Steven Moffat interview: Sherlock, writing modern TV, and Doctor Who series 6

Interview Simon Brew
30 Jul 2010 - 06:22

We caught up with Steven Moffat after the maiden episode of Sherlock, A Study In Pink, to talk about the show, and to find out what he’s up to next…

It’s slightly surreal sitting and watching the maiden episode of Sherlock in the same room as Steven Moffat. But that’s just how we got to experience the terrific opener, A Study In Pink, last week. What’s more, straight afterwards, he was kind enough to spare us a bit of time for a chat about the show. And we snuck in a Doctor Who question too…

After watching Sherlock I was wondering - and I appreciate that this might sound like an odd question - do you find that you are consciously writing for widescreen viewing now?

Probably since I got involved in any capacity in Doctor Who, which has the power of a big picture. And I tend to plot Doctor Who in terms of big pictures, so there’s that. And we can do big pictures really, really well now on television.

So, yeah, I think I probably do. I think anyway television has become a lot more cinematic because it is possible for it to be. Think how far we’ve come from a multi-camera studio. So, yes, you suppose you do. You think ‘that’ll look cool’.

Does that inspire your choice of director, too? Because I thought Paul McGuigan did a brilliant job with A Study In Pink?

It’s beautiful. All credit to Sue Vertue, the wife. Who, after having seen Lucky Number Slevin and hearing that he was interested in doing television, suggested Paul.

I think he was an inspired choice. A brilliant, amazing director. I’ve worked with directors with a great visual eye before, but never one who was so driven by the plot. So, while he does fantastic pyrotechnic visual things, it’s all about the story. It’s not irrelevant to it, so I'm not saying ‘that’s a lovely picture, but you’ve given away the murderer, you can’t use it'.

I love working with Paul, he’s been absolutely brilliant.

He’s very savvy about working the screen in thirds, which you don’t see a lot of on television. Is that how you envisaged the look of Sherlock yourself?

I wouldn’t claim that I would envisage it as well as Paul McGuigan does, because he’s got an extraordinary eye. Best director I’ve ever worked with. It was that kind of thing – I suppose I’d be using examples like The Ipcress File, a sense of playfulness with the visuals. Thinking we can actually do fun stuff.

This show, we should always be clever, and it should be clever in the way it looks as well.

One thing that was very key was he was saying you should feel that there’s a Sherlock Holmes behind the camera as well. I thought that was a very astute thing to say.

I want to ask about Watson, too. Because you’ve written him very economically. And when I’m used to seeing Watson, a lot of the time he’s doing explanatory work, and you’re seeing the story through his eyes. Yet, when you cast Martin Freeman, the audience brings pre-conceptions to him. But that was a very quiet and still portrayal he gave here.

Well the thing that motivated Martin, and he did read the stories and it is there, is that [Watson is] a doctor and a soldier. He’s made of competence. And there’s never any suggestion – although [Arthur Conan] Doyle does quite like taking the piss out of Watson a bit – from Sherlock Holmes that Doctor Watson is anything other than the most competent man you will ever meet. Not a genius, like Sherlock Holmes. But utterly sensible, utterly brave, utterly reliable. And that’s critical, and that’s what Martin wanted to bring to it.

This is the man who a genius would rely on. In the literary Sherlock Holmes stories, although he doesn’t think that Doctor Watson is very bright, he does think that he will get it right, and do it right. He is made of solid steel competence. And that’s what Martin was very keen to bring to the part.

I think a lot of people expect Tim from The Office from him, too. But he went right against that.

I remember being quite surprised at the beginning that he was so adamant he wasn’t going to do those kind of comic riffs. And as he grew in confidence he did start throwing in a few. His reaction to the end of the gay conversation [in A Study In Pink] I think is hilarious, and he can do that. But he was very keen to separate it from Tim. Not because he was trying to be wanky, just that that’s not what Doctor Watson is. He’s a soldier, and he kind of likes it.

Did you find 90 minutes, again from a writing perspective, to be luxurious, particularly after you were packing so much into the last couple of episodes of Doctor Who?

The last couple were long, but do you know, everything is the right length. That one [A Study In Pink] was just right, but I remember wondering if it was too leisurely. Stories are the length they are is the truth, and sometimes you are feeling as though you’re having to mash it down.

Fortunately, in Doctor Who they’re very flexible with running times. But [Sherlock] felt right, it felt the right rhythm to me. Although there’ll come times where I’m slightly cagier and say I wish it’d be 100 minutes!

It’s been said if all this goes to plan, that there’s going to be more Sherlock. How does that fit with balancing your own workload? Are you keen to write more of these? Have you worked out how many episodes of Doctor Who you’re writing for next year?

I’m doing the Christmas special plus five, so it’s the same. Six again.

Six, including the Christmas special?

Yeah. I’m basically following what Russell did. Having worked out the sums and worked out how he does it, I thought that’s a perfect way of doing it.

But there is no way of balancing this. The last year has been extraordinary. I’ve had about four days off, and that includes Christmas day. I work every weekend, I get up early in the morning, I go to bed late at night. There is no way of balancing it.

It’s extraordinary, but it’s great fun too! Great fun, so long as it doesn’t kill me.

I hope it doesn’t…!

[Laughs] You know, I hope it doesn’t too. I’d be against that!

Steven Moffat, thank you very much…

The next episode of Sherlock, The Blind Banker, screens on BBC One on Sunday, at the earlier time of 8.30pm.

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