It seems everybody has taken a turn at depicting Arthur Conan Doyle’s proto-detective Sherlock Holmes. Steven Moffat, who recently worked on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming feature THE ADVENTURES OF TIN-TIN, and Mark Gatiss, both currently on the BBC’s DOCTOR WHO starring Matt Smith, have brought Holmes into the twenty-first century while remaining true to the spirit of the original with their new three-part BBC/PBS series SHERLOCK, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, with Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson.
The show is already a hit in England and just finished up its run on the network’s MASTERPIECE MYSTERY program. Moffat and Gatiss happily continue each other’s sentences as they talk to ASSIGNMENT X about SHERLOCK, a little about DOCTOR WHO and why the BBC needs defending.
ASSIGNMENT X: When did you as writers decide that you wanted to reinvent Sherlock Holmes?
STEVEN MOFFAT: When we were born.
AX: When did you decide that you were going to do something about it?
MARK GATISS: We were often – always, in fact – going up and down to Cardiff on the train for DOCTOR WHO [where the series is produced in Wales] and we found ourselves as it were in a compartment like Holmes and Watson and we fell to talking about Sherlock Holmes and how we loved it and particularly how, in a slightly whisper-it-if-you-dare way, our favorite versions of all were the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films, particularly the ones set during the War, where they updated it. And there is a sort of vague whiff of heresy about it amongst purists, but the thing is – we love so many versions, but they are so much closer to the spirit of the original stories because they’re fun. Our favorite SPIDER WOMAN is – how long was it?
MOFFAT: It’s fifty-nine minutes and it has more plot than any other movie you’re ever going to see. It’s extraordinary. There’s a fantastic friendship at the heart of it, and I think a great time, it’s full of ludicrous, lurid details –
GATISS: It’s very funny.
AX: What, to you, is the essence of Sherlock Holmes that makes him that character, instead of a great detective you could just invent from scratch?
MOFFAT: I think he is absolutely distinct, but I think you can’t take him in isolation. If you take him in isolation, he’s kind of Mr. Spock, Baker Street, or something. You have to actually take him as what he really is, a jewel. It’s a partnership. These two characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, are not only of equal stature in the original [book] series, Watson is arguably the main character. He’s the one who’s telling the story. It’s all happening to him. It is that friendship – you take this cold, remarkable, difficult, dangerous, borderline psychopath man, and you wonder what might have happened to him had he not met his best friend, a friend that no one would have put him with, this solid, dependable, brave, big-hearted war hero. I think people fall in love, not with Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson, but with their friendship. I think it is the most famous friendship in fiction, without a doubt. It is a moving and affecting one, and best of all, it’s a great portrait as in the original stories of a male friendship, by which I mean it is never discussed at all. They never mention it. They never have one moment of articulated affection. Neither have we [Moffat and Gatiss]. Why would we? We don’t do it. We’re men. We have no emotions [laughs]. So the story of Sherlock Holmes, on the surface, is about detection, but in reality, it’s about the best of two men who save each other – a lost, washed-up war hero and a man who could end up committing murders instead of solving them. They come together. They become this perfect unit. They become the best friendship ever, and they become heroes. That’s what we fall in love with, not Sherlock on his own. No one can love that man on his own, but Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – the best friends ever.
GATISS: We found as well – we join the story at just the right point, when Watson joins [Holmes]. Without him, Holmes is a rather unbearable man. He’s going out there as well. He’s getting further and further away, like a distant star. And this man arrives, who essentially makes him more human, and together they make a perfect unit.
AX: Your Sherlock and Doctor Watson seem a little younger than they are usually shown on screen
GATISS: Well, again, it’s back to the original, isn’t it?
MOFFAT: Well, the thing is, people keep saying, “Is this the youngest Sherlock Holmes?” You look at the Sherlock Holmes stories and the fact that we think of him as fifty is a product of the [previous films and television depictions]. It’s not true – he must be, in the first story, in his late twenties or early thirties. He’s referred to as a young man, even in the first story as a student. So he clearly could be twenty-nine in that first story. The great thing about reinventing Sherlock Holmes is that the whole story happens all over again. And we can do it any way we like. We can change the rules; we can shock you with what we do. So don’t assume that we are going to do everything according to the rulebook. We are at times throwing it away. So it might be frightening – brace yourselves for shocks.
AX: Was pitching SHERLOCK to the BBC an easy pitch, or a difficult pitch, or a negotiation?
MOFFAT: Hilariously easy. We actually went in and Mark and I had pretty much been rehearsing this all our lives, but we did [some preparation] and we went in and we said, “Modern Sherlock.” “Yes!” So then we just did the pitch anyway – we said, “Well, we were going to say …”
GATISS: Just because we had time to spare. But it was just like that [snaps fingers].
MOFFAT: Everything with SHERLOCK has been like that, just, “Yes,” “Yes,” “Do some more,” “Yes,” “Yes.”
AX: How did you arrive at casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock?
MOFFAT: Well, actually, Mark knew Benedict, but oddly enough, watching ATONEMENT, in which he’s the creepy villain, I sort of thought, “He’s brilliant and he looks a bit like Sherlock Holmes,” I talked to Mark and he said, “I know him,” so we just bunged the script off to him, he liked it, came in and read for it and that was it. Benedict was our first and only choice. It’s a funny thing, but sometimes there are several James Bonds you can imagine, but sometimes there’s just a natural choice. Benedict was the entire package for us.
GATISS: As he says, it was an immediate fit. I mean, Ben has the look, which is indivisible, I think – we’ve talked about this before, but you can’t really have a four-foot, round-faced Sherlock Holmes. But what Benedict has for a young man is an amazing kind of gravitas and a command which is absolutely key to Sherlock.
