestic popularity is not the deciding factor anyway – there has to be a worldwide success and a palpable buzz at the same time to be able to carry on. I, for one, was unaware of this series till Netflix suggested it up to me after I’d watched Lockwood and Co.  The Irregulars definitely had potential but perhaps it is a little bit too frightening for some and an unbelievable cocktail for others.



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