Sherlock: His Last Vow Q&A with Steven Moffat, Amanda Abbington, Lars Mikkelsen & more...

Interview Louisa Mellor 14 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Here's what the creators and select cast members had to say after the Bafta screening of Sherlock series 3 finale, His Last Vow. Spoilers...

Warning: contains major spoilers for His Last Vow.  

After the final "Miss me?" had tumbled out of His Last Vow, an episode which left the audience at Bafta grinning like Cheshire cats, select creators and cast members were welcomed to the stage for a jocular post-viewing Q&A. Co-creator and episode writer Steven Moffat was joined by producer Sue Vertue, director Nick Hurran, and actors Amanda Abbington and Lars Mikkelsen. 

Here is the Q&A transcript, chaired by journalist Amy Raphael, more or less in full...

Amy Raphael: Is the public response to Sherlock everything you hoped it would be?

Steven Moffat: Well it’s amazing. It’s very rare for a series to come back and on each occasion get higher than last time, that doesn’t generally speaking happen. Generally speaking it creeps down, that’s the normal pattern, so Sherlock started very well, the second series did better than the first and now the third series is doing better than the second, so that’s wonderful. We’re thrilled by that, of course we are. It shows the benefits of starvation [laughter] Put things on less often!

AR: Sue [Vertue, producer] was saying earlier that there was a concern leaving a two-year gap, that it would be too long. Was that something you had to think long and hard about, or were you just forced to do that?

Sue Vertue: We couldn’t get together before then, that was the main thing, the writers and the actors. We did worry that maybe in two years people might forget about us, but clearly not [laughter].

And at least this time, we know Sherlock is alive, although my God, you put us through the paces there.

SM: You knew he was alive last time.

But still, the speculation. Was it very difficult at the end of the last series keeping the secret of what was going to happen at the beginning of the third series. It was almost like the secrecy around Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony…

SM: It was more secret once we started to shoot out in public, because we were surrounded by people and journalists, ranks of Sherlock fans standing behind barriers, all of whom witnessed every single thing we did, from giant air bags to Derren Brown – and there’s a sentence you weren’t expecting – [laughter] so they saw it all but they didn’t say anything, so that was brilliant.

SV: I think it helped a bit because we had so many versions and we also had a few red herrings thrown in.

SM: There was a whole pretend scene that Mark [Gatiss] insisted on doing with Andrew [Scott], where they walked out and had an imaginary chat and Andrew was wearing Sherlock’s coat for no readily apparent reason [laughter] and that got reported, so yes, we were having fun, but at some point we did also actually have to make a TV show. It’s always distressing when you remember that [laughter].

Amanda and Lars, what did it feel like coming into something so established? Amanda first, did you have to audition?

Amanda Abbington: No, I didn’t, no. Steven and Mark and Sue asked me to play Mary which was a real honour. But it was very daunting, and especially because of Mary Morstan, because she could come between Sherlock and John.

SM: She shot him! [laughter]

AA: I shot him and nearly killed him! But it was quite daunting.

And they weren’t worried about the chemistry between you and Martin Freeman? [Abbington and Freeman are partners in real-life].

AA: Which is awful isn’t it? [laughter] I won’t be doing that again! [laughter]

SV: We were secretly auditioning you every time we met you.

AA: Just seeing ‘do they get on, really?’

SM: Martin had auditioned you extensively in a way! [laughter]

AA: For thirteen years!

And Lars, what about you? Apparently Sherlock is just hitting Denmark at the moment.

Lars Mikkelsen: Yeah, we’re three years behind. I was very star-struck the first day I came, but everybody was very loving, very caring and welcoming, so it was quite easy actually, playing with these guys.

Obviously he’s a brilliant actor, but why did you choose Lars? Nick [Hurran, His Last Vow director], did you have a particular idea?

Nick Hurran: The minute Lars was a possibility, it became his part and what a fantastic performance. Chilling [round of applause] and also, what a charming, charming man who came in from day one. A fantastic crew and a really hard working team and Lars came in from day one and was just absolutely charming and very scary.

