Ladies. Gentlemen. Don’t deny you haven’t thought about it.
You . . . Mr Holmes . . . one night together . . . that collar, that hair, that brain, those EYES . . .
Well, for £175 this dream could be yours!
The Museum of London are currently running a sporadic event whereby patrons can spend the entire night at the museum, enjoying Sherlock-themed activities, a three-course meal, and a kip in one of the upstairs exhibition rooms, either waking or creeping bleary-eyed from the cinema in time for a survivor’s breakfast the following morning.
This Valentine’s Day, I was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets to the event courtesy of Yelp London, which not only made the planning of our evening significantly easier (I was in charge this year; simplest organising ever) but efficiently negated our fear of cheesy romantic clichés. The only hearts we were likely to see here would be disembodied ones.
I was hugely excited and overall I did enjoy myself. That said, we were the first group to experience the event and unfortunately, it showed. Whilst the enthusiasm and overall concept are to be applauded, the execution left something to be desired, although I’m certain that improvements will be made.
Timings are hard to come by, beyond “doors open at 7:30”. We rocked up at 8:25 to be told that dinner was imminent, leaving us with just enough time to throw our (museum-provided) rollmats onto the floor next to some prehistoric arrowheads, and a quick dash down to the main atrium where the meal was served. Guests were seated at communal round tables for ten, with quiz papers offering instant bonding opportunities. Unfortunately the quiz “mystery” had such poor spelling, grammar and punctuation that it actually changed the meaning of the accompanying question, and just one copy of the itinerary per table meant inevitable hogging. Raffle tickets at each place setting were for novelty Sherlock-themed prizes, given throughout the meal; a fun, thoughtful element, even if one winner of the iconic pipe had come in full costume and complained bitterly – and embarrassingly at length – that she already owned the prop. Lady, shut up (or pipe down . . . I thank you). Or just give it to me. I don’t have a pipe and it would have gone excellently with my floral shirt.
The food was akin to the sort you might expect at a slightly swanky wedding (smoked salmon starter; guineafowl main; chocolatey pudding of some description; truffles with coffee) and the service was charming and polished, if panicked when things didn’t go according to plan (to wit, me smashing my prosecco glass on the table and throwing booze all over my unsuspecting neighbour). To my great surprise, no alcohol was included, which would have jarred a great deal more if we’d paid a combined £350 to attend. Not even a bottle for the table? Pretty bloody mean. Red, white and sparkling wine were all available at the cash bar for £20 a bottle, although just the one choice of each. Beer was similarly limited. The bar remained open until 1am.
After the meal, the real fun began. There were four scheduled activities, operating two at a time, giving attendees the choice to attend two out of the four. We first selected a talk by Angela Buckley, author of “The Real Sherlock Holmes”, who talked about Jerome Caminada, the subject of her book and alleged inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. Controversial though such a claim may be, she was an engaging public speaker and gave fascinating observations about life in 19th century Manchester. Next door, we could hear roars of laughter from the improv group who were creating a Sherlock skit with help from the spectators. (I would have happily joined that, with my theatre studies background, but didn’t feel I could drag along my poor boyfriend . . . it was Valentine’s Day for god’s sake. Discussing infant mortality rates is one thing; audience participation is quite another).
Following that, we stayed in the same room for a talk which proved twice as popular as the first, if less outwardly appealing: the gorily enticing Blood Spatter Analysis workshop. The leader of this was an ex-policeman – an inspector, or DCI, or . . . someone who knew his shit. I forget. Anyway, his was an entirely matter-of-fact journey through the varying degrees of blood spatter with accompanying gruesome images (most of which, we sincerely hoped, were from the practical experiments on dummies in which he and his colleagues regularly engaged). It was a truly unique talk, very well-chosen, and provided insights I hope never to have to put into practice . . . despite it only being linked to Sherlock Holmes by the most tenuous of connections.
In fact, I can only imagine that this “all-nighter” had first been mooted as a separate concept, and Sherlock later crowbarred in to ramp it up and draw attention from the mass of fans currently slavishly awaiting the next Cumberbatch instalment. And in part, it had clearly worked; at least three (if not all) of our table neighbours appeared to be mega-fans who knew not only the canon back-to-front but its history and mythology too. Indeed, they were happy to shell out £175 for a night themed entirely around their literary hero; but had I been them, I would have been sorely disappointed by the end of it, since we learnt very little about the detective himself. Besides, after the two main activities, that was it for the Sherlock theme, bar the all-night movie marathon which ran from midnight until 7am in the cinema room. And whilst that was a fun idea, I would have appreciated more alternatives. In the event, I didn’t even enter the cinema and instead chose to take solo advantage of the empty museum, poring over displays which during the day would have been overrun by tourists and schoolchildren. The museum is, unequivocally, wonderful, and I’ll certainly return at a later date to explore the upper floor which had temporarily been transformed into an open-plan hotel.
