Mark Gatiss interview: writing Sherlock, and where it’s heading next

We chat to the co-creator of the BBC’s new Sherlock series, Mr Mark Gatiss, and get some hints for this weekend’s episode, The Great Game…

Mark Gatiss, along with Steven Moffat, is rightly basking in acclaim right now. The pair hitched on the idea of doing a modern day take on Sherlock Holmes, and the last of the three adventures they’ve put together screens this weekend. In advance of that, we had the chance to talk to Mark Gatiss about the show. Here’s what happened…

We’re not used to having this much fun on telly in the middle of summer are we, as we are with Sherlock? It doesn’t seem to fit the usual template that we’ve got a high profile action/adventure/mystery on the BBC in late July/early August.

Well, I can’t comment on that because it’s out of our hands. All I know with the BBC is that it worked with Wallander, so I presume that’s really the thinking behind it. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that, when nothing’s on, you get a lot of attention! And, hopefully, that’s what’s happening now.

Steven Moffat said of this Sherlock idea that you all had to write it before someone else does. And then, of course, Warner Bros announced its big budget feature film while you’re planning all of this. Did that give you an extra sense of urgency? Because it’s been said that this Sherlock went quite quickly in TV development terms?

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It’s a good question, but in the end, when we made the pilot, we ended up making it again when they wanted to change the format. It ended up slower, and it would have been on this time last year. So, yeah, you always think, “I hope nobody else does it.”

The Robert Downey Jr film didn’t worry us at all because we knew about that when we were making the pilot, it was in the air. It had’nt been shot at that stage. But it’s such a broad church that I will always go and see Sherlock Holmes, whatever it is. I’m definitely going to see the play.

It’s not about any worry or threat, because you can embrace them all.

It strikes me as quite the contrary to expectation in way, that because there have been so many takes on the character, there’s less pressure to conform to one of those.

As Benedict [Cumberbatch] has said, for him approaching a character that’s been played over 200 times before, one of the most liberating things is that there’s a big difference in this one, and so, hopefully, this one can be mine. I can own this one a bit more because there’s a huge change with it being in the modern day.

But, obviously, Guy Ritchie’s film was a huge success, which is great. Because if there are kids now who are fans, who are devouring the books, there’s this series. So, actually, we were very happy for that film to be a book success.

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[At this point, Mark spilt his drink, but cunningly managed to miss us both. Thought you’d like to know that.]

It’s been said before that one of the hopes of this is that young fans get re-energised by Sherlock Holmes. And I’d originally heard that this Sherlock was to be a pre-watershed show. But it’s not turned out that way?

We did talk about it originally as sort of Doctor Who an hour later. But, actually, in the making of it, it darkened. So, it’s still very funny, and I think what would be ideal, and this is what you’d always want, I’d think, would be for it to be the kind of programme that kids think they shouldn’t quite be allowed to watch. That’s what I always wanted to watch!

That’s why, really, you get a magazine called Just 17. It’s not for 17-year-olds, it’s for 14-year-olds who want to be 17. And the sort of things that I wanted to watch as a kid, they used to feel slightly out of my reach.

The visual treatment of Sherlock has been terrific. We saw it with the first episode, with the text elements on screen, the holding of shots particularly still…

Paul’s [McGuigan, director of A Study In Pink and The Great Game] done an amazing job. And that is an awful lot to do with coming from film, and bringing so much of that sensibility. But also not panicking on holding on people sitting and talking about something fascinating. As you say, it’s very still.

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You’ve clearly treated the writing and production of these Sherlock adventures as films. How does the approach differ for you from your television work?

All you can think of is the scale of it. I’ve just done The First Men In The Moon for BBC Four, I think it goes out in the autumn. We’ve managed to go to the moon on a very low budget, and I think it looks fantastic. We had to work within our limitations.

Here, obviously, we have limitations. But you can’t sit down and say I’m going to write a movie. The story needs to deserve that slot. And 90 minutes eats story.

It’s really about the scale of it, and to me it’s an old screenwriting thing, coming in as late as possible and cutting out shoe leather. So, what I found in my episode [The Great Game], which is five cases in one, one of the most exciting things – in order to make it possible – Sherlock has to solve cases as quick as possible. And the great thing is you can cut out an awful lot of thinking. That gives it a kind of pile-driving, filmic narrative, because you’re really going for it.

The way it’s edited too is that there’s not a beat between scenes at times. We’ve gone straight from the end of a conversation directly into something else.

I think that’s very important. In [A Study In Pink], you’ve got this wonderful iceman cometh build-up. You don’t see Sherlock, you don’t see Sherlock, and then you see him upside down.

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You clearly had a lot of fun with that.

Oh, yes, I absolutely adore it. It’s a brilliant idea of Steve’s [Moffat]. It’s a bit like introducing Bond.

But I think you just need to get people really hooked. You’ve got the murders, you’ve got John’s lonely life, and then suddenly here’s this man and everything changes. It doesn’t pause for breath for a long time, and that’s good, and when it does, you feel like you’ve deserved to sit down and wonder how do you do this.

Going forward, Sherlock is very much on your plate with Steven [Moffat] doing Doctor Who. What are you looking for next? Because I understand Sherlock started out as six one hour episodes as opposed to the three 90 minute adventures we got. Are you looking – for want of a template – that you do a kind of Frost kind of thing, where every year you get another few?

Oh, yeah. Three 90s is a nice thing, it’s a mini-series.

That’s still three months of filming, though?

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It is. It is a lot, yeah. If you keep thinking of them as movies too, that’s a lot.

We hadn’t plotted six episodes. We had some vague ideas of where we’d go. So, it’s not like we had to [change] the entire thing. It’s about upping the scale of the threat. But without giving too much away, what we’d like to do if we get some more is tackle some of the favourite stuff. And what that would mean, if we could, would be to start then making it feel like our version. So, if anybody was to say you’re doing Moriarty too quickly, it’s really about not deferring your pleasures, you know? Why wait for season five?

But what that would mean if it happened, if we did some more, is that right, this series of three could be John gets married as he does in the original stories. What does that do to the dynamic? There’s so much to play around with.

The genius of Doyle is it’s all there, and sometimes it’s not quite in the right order. He admitted it himself: he married John off, and went, “Oh, god, now I’ve got to do the stories retrospectively!”

It’s the thing that’s been said of Doyle’s writing, though, is that he was far from perfect. He made mistakes in the way that he put some of the stories together.

Oh, yeah, yeah.

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That’s part of the liberating thing for you, too?

Well, you know that thing, that quote. William Gillette wrote the first stage play, and he cabled Doyle. And he wrote, “Can I marry Holmes?” Doyle replied, “You may marry him, or murder, or do what you like with him.” And he was so blasé about his own creation, he’s left lots of room for interpretation!

Martk Gatiss, thank you very much!

The last in the mini-series, Sherlock: The Great Game airs Sunday at 9pm on BBC1.