Warning: contains spoilers for Sherlock series 3.
How will Sherlock‘s trip back in time to Conan Doyle’s original era affect the role of series three newcomer Mary Watson? That’s what the huddle of journalists visiting the set of Sherlock‘s The Abominable Bride this February tried to find out in this round-table interview with Amanda Abbington.
Mary won’t be quite the same as her series three self, Abbington told us, but neither will she be a subservient Victorian lady. “Not by a long chalk…”
We just saw a brief clip of the Special…
Oh, did you? More than I’ve bloody seen!
How is it playing the Victorian Mary? You put the costume on, do you immediately stand up straighter?
Yeah, you do. You’re in a corset. And also, because of the way Mark’s written it, it’s not modern dialogue, so there is an element of everything being held and placed. That just happens automatically with the costume. Because it’s really heavy! That’s genuine one-hundred year old material, you pick it up and it just rips, so you have to be really careful with it, but as soon as you’re in it, you just find yourself quite placed, which is great, because that’s the period. Repression, keeping the women down…
So it makes you quite static?
In that costume, yeah. There’s another couple of scenes that I do with Mark where I’m in a blue dress quite similar, again in a corset, but there’s another. In the third costume, it’s plus fours and a waistcoat, it’s quite Hobbity actually, looks quite like Martin! [laughter] And I don’t wear a corset in that, so it’s much more free. It’s all very held.
You mention repression in the era and keeping women down. Is that purely a sartorial consideration or has it affected your portrayal of the character?
The way Mark’s written it, there are elements of sufferage so you tend to play that. Because it’s written for that period, you’re just aware of it, so you keep that in mind with how you are with the men in the scene.
Is Mary more demure in this?
Slightly, yeah, but we’ve still kept her sparkiness and her glint. She’s certainly got a bit of scrappiness about her and we didn’t want to lose that. But she’s kind of fighting it.
Is she still an international assassin?
What did you think when they told you they were going to do a period Sherlock?
I was thrilled, I just think it’s so much fun to play, and because it was written in that time. It’s nice to hark back to that and for a second, to step out of the modern take on it and just do it from the period. They’ve really caught the period in the way they’ve dressed everything and the settings we’ve got and the dialogue and characters. You really feel you get a sense of Conan Doyle’s London at that time.
Would you say there’s something a bit mischievous in doing it when fans will be expecting a continuation from the series three cliff-hanger?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic idea to take that special completely out of context, because you always get three in the series and I liked the fact that that’s on hiatus and we can just do this. It’s just a different take on it. I hope and have a feeling that the fans are going to love it because it’s an exciting episode. When Martin and I read it, we were just going through it going ‘this is fantastic!’ A real page-turner.
Is there a no-Sherlock rule in your household?
No there really isn’t! There’s definitely not a no Sherlock rule in our house. We love it and the kids adore it, they love it. My son knows quite a few of the scenes and does them with my daughter, they sort of play them. Grace is usually the assassin, shooting Joe, so we get that a lot in the house, but there’s no embargo on Sherlock. We love it.
Martin Freeman mentioned that he listens to audio versions of the Conan Doyle originals. Do you?
To be honest, I wasn’t a huge Conan Doyle fan. It never was in my radar when I was younger. I don’t know why, I just never dipped into it. I’m starting to now, the more I do Sherlock, the more I’m becoming interested, which is weird, because I’m fascinated by that period of history but I just have never read any of his stuff, but I’m starting to. When I found out I was playing Mary, I did read a couple of the stories she comes into, The Sign Of Four… and then I read The Hound Of The Baskervilles as well. It was never really on my radar.
Do you think that’s because before Sherlock, it was perhaps considered a bit boyish?
Possibly. I don’t know many girls that read it in my class. There was no reading it at school, it was more Enid Blyton and Judy Blume, that’s the sort of thing we used to read when we were kids.
Do you think that’s changed now with the show?
