On set with Sherlock

Michael got to visit the set of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' incoming Sherlock. And here's his report...

In an unassuming warehouse, just outside of Pontypridd, BBC Wales creates dreams. Dreams of a prime time televisual variety, that is. In the reception area, they proudly display artwork from Doctor Who and Torchwood, their two most successful series since the studio complex opened in 2006. But we, a rag-tag bunch of daytrippin’ journalists, are here for a different reason.

It is March, and, in a portacabin-cum-cafe, we sit down with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. They fill us in on their new project as a coffee machine churns like a broken TARDIS in the background. Their goal is to bring Sherlock Holmes, one of the English language’s more iconic characters, into the 21st century. The ensuing series, Sherlock, will take the form of three, feature length episodes, re-setting classic Arthur Conan Doyle tales in a thoroughly modern London.

Moffat sits up in a smart black suit, shirt collar open, while Gatiss is more casual in jeans and sneakers, with big studio headphones wrapped around his neck. They give a generous hour of their time, talking us through the series which, fittingly, was brainstormed on the train to Cardiff during work on Doctor Who.

Before long, the conversation starts drifting from the questions at hand, as the duo start to exchange little Sherlock tidbits like true fans, talking about canon and continuity errors with infectious enthusiasm, yet with a grounded awareness of the form.

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The series’ opening episode, adapted from Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, is, they say, the first dramatisation of Sherlock and Watson’s initial meeting. So, in the current culture of origin stories, psychology and character analysis, is this ‘Sherlock Begins’?

No, Moffat explains, “You never really get into Sherlock Holmes’ backstory… it would take some of the mystery away. I think backstory is a weird concept, that only appears in fiction.” With that line cast, Gatiss pitches in with a crucial pop culture example against filling in narrative blanks, Star Wars.

“You say in a film from 1977, ‘Once the Jedi ruled the galaxy,’ and you go…’ he lets out an excited gasp.‘ And then you do an entire film about it, and it’s like the House of Lords, it’s the most tedious thing ever.” Moffat continues, “I remember hearing the words when I was a kid ‘”The Clone Wars’… and it turns out they’re a series of meetings.”

Sherlock, they say, will retain this sense of mystery, of dropped references around which the audience can construct their own story for the characters. These small but integral aspects are key to the appeal, and keep the property fresh, and ripe for adaptation.

Inevitably, talk turns to the recent Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. While they remain diplomatic, Moffat offers one flash of criticism. Their Sherlock will be “incident-packed” over Ritchie’s and the current action movie genre’s desire for simple action. He elaborates:

“You get into the shipyard scene, and you think, ‘Oh god, they’re gonna have to launch that boat, aren’t they? Can I make it to the the loo and back?’ Cause it’s gonna go on… I think that about all action movies now. It’s become these big endless sequences. All four buildings are going to have to come down before I’m allowed to go back to the sodding story!”

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Gatiss returns the serve, bringing into the discussion another British cultural icon recently revamped for the new century. “I switched off in Quantum Of Solace, as a viewer, because the action sequences, as spectacular as they appeared to be, had no context. It was just bang bang bang bang bang.”

But Sherlock is not without action. “He’s an alpha male, as well. He’s very physical,” says Benedict Cumberbatch, as we chat with the lead actor and his co-star Martin Freeman.

Cumberbatch is tall, with sheer cheekbones and hypnotising, bright eyes. Next to him, Freeman is dry, down-to-earth, charming, a human character alongside his slightly ethereal companion. We don’t have long with them, however, before they are dashed off to make-up and costume. We’re not left hanging, though, as Moffat and Gatiss soon take us on a guided tour of the set, a full reproduction of 221B Baker Street.

It is described by Gatiss as “our kind of Baker Street”, a flat that is half Victorian living room, and half garish 1950s kitchen (reportedly purchased on eBay for £50). It is in an impressive sort of disarray, with piles of yellowing newspapers, gun magazines, and books on Vietnam, Clinical Genetics and the Boer War. The floor is strewn with fax machines and printers, and is tied together by a large red rug. On the wall is a mounted wildebeest’s head sporting can headphones, and underneath a shelf carries a pocket knife, stabbed into a bunch of correspondence. It is eerily reminiscent of the protagonists’ home in Withnail & I, chaotic yet distinct. The home of two odd men.

The kitchen is a makeshift laboratory, full of Bunsen burners and conical flasks. In the corner, the microwave houses a beaker full of eyes. As we mill around, Gatiss and Moffat continue chatting, pointing out their favourite bits of props and set, and revealing that Holmes and Watson will also be wired up with iPods and smartphones. Conversation soon turns to how the creators first encountered Conan Doyle’s stories and it is let slip that young Moffat used to helm his own 8mm short movies, starring Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor.

They talk constantly about the scene schedule for shooting that afternoon, and seem excited at the possibility of outsiders witnessing Sherlock in action. However, due to time management issues, our luck runs short, and we are soon packed back into the minivan, and board the train back to London. However, we had plenty to mull over.

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And now, nearly four months later, we get to see what all the fuss was about. Sherlock airs on Sunday evening at 9pm.