MOFFAT: It was interesting to find a John Watson to match and then we saw a number of actors who were very good, but as soon as Martin came into the room, we knew.
AX: Is there any truth to the rumor that Benedict Cumberbatch appearing on the new DOCTOR WHO as the Master?
MOFFAT: No, there is no truth to that – unless suddenly there is. I mean, actually, honestly, there are no plans of that kind at all – I don’t guarantee that I’m not lying and I don’t guarantee that I won’t change my mind. So there you go. Hopeless answer.
GATISS: Also the best answer.
AX: Is Matt Smith your favorite Doctor?
AX: What was the time frame of dividing the work between DOCTOR WHO and SHERLOCK? Was SHERLOCK done when you were completely off DOCTOR WHO?
MOFFAT: There is no time when you’re completely off DOCTOR WHO. No – what can I say, from my point of view, it’s just one great big nightmare [laughs].
GATISS: Or a dream – a very, very good nightmare.
MOFFAT: I have no weekends off, no evenings off – I just work all the time.
GATISS: What we did was, we shot [the three SHERLOCK installments] in reverse order, because Steve was working on his first episode, so we ended up in production order doing them back to front.
AX: Was that confusing for the continuity people?
GATISS: Not really, because we knew what we were going to do. There was a possibility of slightly adjusting things based on what we’d arrived on by the end, as it were.
MOFFAT: Yeah, because you [Gatiss] were paying off in your episode stuff that I hadn’t written yet, which ended up in a bit of frantic negotiation. We had a really properly worked-out story. All the things we were working out were details.
GATISS: So it was fine.
AX: How long did SHERLOCK take to shoot?
GATISS: Four months, really.
AX: So four months for the three episodes?
MOFFAT: We call them movies, because that’s a more accurate picture, really – they’re ninety minutes [each].
AX: Backing up to DOCTOR WHO, did you have any concerns over coming in just as David Tennant was leaving?
MOFFAT: If you got offered the job that you actually written down that you wanted at the age of seven and someone came along and said, “You can have that job – oh, but David Tennant’s leaving …” No, of course not. I mean, I hated the amount of work it was going to be [laughs], but no, really, I wanted to do it. I’m a long-term DOCTOR WHO fan, as is Mark. You know, Doctors come and go. There have been so many of them who have been so completely brilliant. You’re not just stepping into one warm pair of shoes, you’re stepping into ten warm pairs of shoes.
GATISS: You talk to David – David is a very old-school fan. He knows his stuff and of course he did an incredible job and was a wonderful Doctor, beloved by millions, but the essence of the show is continuity [as the Doctor regenerates].
MOFFAT: Is change.
GATISS: Is change.
AX: How did you come to cast Matt Smith as the Doctor?
MOFFAT: You’ve seen him. He came in and he was literally a hot young geezer and an eccentric boffin at the same time. He had a face with such strange angular planes that you couldn’t work out how it all joined together – “Come on, surely that goes back too far …” And he has the mannerisms of a fifty-year-old history professor and hair that looks like it was made by a factory. How could we not cast him?
GATISS: And he came in, and we went, “Well, that’s got to be him.”
MOFFAT: He was the first person we saw for Dr. Watson.
GATISS: And about three days later, he came in for the Doctor.
MOFFAT: He gave a very, very good audition as Doctor Watson. We sort of said, “Look, he’s brilliant, he’s really not like Sherlock Holmes.” Because I was in the middle of casting DOCTOR WHO – “Maybe he’s Doctor Who.” We saw him three days later, and it was just [makes a noise of something landing hard].
AX: Was there anybody you saw for any roles in DOCTOR WHO, not necessarily the Doctor but for other characters, who wound up in SHERLOCK?
MOFFAT: There was a certain amount of crossover – it’s a bit of a blur now.
AX: Can you talk at all about what we can or can’t expect in forthcoming segments of DOCTOR WHO?
MOFFAT: Excitement, a roller-coaster of thrills and unimaginable joy.
GATISS: And fezzes.
MOFFAT: There will be a return of the fez.
AX: Any guest actors or guest writers?
MOFFAT: There certainly will be, yeah.
GATISS: I’m going to make a prediction – I think a certain amount of it will take place in space and time.
MOFFAT: We’re filming the Christmas special – I say “filming” because I’m old-fashioned – with Michael Gambon and Catherine Jenkins, and it’s a big Christmas spectacular, but really and truly, we’re going to feed that information [about later episodes] out when you’re even hungrier than you are now. I’ll give that much – Amy and Rory are throughout. The Doctor and the Pons.
AX: Are you involved in any more one-offs like your 2007 miniseries JEKYLL?
MOFFAT: At this moment, I’m having trouble scheduling breathing in, so I’m not right now going to be doing anything except DOCTOR WHO and SHERLOCK. Mark here has got a brilliant one-off coming.
AX: What have you got?
GATISS: FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, H.G. Wells adaptation. To be released for October, I think. It was shot last year. I’m in it with Rory Kinnear, who’s currently about to play Hamlet at the National Theatre.
AX: Son of Roy Kinnear?
GATISS: Yes. He’s absolutely brilliant. You’ll love him.
AX: Anything else you’d like to say about SHERLOCK?
MOFFAT: We wouldn’t have shows like Sherlock Holmes if it wasn’t for the BBC, seriously and truly. And it’s worth saying that – I wouldn’t normally praise them randomly, but it’s the most extraordinary broadcaster in the world. The reason I’m saying this is, it [the BBC] is under threat from its government and from the insane British press, constantly under criticism, and is in danger of having funding reduced. You will not get shows like DOCTOR WHO and SHERLOCK without that organization and if you care about quality broadcasting, shoulder your rifle, go and stand on the steps of the BBC and protect it, because it is under threat from the most dangerous force in the world – morons.
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