Sherlock: Moffat & Gatiss on Christmas Special ‘The Abominable Bride’

Interview Louisa Mellor
25 Nov 2015 - 10:30

Sherlock showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss share the thinking behind the Sherlock Christmas Special, The Abominable Bride…

The Abominable Bride, a Victorian-set adventure for Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman's Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, comes to BBC One and selected cinemas on New Year's Day.

The plan, as far as it's known, is for series four of Sherlock to start filming a few months afterwards, in Spring 2016.

Here's what Sherlock showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss told assembled press at a round-table interview on this February's set visit for The Abominable Bride. One message was made very clear: underneath the Victorian garb, it's still very much the same show...

On how the decision to take Sherlock back in time for the Victorian-set Special came about:

Mark Gatiss: We’ve sort of joked about the idea for a long time, but it’s just massively appealing to do a one-off special where the only other people who’ve done it are Rathbone and Bruce, to do it both period and modern. We’re doing it the other way around. But it was sort of irresistible, the idea of actually seeing Benedict and Martin and everybody else in Doyle-land, as it were.

Steven Moffat: Sue was just giving us the options. It was like, 'what would you do with the Special? If there were three more coming later, could you do anything with a Special?'

MG: Really pragmatically, if we only had room to do one, if it was the first episode of another three and then we did the other two twelve months later, that’s a bit odd, so it sort of dictated itself really.

SM: We wouldn’t be doing one like this unless it was a standalone Special. You wouldn’t take up a third of a series doing this.

MG: Last time we shot the first two together, then we had quite a gap before episode three again, so it might be the pattern for the future that we’re not able to do them in one big block.

SM: It started with us thinking, could we justify having a ten minutes where they just put the togs on so we could see them do it? [...] Then we thought, actually, let’s not do that. Let’s just do it, let’s do it for real! Do a whole film as the Victorian version, do it properly and not tongue-in-cheek, just as we would have done it had we started the other way.

Had they started out making a Victorian-era Sherlock, would this have been it?

MG: Yes, it would. Because that would have been the point of doing it, as it were, to give it a more modern sensibility. Douglas [Mackinnon], the director said something very interesting the other day, we had a supporting artist come in with a letter and he said, ‘look, he’s moving slowly because it’s the olden days!’ and there is a sort of perception of that. Whereas, if you look at newsreel footage, London was busier than it is now. The traffic is extraordinary. It was completely choked. It was a mad, bustling metropolis. Again, one of the conversations we had right at the beginning about the flat is that they should live in a Victorian house, because a lot of people do, it’s just been tarted around, but all the foundations are the same, and it’s the same with the stories.

On whether there was ever any resistance to the idea of doing a Victorian episode?

SM: A little bit.

MG: We talked with the BBC, didn’t we?

SM: And Sue [Vertue, producer]. Both Sue and Ben were both saying ‘Aah…’, because there is a reasonable expectation on their part that we might over-indulge ourselves. So the thing was saying that we’re not going to make a piss-take or a parody and we’re not going to get carried away with ‘look how we’ve dressed up! Isn’t it tremendously funny! Ooh, sideburns!’ we’re not going to do that. We’re actually going to do a really good Victorian one. It’s going to be really good. Our objective was that ten, fifteen minutes in, you’re going to forget that we’ve changed it. You’re just going to be watching a really good Sherlock story.

MG: We thought, we’ve got room for a Special, with everyone’s timings. We did talk about maybe doing three stories in one, and one of which would be period. And then we just thought, what on earth are we talking about, this is a grand opportunity. Given that our other great touchstone is the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, which is very much a modern comedy dressed up in Victorian clothes, that was something to aspire to.

Was the plan to test out their existing show in a different environment?

Steven Moffat: It’s more about having fun, to be absolutely honest. Fun for us and fun for the audience. Given that they are—I think it’s fair not self-serving to say that Benedict and Martin are the Holmes and Watson of their age, they just are, they’re the ones who count right now, they’ve owned those roles—wouldn’t it be awful if you never saw them do it properly, do it that way.