With the Google Glasses that aren’t Google glasses. How well formed was he as a character before Lars turned up, or did you slightly tweak him for Lars?

SM: We had to tweak him a bit because originally we had a sort of notion that he might be an American, and at that point we kept the original name for the story, which was Charles Augustus Milverton and then it was actually Sue who originally suggested that we have a look at Lars. And Lars self-taped an audition – I say taped because I have not updated my personal vocabulary in a very long while.

LM: I peed in my barn [laughter].

SM: Yes, he urinated for us [laughter] I remember phoning Sue and Mark before I got to the end of the first take saying ‘Oh  for God’s sake, just book him, he’s amazing’. At which point I then went on to a website and looked up all the Danish names that sounded a bit like Milverton, and I came up with Magnussen. Mark and me were really pleased with being able to put a twist on his name, because we always put a twist on a Sherlock Holmes name, like it’s The Sign of Three, not Four, it’s A Scandal in Belgravia, not Bohemia. So to be able to turn Charles Augustus Milverton into Charles Augustus Magnussen was actually great fun.

We had such an act to follow with Andrew Scott, who always turns up at the end! [laughter and applause]. We knew we needed an utterly terrifying villain and I think you’d agree that Lars just scares the crap out of you the moment he shows up. He’s so tall and he’s so frightening, and scary weeing is rare. The number of people who failed that! He’s terrific, terrific.

And what about your East-End accent, Lars?

LM: Yeah, cos I was doing an East London film and I picked up on the accent, going ‘innit’ and stuff like that. Sue was casting a Scandi so she went ‘No, you can’t talk like that’ so we had to Dane-ify it a bit. I did a bit of a Danish accent on the whole thing. We had to do that, make him Scandi.

Nick, how hands-on are you as a director?

NH: Of course, I think every director is hands-on in informing what their vision is. From Steven’s starting point it was starting with a very good hand. We worked long and hard to begin with about turning the character of Mary and that surprise. Beautiful performances between the two of them in that revelation. Amanda, hands on?

AA: Very hands-on.

NH: To have an episode where Sherlock Holmes makes one or two mistakes, you witness him realising these mistakes he keeps making. A terrific, terrific project to be involved with.

Is it a kind of – you can obviously disagree with this – but a kind of humanising of Sherlock. Obviously in the books he had issues with drugs, and in your modern-day take he reveals that he’s had a drug issue. Is that a humanising thing as well?

NH: In this, his humanising starts at the beginning and comes out as this episode goes on.

SM: I think the frightening thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he actually is human, he’s completely human, and he has all the impulses and the feelings that every other human being has, but he suppresses them in order to be a better detective, and it’s on those moments where he doesn’t successfully suppress it that he gets into trouble. He believes that emotion gets in the way of his brilliant brain, and on the evidence of the show so far and of the original stories he’s completely right. When he gets emotional, he gets blind. He doesn’t spot Mary as a fraud as he should have as she points out in that episode. Ages ago, he should have spotted it. You know when you see the word ‘Liar’ all around her – as some people have noticed – when he first meets her there’s a whole blizzard of words and one of them is liar and he ignores that word because he wants to like her.

He chooses to ignore it.

SM: Yeah, he suppresses it. The drugs thing is interesting. It’s become far more famous than is present in the original stories. It’s only in the first few stories that it’s brought in as a sort of exotic element about the character, and then Doyle sort of abandons it, I think more or less because he knows kids are reading his stories, but it doesn’t come up again.

Also, in Victorian times people used drugs in a very different way, didn’t they?

SM: You couldn’t have an aspirin. You had to have something for your headache. Cocaine in those days would have made you an aesthete. It would have made you an intellectual and exciting, but a cokehead these days is just a twat [laughter] and you don’t want that, do you?