I actually chose not to sleep, partly because I was happy exploring the museum, but largely because (now that I am 30, and have old bones) I can’t really sleep on a hard floor. Rollmats do nothing. I would have brought an airbed, but these were banned due to being a “trip hazard”; though one might ask how they could possibly pose more of a risk than a hundred or so prone bodies, scattered randomly against display cabinets and walls? So instead I stayed awake, looking forward enormously to the much-touted ghost stories, which took place in the permanent display of Vauxhall’s Victorian-era Pleasure Gardens; a perfect venue, cosy yet creepy, with a small bandstand ideal for the dispensing of spooky tales. Unfortunately, the staff member in charge – whilst friendly and appealing – was most certainly not an experienced public speaker, and had apparently been handed a couple of crumpled A4 pages mere moments beforehand. I truly felt for her as she stumbled over her words and tried to encourage audience members to share their own stories – an invitation I was only to happy (obvs) to oblige. But I was one of just two people who did, and her own stories weren’t overly exciting, nor appropriately delivered. I’ve taken walking ghost tours of London; I know how many spine-chilling legends imbue the streets and alleyways of this ancient city. This should have been a fantastic opportunity for a truly unique element, harking back to summer camps of our youth. Sadly, instead of adding a whole new deliciously terrifying dimension to sleeping overnight in a dark, echoey museum, it was a very damp squib.
In the end, my boyfriend – suffering from a particularly nasty cough which he feared would keep every other guest awake – decided to call it a night at 4am, so we headed off into the empty city streets and never made it to the survivor’s breakfast.
It was such a fantastic concept and I hope that they make several changes – some major, others less so – if they want to bring it into line with other notorious, quirky London events which I imagine they hoped to emulate. At the moment, they simply can’t compete with Science Museum Lates, Prince Charles overnight film marathons, or the various off-beat talks held across the city; although with a bit of work, they honestly could.
So, what can they do to improve? More themed activities, for a start, specifically during the early hours alongside the films; even if low-key, low-cost, and hosted by museum staff who’d be working there anyway. Perhaps further talks regarding specific elements of Sherlock Holmes’ world, and private tours of the museum, focussing on the time period and areas which play a part in the stories. There could be quizzes, interactive discussions, perhaps even a drawing competition or artwork-based event, all tailored to fit small groups. In addition, it would have been nice to see a few more museum staff scattered around and happy to further explain each of the exhibits, or perhaps indulge those of us not overly concerned with Sherlock but nonetheless intrigued by the museum itself. Or maybe even the opportunity to view exhibits not usually open to the public. Maybe – and I appreciate that this is a long shot – have somebody linked to the films or recent BBC series give an introduction or talk (last year, I watched The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes at the BFI but was persuaded to attend almost entirely by the fact that it was presented by Mark Gatiss). Anything to make it feel you’re getting an experience which is worth the hefty pricetag.
Furthermore, I hope that they consider allowing guests to bring airbeds, stretch to a couple of bottles of wine per table (or at least a welcome drink on arrival), provide better and more freely-available information on timings, and entirely overhaul the ghost stories. There should have been decorations on the table, around the museum, on the staff, in the toilets, for god’s sake somewhere, or at least something to suggest that this was a themed event, beyond the frozen shot on the overhead screen at dinner displaying the event’s Twitter hashtags. I also seriously recommend that they encourage future guests to come in fancy-dress. One imagines that anybody willing to cough up £175 for an event about Sherlock Holmes is probably something of a serious fan and would be delighted to embrace such a costumed opportunity. As with Secret Cinema, this would instantly provide a homogeneous, inclusive atmosphere and instantly highlight the theme, without any effort on the organisers’ part, giving guests something to discuss, and making it a truly memorable occasion.
That said: the staff were, without fail, absolutely lovely. The museum was the ideal size and layout for such an event. The suggested items to bring were pretty spot-on, and the dinner was delicious. Our fellow table guests were brilliant company (even if others asked some truly inane questions of the poor blood spatter guy), and the concept, undoubtedly, deserves recognition. I don’t doubt it takes a wealth of organisation and battling through red tape to set up such an event and as such I truly hope that they consider this feedback to make future ones even better and truly worthwhile.
Above all: do I regret spending my Valentine’s evening here? Not for a minute. We don’t all require chocolates and £50 bouquets of roses. Some of us just want to share a bottle of prosecco and listen to a nice man talk about how many head wounds were likely inflicted by the number of blood trails streaked across a ceiling. Let’s be honest, if that’s not a bonding experience then I don’t know what is.