MG: But we were very determined that it’s still our show. It’s essentially Sherlock as if we’d always done it period, so it hasn’t suddenly become very dusty and slow.

SM: Yes, it’s not a pastiche of other Victorian Sherlocks, it’s quite recognisably our version.

MG: We knew we didn’t want to just do a sort of Comic Relief sketch. It has the weight, it has the legs for it, and it’s a very good mystery. It’s a proper full-blooded Victorian Gothic.

On whether they’ve been wanting to do a Victorian version for years:

MG: No, no. That would imply that we’d secretly been begrudgingly making it modern just so we could get to this. It’s just happened in this special way, that timing-wise for everybody it’s come off.

SM: The show would have to be as big as it is now for us to do something as mad as this. You actually have to wait, and you have to wait to the point where, as I say, Benedict and Martin are the Holmes and Watson of their era, for you to say ‘now, wouldn’t you like to see them in the deerstalker and bowler hat?’

Could there be others or is this just a one-off?

MG: [Joking] We’re going to do one in 1944 in black and white…

SM: Where he fights the Nazis! [Laughter] With a speech from Churchill in it!

MG: And at the side it says ‘Buy War Bonds In This Theatre!’

Can Sherlock Holmes still be a scathing sociopath in a social climate as formal and polite as Victorian Britain?

SM: But that’s what the original is like. That’s exactly what he does. He’s horrible. Especially in the earlier stories, he does exactly what he does in the modern show in Victorian times. And in the case of Sherlock’s dialogue in particular, it’s not that different. The first year we did modern Sherlock we did a lot more updating of Sherlock’s speech style, but then we sort of realised as we approached the second series, actually, the way Benedict speaks, it makes perfect sense for him just to talk like Victorian Sherlock, so we just brought an awful lot more of Victorian back.

MG: The big thing about him is he’s famously very good with women, he can be very charming, but, as it says in the original stories, he’s very abrupt, he’s very rude. There’s a huge thing when they first meet when Watson says, ‘this fellow may be very clever but he’s certainly very arrogant’ and it’s all the same.

SM: I was so shocked when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I read them from the beginning, and I was sort of off-put for a bit because I thought, he’s really horrible! I thought Sherlock Holmes would be nice, because I’d imagined what Sherlock Holmes would be like before I read it. And my God, he’s just mean. He’s just mean all the time to everybody. Gradually, two things happen: you get used to as the stories go on. As he does in ours, he gets, not better, not softer but better at communicating with people, because he happens to co-habit with one.

In the Special, has Sherlock Holmes’ character regressed in terms of his emotional development in the previous three series?

MG: There are certain elements where you can play the Victorian-ness a bit more, but it’s definitely not like we’ve gone back to a pre-series one situation.

On how different the Victorian special feels to the modern-day series:

SM: It doesn’t feel massively different, does it?

MG: It’s the same show. We’ll be doing some visual pyrotechnics which are within the period.

SM: Certainly, it’s quite recognisably the same show. It won’t suddenly seem like a Basil Rathbone film or a Jeremy Brett episode.

On what they’ve enjoyed about writing in a more formal, Victorian style:

MG: Without going too much into the story, there’s a lovely bit which is sort of from several stories, a sort of situation where they’re kind of staking out somewhere in the dark and the clock tolls and Watson says ‘It’s the longest night of my life’ like in The Speckled Band, and you think, I’ve always wanted to do one of these scenes, and we probably could do a modern one, but there’s something about all those trappings.

SM: It’s probably one of my favourite scenes in it, actually, because they have the conversation and Dr Watson asks the question that I’ve always wanted him to ask—

MG: You’ll have to wait and see!

SM: Better not get too excited! And it works just as well in that context as it would in the modern one. It’s the same conversation. A lot of it when you look at it, you think, it really is the same show. It really is the same, and yet every single detail you’re looking at is different. Which is exactly the same trick we did a few years ago with A Study In Pink, we said ‘look, this is still Sherlock Holmes isn’t it? Even though we’ve changed everything, it’s still that.’

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride airs on January the 1st on BBC One, time TBC.

The Abominable Bride round-table interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

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