Hot off the success of the newly re-launched Doctor Who, Steven Moffat talks with co-creator Mark Gatiss about Sherlock, their new contemporary update of Sherlock Holmes for BBC One.
How did you come up with the idea?
Steven: “We’ve been friends for years and were both writing individual episodes of Doctor Who. On our many train journeys from London to Cardiff, we talked about our love for Sherlock Holmes, how brilliantly modern Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing was and how someone should do a contemporary version. So we decided to do it before someone else did. There hasn’t been a version of Sherlock on for several years and then all of a sudden you get two versions, the BBC contemporary update and Guy Ritchie’s film happening at around the same time.
Mark: “We were aware the Guy Ritchie film was coming out last year. It’s weird how these things happen, there hasn’t been a Sherlock Holmes of any kind for ages and all of a sudden two come at once. We both enjoyed the Guy Ritchie film, but it’s a totally different beast, really.’
Are you anxious about Sherlock Holmes fans who might have reservations about a contemporary update?
Mark: “Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer of genius and it’s worth trumpeting that point. It’s not said often enough. His short stories, particularly, are thrilling, funny, lurid, silly, strange, wonderful pieces of exciting adventure which lend themselves incredibly well to a modern setting.”
Did you always know what direction you wanted the show to take?
Steven: “Some of the adaptations treat it as if it’s Victorian period piece, making it a bit too reverent. Sherlock Holmes is not like that, it’s so fast paced – it must have given the Victorians whip lash! And that’s probably why Sherlock Holmes has captured audiences for so long.”
Were you influenced by any other versions of Sherlock Holmes?
Mark: “Our favourite is the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. It’s absolutely wonderful. It plays fast and loose with some of the most revered concepts but, in the end, it is an incredibly nuanced, moving piece of cinema. Also, the famous Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films – they seem, to us, to be closest to the real spirit of the Doyle stories. We wanted to capture that spirit and, most importantly, it’s made by people who love Sherlock Holmes.”
How did you go about casting your contemporary Sherlock?
Steven: “Benedict came in and read for us and we thought: ‘Just look at him. He looked right, sounded right and had huge talent. He’s got an extraordinary face, amazing eyes and cheek bones – it all just comes together.”
Mark: “A modern take on Sherlock requires a modern look and Benedict brings that to the role. He’s in this sharp suit and a stylish overcoat, which gives him a great silhouette. He was our first and only choice. I think one of the great challenges of playing Sherlock Holmes is that so many actors have played the character, but few have made an impression.
Steven: “One of the critical things is to be able to play the cleverness and the deductions without seeming smug. I think Benedict has the right balance of warmth alongside an unapologetic assumption of imperiousness, which is spot on.”
Benedict stars alongside Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson…
Mark: “At the heart of the drama is the relationship between these two unlikely friends and the adventures they have, so casting a Dr Watson was equally important.”
Steven: “Benedict is playing a cold, almost alien-like man in Sherlock and John Watson is the person who humanises him – they are a unit together. We’ve all grown up with these two characters, they are a joy to write, a joy to watch and a joy to be with. You get that when you find a Holmes and Watson that work so well together. Sherlock Holmes is one of kind, whilst other detectives have cases, Holmes has adventures. Sherlock isn’t a drama about police procedure – the police are involved but the cases themselves are Sherlock’s and he’s only interested in the strange ones.”
The first episode, ‘A Study In Pink’, is partly an homage to Conan Doyle’s first story to feature the fictional detective, ‘A Study In Scarlet’, written in 1887…
Mark: “There are many elements of that story that we’ve taken bits and pieces of and, hopefully, made an entertaining adaptation.”
Steven: “Dr Watson is invalided home from war in Afghanistan and is looking for affordable accommodation in London when an old mutual friend from Barts Hospital introduces them both.
Mark: “London is such a character in the original stories and London is a very exciting city at the moment – there is a real vibrancy, the architecture and design looks great and we were keen to capture some of that.
The character Sherlock Holmes famously used drugs – how is that subject tackled in the modern version?
Steven: “I think you’d have to ask the question would a man like Sherlock Holmes be a coke addict today? In Victorian times everybody was taking some kind of drug, largely because there was no such thing as a pain killer. It is a very different thing to say that Sherlock Holmes is a coke addict now.’
Mark: “Many people point out the drug use in Sherlock Holmes, but there are more references to Sherlock Holmes laughing than there are to taking cocaine or morphine but, oddly enough, people never think about that. I understand why, but the important thing is to not get it out of context with the rest of the character.”
Steven: “The original books are funny. If you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, the interaction between the two main characters is always funny and I hope we’ve captured some element of that. Of course it’s funny – he’s a weird genius, not an ordinary genius.”