That opening sequence where he goes to the drugs den, some people will know that, is lifted directly from the story of The Man With The Twisted Lip, where Doyle in his infinite invention decides to introduce his hero by having Dr Watson go to a drug den to get a friend and discover Sherlock Holmes is already there. But on that occasion, he’s not actually taking drugs.

Going back to the very very beginning, the conversations you two [Moffat and Gatiss] had about the project. What drew you to it? What was it specifically about the character that you thought, there’s some mileage in this, it can be updated. How could you possibly have foreseen the phenomenon?

SM: We didn’t foresee this.

SV: The thing was, you and Mark knew everything about it and I knew nothing about it.

So you’d never read it as a kid?

SV: No.

SM: Or as an adult. Or as a producer of Sherlock.

SV: I’ve read some! [laughter] I’ve stayed fairly clear because then when the scripts come in, I can think ‘That works’ as a punter as opposed to a fan. So they had to give me very very basic answers to questions and I didn’t know that John got married or anything, so that was quite good. If they could sell it to me I think they could then sell it to an audience.

Was the updating a very obvious conceit right from the beginning?

SM: It was what made us excited, because it started with just Mark and me talking on the train and really, we’d still be talking on the train if it wasn’t for Sue – well honestly, we just talk all the time – but we were talking about how secretly, the Sherlock Holmes of old that we really liked were the old updated Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce ones set in the Second World War, because they seemed to be less up themselves, more fun.

We kept saying to each other, ‘it’ll be a real shame if someone else does that, because we should do that again because we just thought of it’ and then did nothing about it until I told that as an anecdote to my wife, saying you know we have this idea and she actually got us a room so we made it up.

How much of Sherlock is about solving crime, and how much of it is about the relationship between the two guys?

SM: The fascinating thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories if you go back to the original, they’re fascinatingly, weirdly paced, because the opening few pages of every single story – and it’s the best bit – are just Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson chatting by the fireside, and eventually someone will turn up and they go off and have a case but what upstages everything is those two characters all the time.

It’s the first example really of the main character being more interesting than the story. What Mark and I say on every single occasion that people can’t stop us is that it’s not a detective show, it’s a show about a detective. There’s plenty of detection in it but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about the hero.

Are we to presume that there’s going to be a fourth, maybe fifth series?

SM: Wouldn’t it be fun just to end like that? [laughter] Yeah, we’ll be back. It’s fairly obvious [round of applause] we’ve been saying that for ages, nobody believes us!

Would you ever consider a feature film? I know it’s a feature film length, but would you ever consider a standalone feature film? Nick, if you were to do that, would it be a very very different dynamic for you, doing a self-contained one-off feature film?

NH: Short of the budget being… you’re aware of time constraints, it has to be within a 90-minute slot so should you want some of the scenes to have more air to have a story that takes longer to unfold, you can’t, you approach it in exactly the same way I think. You just have a producer breathing down your neck with less money.

SV: Same old, same old.

Hopefully the BBC have given you some more money as it’s become more successful?

SM: Well you never have enough. But the upside of that is, yes you could take it to movies and in that case you’d get one every three years as opposed to three every two years – why is that better? There would have to be a pressing narrative reason to do a movie. We’re doing movies, we’re doing them on television. As I’m fond of saying with the Doctor Who special we did, The Day Of The Doctor, which we put in the cinemas, on that weekend it became number two at the American Box Office. That’s a TV programme, number two at the American box office with limited distribution. So that’s television handing cinema its own arse. I think they should come to us and beg!

It’s lovely seeing it on the big screen, it’s lovely having a huge, big television. It would just be the question ‘How does it make it better to go to the cinema?’ and everyone knows that cinema and television shows in terms of production quality are getting closer together, so how would we make it better if we put in on the big screen?

[Over to audience questions]

Audience member 1: Maggie Brown from The Guardian. Despite the record ratings, the first episode in particular was not a universal success with critics or with some viewers who branded it rather self-indulgent and self-referential. I wonder how you would respond to that criticism?

