Happily, Martin Freeman will be unavoidable for the next few weeks. First, he’s headlining The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, out in the UK and around the world on Friday the 13th of December. Just over a fortnight after that, we’ll see him return to the role of John Watson, a man about to have his graveside wish – that Sherlock perform one last miracle and not be dead – granted.
The Holmes/Watson reunion, we’re told, will be less about the resolution to the two-year-old question of how Sherlock survived his rooftop fall, and more about John’s reaction. No small amount of pressure rests on Freeman’s shoulders then, not that it was in evidence as we spoke to him in a round-table interview in April, just as filming on The Empty Hearse was wrapping up…
How far have you got filming this series?
We’re still on the first. This is the last week of our first episode, so we always come to London to do exteriors. That’s what we start later today in North Gower Street, that’s our outside of 221B.
No Parliament or…
I don’t think so. No. To be honest, I never really look. I like life to surprise me.
Can you tell us anything about episode one, The Empty Hearse?
Probably not without Mark [Gatiss, co-creator] and Sue [Vertue, Executive Producer] telling me off [laughter]. There are new cast people and the old cast people, the old regular favourites. It’s a Mark Gatiss script, it’s got a very clever title and obviously it deals with the conundrum of how the last series ended.
But you can’t say anything about that?
I wouldn’t want to, really. I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. But obviously, it has to deal with that because there is another series of Sherlock. It’s not just going to be me. It’s not called ‘John’ yet, I’m aiming by series five [laughter].
Is there a time jump between when the last series ended and where we kick off.
It’s pretty much what it is [in the books] actually. It’s pretty much a couple of years, that’s what we’re playing it as.
So have you changed much in those years?
Me or John?
Yeah, I mean John’s circumstances have changed in a way that you’ll see. He has had to try and move on and he’s had to try to face the fact that, as he sees it, his friend has gone. So I think after a period of mourning, he’s trying to move his life on, to have a normal life and a reasonably steady and stable life.
There’s no sense in which he’s still got a hangover from Sherlock in that he looks at crime or uses any of his methods or tries to think like Sherlock.
I suppose, as in the Conan Doyle story, you get the sense that Watson has assimilated a lot of what he learnt with Sherlock, and half-heartedly tries to apply it but knowing that he can’t do it as well as Sherlock. We don’t spend loads of time on that really, you don’t really find that out too much about John.
I think, as you saw snippets of when Sherlock and I are together, you saw very very small snippets of when Sherlock would occasionally say, ‘Well go on then, let’s see what you’ve learnt.’ I think John, by his own admission… probably compared to another normal person in a room might look quite impressive because of his time with Sherlock and just because of his forensic skill, but knowing how small his knowledge is compared to Sherlock’s, I think he would feel quite insecure about that.
When John and Sherlock finally come face to face again, it’s obviously a big moment. Is that going to be a tear-jerker, a string of invective from you?
It will be a big moment. That, I think would be unfair to say, because I think that would be a moment that people are looking forward to, because it is such a big moment. After two years away of thinking someone’s dead and seeing they’re not. It’s a very big moment in Conan Doyle. It might not be exactly the same as Conan Doyle, but it’s definitely marked.
Will it rival your graveside speech in The Reichenbach Fall?
No. My acting’s not that good [laughter]. I don’t know, I hope so. We’ve done it. I think it’s good.
You’ve already filmed it?
How did [Freeman’s partner in real life] Amanda Abbington’s casting come about?
Mark and Sue had worked with Amanda before, so they contacted her.
As easy as that!
Kind of, yeah. They both knew she was good so yeah, that was a nice little coincidence.
Were you very pleased when it was announced?
No, I’m gutted [laughter]. I am pleased, yeah. Because I know Amanda’s really good and I know she’s a good team player so it’s great.
Is Amanda in just the first episode or…
Mind your own business [laughter]. She might be… That might be one of the ones Steven [Moffat] and Mark [Gatiss] tell me off about.
Do you have a lot of scenes with her?
We do have some scenes together, yes, and she will be involved in some scenes that I am in.
What’s your approach to secret-keeping on Sherlock? Do you try to convince yourself you actually don’t know things that you know?
Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I really don’t know. When the last series ended and people a lot of the time asked all of us how it really happened and I could honestly say, like a prisoner of war, ‘I don’t know’ because I wasn’t given those facts. I’m sort of more in possession of those facts now of how it all happened, and I have a feeling that the amount of theories that were knocking around anyway about how Sherlock did it, there will be people going ‘That’s sort of what I thought’, because there were so many hundreds of theories, some of them definitely with crossovers to what Mark and Steven had decided it is, but I really didn’t know, I genuinely didn’t. So I wasn’t being cute when I had to say to people, ‘I don’t know’ and that’s quite nice, not knowing, because sometimes you forget which lie did you tell [laughter].
Other than that, apart from the fact that we’ve all got potentially big mouths and you can say too much and then feel like an idiot, you actually don’t want to ruin people’s surprises, because however much people say ‘Oh go on, tell us’, they wouldn’t thank you for it once the show goes out, they’d think ‘oh, I didn’t really want to know that’. As a punter, I love not knowing stuff, I always get annoyed if I’m watching a film or something with somebody else who’s going ‘He’s going to’ or, you know. I’d rather feel stupid and find out than know an hour in advance.
What would be your price then? What could have someone tempted you with to convince you to give up Sherlock’s secret? Money, or a role?
Did Rebecca Wade send you? [laughter].
For this? Nothing. I don’t know, if you said five million pounds, I’d probably tell you everything you wanted to know. I’d rather not. If it’s something that you really care about, and God knows I really care about this show, it’s just more fun. It’s not life and death, but it does ruin fun if you… I remember someone got hold of an episode of The Office when we were making it and a script was sent to a wrong address and this person – I can’t remember if it was a man or a woman – was trying to blackmail the BBC for loads of money – I think it was the Christmas special or something, it was something that people wanted to know the result of – I can’t remember how that was resolved. I think we probably killed them [laughter]. I don’t think it ended up getting out.
That’s why they’ve sold off Television Centre, because of the bodies under the patio…
We know where they’re buried. It’s more fun to keep stuff secret.
How do you feel about photos going on Twitter as you’re filming things?
I’m not a huge fan of it. I don’t think technological advances like that are exactly progress really. To be honest, it’s unavoidable because it’s apparently a free country so if you want to take pictures in the street you can. If people ask to take pictures of me as me in the street, as they often do, then I say ‘Look, don’t put it on Twitter, please’ or I say ‘No thanks’ or ‘Not when I’m with my family’ or whatever I say. I like the idea of not everything happening between two human beings to be everyone’s property. Do you know what I mean? Because now, ‘Can I have a picture?’ is the same as in my day, ‘Hello’. So ‘Hello, nice to meet you’ is now ‘Can I have a picture?’ and then they get out the camera and people start to line up.
People do look at you askance if you say ‘No, not today’, it’s like you’ve just taken food away from their children or something. But I fully reserve the right to say no, because it’s my mug, and sometimes I don’t want my mug plastered all over the internet thank you very much. Today, it will be totally unavoidable, completely unavoidable, and we’ll appeal to our fans and I think the fans have responded quite well in a lot of ways.
Sue Vertue Tweeted asking people not to spoil things.
I think the fans are very respectful of the show. It’s kind of like, there is no deferred anything any more. No deferred gratification at all, for anything which I think is a shame, I have to say.
Is part of you nostalgic then, for 2010 when you were filming it and no-one really noticed?
It was quite nice actually. It was nice. Yeah. I think it was probably easier, just logistically easier. I’ll find out what it’s going to be like today. But today, this will be our first time outside 221B, but I think it will be interesting today.
The fans do love it, and it’s made a tremendous impact. What is it about it that’s made it different and more popular than previous incarnations of Sherlock?
I think it’s brilliantly written. The ITV ones in the eighties and the nineties with Jeremy Brett were fantastic, they were really really fantastic and I occasionally watch them now when they’re on and am amazed still by how well they hold up, they’re really good pieces of work. But this is contemporary, that’s not been done for ages.
Benedict’s a very good Sherlock. He looks like Sherlock Holmes, he sounds like Sherlock Holmes, he’s really good. I suppose they’ve highlighted the relationship between Sherlock and John more than many others. I think John is less of a passenger in this than he has been in other incarnations. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily make it more popular, but I think people like to see two people having to rub up against each other and find their way around life. I like the friendly conflict between them.
