SHANGHAI (AP) — Zhou Yeling dragged herself out of bed at 5 a.m. for a long-awaited date with her favorite Englishman — Sherlock Holmes.
Zhou, 19, watched the third season premiere of the BBC's “Sherlock” on Jan. 2 on the British broadcaster's website. Two hours later, the episode started showing with Chinese subtitles on Youku.com, a video website. Youku said it was viewed more than 5 million times in the first 24 hours, becoming the site's most popular program to date.
“I was excited beyond words,” said Zhou, a student in the central Chinese city of Changsha.
“Sherlock” has become a global phenomenon, but nowhere more than in China, where fans' devotion is so intense that the BBC said it was the first country outside Britain where the new season was shown.
Online fan clubs have attracted thousands of members. Chinese fans write their own stories about the modern version of author Arthur Conan Doyle's prickly, Victorian detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, to fill the time between the brief three-episode seasons. In Shanghai, an entrepreneur has opened a “Sherlock”-themed cafe.
Holmes is known in China as “Curly Fu,” after his Chinese name, Fuermosi, and star Benedict Cumberbatch's floppy hair. Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is Huasheng, a name that sounds like “Peanut” in Mandarin. They have become two of the most popular terms in China's vast social media world.
“The 'Sherlock' production team shoot something more like a movie, not just a TV drama,” said Yu Fei, a veteran writer of TV crime dramas for Chinese television.
Scenes in which Holmes spots clues in a suspect's clothes or picks apart an alibi are so richly detailed that “it seems like a wasteful luxury,” Yu said.
Even the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily is a fan.
“Tense plot, bizarre story, exquisite production, excellent performances,” it said of the third season's premier episode.
With its mix of odd villains, eccentric aristocrats and fashionable London settings, “Sherlock” can draw on a Chinese fondness for a storybook version of Britain.
Wealthy Chinese send their children to local branches of British schools such as Eton and Dulwich. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. said China passed the U.S. last year to become the biggest market for its luxury sedans. On the outskirts of Shanghai, a developer has built Thames Town, modeled on an English village with mock Tudor houses and classic red phone booths.
Youku.com says that after two weeks, total viewership for the “Sherlock” third season premiere had risen to 14.5 million people. That compares with the 8 million to 9 million people who the BBC said watched first-run episodes in Britain. The total in China is bumped up by viewers on pay TV service BesTV, which also has rights to the program.
Appearing online gives “Sherlock” an unusual edge over Chinese dramas. To support a fledgling industry, communist authorities have exempted video websites from most censorship and limits on showing foreign programming that apply to traditional TV stations.
That allows outlets such as Youku to show series that might be deemed too violent or political for state TV and to release them faster.
“Our writers and producers face many restrictions and censorship. We cannot write about national security and high-level government departments,” Yu said.
Referring to Mycroft Holmes, a shadowy government official and key character, Yu said, “Sherlock's brother could not appear in a police drama in China.”
And “Sherlock” makes a helpful cultural ambassador for Britain.
When Prime Minister David Cameron visited China last year, fans posted appeals on microblogs for him to press the BBC to speed up the release of a new season.
Today, a popular online comment aimed at Cameron is, “Thank you for 'Sherlock.' ”
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