SM: Any reply I give to you would allow you to write an article in which you’d say ‘Steven Moffat responds to the critics' or to the critical reaction, Maggie, stop it! [laughter]. We had a brilliant response from the critics as you well know, I read the press reaction, and I read as much as I can of the other stuff. That’s not true, so don’t put me in the position where I’m saying ‘I defend…’ a sensationally good record which is what it was, come on. [Big round of applause].

Audience member 2: Congratulations on a wonderful third series. Everything about it was bigger, brighter, faster, bolder and I wondered if there was a creative decision that led to that or if it was something that evolved by itself?

SM: We always try to make it big and bold, to be honest, I don’t know there was a difference in approach. I suppose you’re always trying to outdo what you’ve done and be bigger than you were because obviously you don’t want to put on the poster ‘Now slightly smaller! With less jeopardy!’ [laughter].

SV: Also, you can’t do the same thing every time, you can’t keep having John standing by Sherlock’s grave. You’ve got to do something new.

Audience member: This is for Amanda. Sort of twisting the character of Mary Morstan, how did you feel like your character played out? Were you daunted by it at all?

AA: I was quite scared, yeah, because you’re shooting the hero. It looks like you’re killing the hero, but I trust Steven and Mark and Sue and it was such an amazing storyline and she’s such a strong character and she stands alone and is very independent, so to have her be that strong and at the same time really vulnerable was just a joy to play. But it was quite scary.

Audience member 3: Can I just congratulate Louis [Moffat] on his marvellous role as young Sherlock [applause]. Was it fun to add in young Sherlock?

SM: It’s a feature of updating it is that if you’re portraying Sherlock accurately, as he is in the original stories, in his thirties, then a person in their thirties in the modern world would still be in touch with their parents. The parents should be there, and how marvellous were they? Once you’ve got the parents in, and you’ve got the sibling rivalry in you start to think, well, what was little Sherlock like? You just want to see those things, it’s part of updating it.

Audience member 3: Does that mean we’ll get to see baby Mycroft? [laughter]

SM: Baby Mycroft is just Mark Gatiss in a CGI reduction, he’s never been any different [laughter]. I’m pretty sure that’s true of Mark as well, he was just a mini Mark in a three-piece suit with an expression of distaste [laughter]. Don’t tell him I said that! 

Audience member 4: Should we expect a similar wait for the next series or are you tempted to try and get it done in a year this time? [‘Oooh, get you’-style noises and laughter from the audience]

SM: What have you been doing? How many Sherlock Holmes films have you made? [laughter] I’ve made nine!

Audience member 4: It’s just that everybody’s waiting for it.

SV: We’re working on it, we’re working on dates. It’s dates.

SM: Obviously Benedict and Martin are apparently in some movies? [laughter] I know, who cares about movies? I agree with you, I agree with your thinking there, who cares about their movie careers? But they apparently are doing films so we’ve got to schedule around that but we’ll get them made as quickly as we can.

AA: [stage whisper] Martin’s free from April.

SM: Heaven knows what she actually means by that. Bad news for Martin! [laughter]. Tremendously available, possibly homeless! [laughter].

Audience member 5: I was just wondering about the creative decision to bring Moriarty back. I’m thrilled, but you were very adamant he wasn’t coming back.

SM: Because I’ve always given this grand commitment to telling the truth! [laughter]. You don’t know what’s going on there. You don’t know what’s going on there. We know what’s going on there but we’re not telling you…for bloody ages! [laughter]. It must be hell watching this show. Obviously, we enjoyed that we get to see more of the wonderful Andrew Scott as Moriarty. [Applause].

NH: There was a marvellous intake of breath across the whole cinema when his face turned around.

And a sob when Benedict kissed the girlfriend…

SM: ‘But it’s alright, he was treating her badly'?! [laughter]

Audience member 6: A section of The Sign Of Three that everyone is going to love forever is the stag do. How much was scripted and how much was improvised, and which was your personal favourite bit?