Yes. Totally. There are so many young girls reading it. I was doing a play recently and there were girls waiting outside for autographs and there were all these books and I asked ‘have you read them?’ and they went ‘yeah, we’re massive fans’. I think that’s because of this particular version of Sherlock, I’m sure it is.
The Conan Doyle books, it almost seems, can’t really be bothered with women. It’s a man’s world…
Absolutely. I think that has some bearing. Women come and go and aren’t particularly featured. Irene is, but the women are just not written about, and I suppose that has some bearing on females reading it, I guess.
Your character in the new one is a big kick against that?
Yeah, which is lovely. But I do think Steven and Mark write very well for women in this. They have pulled her back slightly, she’s still quite gung-ho but there are elements of the repressed woman in it.
You’re trying not to say too much!
It’s really difficult! [Laughing] Because I’d tell you all of it now. Give me a glass of wine and I’ll tell you everything!
Is it right that you didn’t know about Mary’s assassin past when you first started playing her?
No. I didn’t know. They told me that she had a secret, right from the off, they said ‘Mary’s got this secret but we’re still not sure of what it is and how it’s going to manifest itself, so just play it with the idea that something’s going to happen’, which is really vague! [laughing] But I think, I’m hoping in hindsight it works, because there’s elements of it, like in The Sign Of Three when the telegram says “Sorry I can’t be there, all our best, CAM”, there’s little things that flag up, which I think I would have added more onto had I known.
Returning to the character in the knowledge of her assassin past, how has that changed your performance?
In the Special? It’s a different entity I guess. There’s no real link to that, it’s taken out of context. She does different stuff in this which is very exciting.
Is there an unusual pleasure being in something so devoured by people? Are there pleasures and pain that go with that intense scrutiny?
It’s lovely. It’s brilliant being in something so successful and so popular and so loved, but with that. Mary Morstan is quite a divisive character anyway, you either love her or you hate her and I think, when I was given the job, there were two camps: there were ‘oh, it’s great, it’s Martin Freeman’s girlfriend and she’ll bring something to it’ or there was ‘Oh God! It’s Martin Freeman’s girlfriend, it’s nepotism, it’s going to be awful’. It really kind of split fans I think.
You had some quite horrible stuff on Twitter didn’t you?
Yeah. I sort of learnt very quickly to either ignore it or just say ‘come on, come and have a hug!’ I tend to block it all now, not do anything with it. It’s very difficult though, when someone’s being very horrible to you not to retaliate and stick up for yourself, but I sort of say ‘come on, you like me really, let’s have a hug’ and they sort of back down a bit because you meet it with niceness so there’s nowhere they can go with it.
Would you have liked to have done this Sherlock Holmes if you’d been offered this Victorian version?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s brilliant. I love the period and I love the fashion and the language. It’s a lot of fun.
Any preference between this and the modern one?
No, they’re both really different animals. I do like the Victorian one, I do like it being set in the time it was written. There is something really challenging about that and really nice to play. But I guess I wouldn’t get to do all the stuff I get to do in the modern one because women just didn’t do it then.
Presumably Mary does get some action, necessitating the plus fours?
Yes, she does. She’s not the subservient wife in it, by a long chalk.
Was it a challenge that the character of Mary might be seen as the person who’s breaking the boys up?
Yeah, I did get a lot of that. But I always maintained, and I think that Steven and Mark always maintained that she wasn’t the third wheel, she was just there as another character to sort of bring them together and let them go off and do their thing. It was never intended that she was there to break them up.
Do you think fans have now got beyond that?
I think a majority of them have. There’s still this very hardcore group of them that will not be moved on it, which is fine because you can’t please everybody. I’m sure people hate my acting, which is fair enough, and you’re not going to move them, but there was a sort of shift of people going ‘oh, actually, she’s not here to be divisive and not here to break them up’. I don’t think she ever did.
She’s a flawed character, because of what she’s done, and she shoots Sherlock and that’s unforgiveable! But underneath all that, I think she’s a good, strong female role and that’s quite important, especially nowadays.
The Abominable Bride airs on the 1st of January on BBC One, time TBC.