Some people like to see John and Sherlock literally rubbing up against each other…
Yes I know. As that came out of my mouth I thought ‘Oh no’. That’s the internet for you.
But it’s beautifully written, it’s beautifully shot. The visual aspect as well, can never be underestimated, just how influential that has been. Text on screen now is a regular part of television, it wasn’t three years ago, you always had a cutaway to a computer screen or a telephone, and you don’t any more and Paul McGuigan changed that. It looks beautiful, is written beautifully, and it’s acted well.
Director Paul McGuigan’s not back for series three is he? Is he going to be a loss?
Obviously the answer is, I hope not. It’s one of those things that I love Paul, we all love Paul and we all love his work, but the work we’re doing at the moment still also feels really good. Yeah, we miss him, but at the same time, we’re getting on with it.
He set a template that can now be followed?
He did, absolutely yeah, he was instrumental in that, and that should never be forgotten. But it was a team thing as well. In the same way that when we started, no-one would have said ‘This has to be Paul McGuigan directing this’, it also doesn’t have to be now. I think Toby Haynes, who directed The Reichenbach Fall, did an incredible job for instance, and Paul wasn’t missed there, so hopefully I think with the general aesthetic taste still carrying it on…
It’s run by two, well, with Steve Thompson as well, it’s written by three people who are Doyle fanatics and who deeply care about the source material and what we do. I think you can be too reverential to the source material and it wouldn’t make our programme any good if it was written by a Conan Doyle fanatic who couldn’t write, that would be no good, but I think they really know how to transpose his world into our world better than anybody else.
You’ve seen all three scripts for the third series?
Nope. I’ve only just seen the second one, literally. So we’re working on the first one, I’ve just read the second one yesterday, it’s the Steven Thompson script. I think I’m allowed to say that. [This interview took place in April 2013].
You’ve said that you were initially worried about the transposition to the modern era and the potential for gizmos to take over. How do you think you’ve overcome that problem, because actually, people love that, don’t they?
They do. It wasn’t necessarily the gizmos that worried me, it was just the tone of it. I feared the tone might be too cool and too knowingly cool. I can live without endless television programmes and films just centred around computers. I can sort of live without that. But, if they help serve the story, then I have no problem with it.
I think really, anyone will say who works in my game that without good writing, you don’t really have a chance at making something brilliant. You have a chance at making something quite good, but unless the writing is brilliant, you’re never going to make something brilliant. You’ll make something okay. And it’s really well written, and it’s really well – saving my presence – it’s really well cast, and I mean Ben particularly. That helps.
I think it helps that – now it’s the difficult third series – but when we started it was, like with anything, you feel as if you’re making it up as you go along. And the world is your oyster and you think I can make that choice if you want, and there’s something very exciting about that. We’re trying to retain that excitement, but with the knowledge that actually we have now created a thing… It’s a thing now, and a thing where people expect certain stuff, and people want certain things and it’s right to not deny them those things, but also this is still relatively early on in their relationship. We’re three years in, we’ll be nine episodes in at the end of this, that’s not very many. I think the danger would be if we said, ‘This is all now set in stone and there’s nothing else to discover’, but I think what I know we’re finding in this series is that there is other stuff to discover, which is great.
Have you seen Elementary?
I haven’t I’m afraid, not out of any boycotting of it, I just haven’t seen it. I hear it’s pretty good, I think they’re both very good and they do great telly over there, but I haven’t, I’m afraid.
Moriarty, presumably, we’ve seen the last of in Sherlock. In the books, he had his cohort, are they going to be any of those?
The truth is, we’re doing the first one, I’ve just read the second one, I think more will come to light in that regard, for the third. Obviously with Sherlock, Sherlock has to have some enemy, a nemesis and unless Moriarty did something incredibly Derren Brown-like, then we have to assume – me included, because I don’t know for absolute sure – I assume there is no more Moriarty. But yeah, there will be a nemesis of some sort, and the hints that we get about that in this first episode will be very intriguing.
Martin Freeman, thank you very much!
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