SM: I don’t know if I ever want to own up to the fact that it’s scripted – it is – but we didn’t script the wonderful performances. It was scripted, we didn’t just get them drunk [laughter]. They wouldn’t have turned up, they’d just have gone off somewhere! We loved doing that, it was a light bulb moment and we were sitting there thinking ‘what is Sherlock Holmes like drunk?’ and immediately you think, ‘that’s a terrible crime! He would never be drunk’ but then you think, ‘hang on, he’s a substance abuser, of course he’d be drunk. He does everything else, why wouldn’t he be drunk?’ And it’s never been done, so we had this brand new thing. What is Sherlock Holmes like drunk? Well he’s like a pissed Sherlock Holmes [laughter]. It did work very well. We were very, very happy with it.

Audience member 6: Little things like Martin doing the high five thing. Was that scripted?

SM: I’m struggling to remember it. [Amanda Abbington does a good impression of the moment being described] There were loads of good bits. There was a lovely moment also – probably my favourite line in it – where Benedict says ‘Apologies on behalf of my…thing’ and it’s because Benedict in that moment forgot his lines and just said ‘thing’ and Mark and I went ‘Oh that’s good, let’s keep that in’ [laughter]. It was lovely.

AR: Benedict finds it very hard to remember lines, he told me in previous interviews

SM: Well if you see the number he has!

AR: Just generally he finds it hard, so this has got to be a living nightmare.

SM: It is. It’s tough, but there are very few parts in television that require you to learn so much stuff that is not intuitive, you can’t really paraphrase it. You’re simulating the thought processes of a genius so we’re making leaps that are not immediately easy for those of us mortals who play the part so it’s a tough one.

AR: Martin learns his lines like that [quickly] doesn’t he?

AA: Oh, it’s pathetic [false scorn in her voice, laughter].

Audience member 7: When I watch the episodes I feel you did your research with the fans on the internet and Tumblr and so on and maybe interacted with the fans?

SM: I really didn’t. I’ve been on Tumblr once a long time ago and it seems to be a place where people who really want to kill me gather [laughter]. I don’t know why that put me off! I thought ‘No, it’s enough that lunatics know my name, I don’t have to hear them talking about me. Sorry, so I don’t know. No, we don’t get our plot-lines from Tumblr.

Do you think that the future of television is more a combination of an interaction with fans?

SM: It’s not how it works, it truly isn’t. The creative response of fans is amazing, it’s extraordinary, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the cradle of the next generation of television and fiction producers. It’s hugely important, but it’s a one-way thing. What happens is – and I was part of this, I am part of this – is that you see something you love, you start doing your own version of it. Then you start disagreeing with the actual version and think ‘my version’s better’, and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.

I find it exciting and thrilling and wonderful that you get that creative response to a TV show. It’s how I began – I responded to Doctor Who and Sherlock and look how far I’ve come! [laughter]. I find that exciting but no, interaction with the fans is not how it works because in the end they’ve got to cut loose from the mother ship and do their own thing, and they will, they will. I think it’s incredibly exciting but no, we don’t interact with the fans apart from saying ‘hello’ and how much we love them.

NH: It acknowledges it.

Audience member 8: It's great that the BBC can show 90 minutes without any commercials, however, in the markets you’re going into, you get commercials all over the place. Do you have any control over where the breaks come?

SM: Interesting. Do we, Sue?

SV: Where breaks come? No. If we needed to cut something down we could cut it down here.

I presume you’ll have to do it for Dave one day? [laughter]

SV: We try not to look at it.

SM: We try to end every scene on a cliff-hanger. Every scene ends with somebody going ‘And that’s what they were supposed to think!’

SV: That’s not where they cut it, probably!

SM: You do see that thing where they cut the scene in the bloody middle and you think, come on, we’ve given you four hundred and twelve decent cliff-hangers, how did you miss it? I think it’s a shame if they don’t do it well, because I have no objection – me personally – to commercials turning up during the show as it’s an opportunity to have a whopping great cliff-hanger. I quite like that.

Audience member 9: In terms of this episode, it’s probably the most non-linear of the three so far this season. When you’re constructing a story like this, do you basically plot it from point A to point Z and then fold bits back on themselves as you go along?

SM: To be honest, I think I would say that The Sign Of Three was the most non-linear. We don’t even know if we saw the events in the right order even in the flashback. In terms of how you do that, you just work it out. I remember the writers on The Sign Of Three sat and worked out that we wanted the spine to be the speech, that we’ll cue up that story there and leave it hanging, and go back to the speech, cue up the next story, then we go back to the resolution of that story. It’s designed – perhaps successfully or unsuccessfully is up to you – to look clever.

Things that are designed to look clever secretly aren’t that clever, because we know the story and putting it in the wrong order isn’t that much of an effort. There’s only one sequence where we move out of straight narrative logic in His Last Vow, I wrote it that way and we all wondered if we’d just cut the Christmas scenes into the right sequence, but it didn’t feel right, you sort of wanted to go forward into the future and then find out how they’d got there. If you put the work in, it’s not as hard as it looks. It’s designed, as I said, to look clever. In the case of a show that celebrates the cleverness of its hero, the show being itself clever is correct. If it wasn’t a show about a clever man, you wouldn’t want it to be like that. It’s a show about a clever man, so make the world look complex, yet clear – he hoped! You may be thinking ‘It wasn’t clear at all!’ [laughter] but that’s the ambition. I don’t know if that ramble was of any use at all, I’m sorry.

Audience member 10: Do you have any dreams for season four that you would like to do, any casting or plots that you would love to bring into next season if budget wasn’t an issue?

SM: If budget wasn’t an issue… I never really worry about that, my wife worries about that [laughter].

Rather excitingly Mark and I, for no particular reason, just got out of the rain and sat at the top of the production bus – whereas the actors get these marvellous caravans, we go and sit at the top of a double decker bus that becomes our office – and we sat with all the accountants and we just started talking about what we could do in the future, and we plotted out the whole of series four and five just in one day.

SV: Then the accountants said you couldn’t afford it [laughter]

SM: They know all about it, they do. They heard us. So we have got plans, yeah. But our plans don’t tend to be ‘let’s blow up the world’ or ‘let’s cast the most famous person in the world’, it tends to be what exciting twists and turns can we add to this, and I think we’ve got some crackers. The ideas we thought of that day I think we the best we’ve ever had. There, bigging it up already! [laughter].

Audience member 11: Because Lars was such a fantastic character, I know you have to keep to the storylines of the books as a backbone, but were you not tempted to not kill him off and you could have had a fantastic series four with a Lars/Moriarty tag-team. The two best criminal minds ever.

NH: Is he dead?

SM: At some point, don’t you think they’re going to sit in 221B and say ‘Nobody ever dies!’ [laughter]. ‘How are we supposed to investigate murder if they all get up again!’ Lars was brilliant but the first idea was to honour the story and kill him.

LM: You never know, do you?

SM: You never know! [laughter] An endless procession of ‘Did you miss me?’ ‘And me!’ ‘And me!’ Phil Davis will be so happy, back driving that taxi!

The Sign Of Three was the first time that all three writers were credited on the episode, did that change the writing process? Did it benefit from having three minds on it, that story? Also, who signs off and says it’s done at the end?

SM: We sort of segmented the episode into the different bits we were doing. It was Steve [Thompson's] first draft, he did a couple of drafts, then Mark and I came in with Steve and I focused a lot on the wedding and the speech and Mark focused a lot on the mysteries, and Steve focused a lot on the stag night actually so it just worked around that, but we all did everything. When do you sign it off? When they need it! That’s the reality.

NH: It’s never signed off.

SV: When it sounds round.

SM: Yes. But I delayed the tone meeting for His Last Vow because I hadn’t finished the script. I kept phoning and telling them ‘I’ll be there in an hour, I promise’ and they’re all sitting at a table saying ‘He hasn’t finished it’.

Read our spoiler-filled review of His Last Vow, here.

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