Sherlock: Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘The Abominable Bride’

Benedict Cumberbatch chats about taking his Sherlock Holmes back to the Victorian era in the Sherlock Special, The Abominable Bride…

Read the Sherlock Special set-visit round-table interview with Martin Freeman, here.

Back in February of this year, details on the Sherlock Christmas Special were thinner on the ground than incriminating footprints after heavy rain. We had no title, trailer or synopsis for the Victorian-set episode, just a single image of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman decked out in nineteenth-century clobber.

Armed with only that, it was the task of a group of journalists visiting the set to turn detective and find out what could be deduced about the Special. Facing cast and creators well-used to the ducks and dives of interviews able to reveal almost nothing, below are the results of a rapid-fire interrogation of Benedict Cumberbatch…

How did you respond when they said they wanted to do a Victorian Holmes?

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I was thrilled! I went, at last, I can have a fucking haircut [laughter] I can slick it back and not have that ridiculous mop of curls on my head. And then I went you’re mad, what?

The first pitch was quite light. It was at the end of the third episode of the last season and I genuinely didn’t understand how they were going to get away with it. And then the more detailed pitch came when they were talking about series four as well and I went, okay, this is going to be great fun. And it really is.

It’s so nice to play him in his era. The things that are slightly more heavy-lifting in the modern era in that there’s a man clearly slightly out of his time, it’s put him back in the era that he’s written in originally, it’s a joy. It feels easier to a degree. It’s just things that I tried to impose a little bit on our modern version, things like physicality, stature, a lot of that’s done by the body of the clothing and collars and the deerstalker and cape, so that’s an absolute delight. Yet it doesn’t feel like cliché because you’re functioning in them rather than quoting them. You’re not just bringing them out, they were functional in that era, they were de rigeur items of fashion which have just become iconic for him, but also very useful.

Has the change in period affected your performance?

I’m sure it has.

Sherlock is more at peace with his surroundings and environment?

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A little bit, a little bit. When he’s in full Victorian swing, it’s a really lovely feeling.

Is he still rude?

Yes, he is still rude because he cuts through mediocrity. He’s a meritician, it’s a meritocracy, so it doesn’t matter if you’re Lord and Lady such-what or if you’re driving a hansom cab, or if you’re one of the Baker Street boys, it’s just purely about what your worth is and your qualities, it’s not about social standing. So yeah, he is still rude. He’s rude to idiots or people who are pompous or sexist…he’s quite a crusader in that regard. That’s always enjoyable to be.

What’s the relationship between him and Watson? Is Watson more in awe of Holmes?

I think there’s always a bit of respect rather than awe.

Is there still the ‘bromance’?

You just really want to write the word ‘bromance’ [laughter]

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There can’t be an article without it in there!

There can. You can be the first! Strive for change in the press. [Laughter]

It’s definitely a companionship that’s evolved in our version, so we’re not regressing it back to ‘wow! Golly Holmes’ or some kind of Nigel Bruce-esque adoration, it’s more complex than that. It is an examination of what they were in the original stories but with our flavour.

We don’t want to make it into a sketch, we don’t want to make it into something ridiculous or comic but at the same time, because we want to be true to the original but at the same time we’ve got to be true to our version of it. It’s that very delicate balancing act.

Is there an element of mischief in deciding to do this now?

Not too much. No, not too much.

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Because it’s confounding what fans are going to expect following a cliff-hanger?


But there’s some fun in that?

Yeah. I suppose there’s some sort of gleeful hand-rubbing, if it’s needed, from Mark and Steven, but when you’re playing it, you just get on and do the thing. You’re committed to what you’re playing.

Because of the traditional setting, do you feel the weight of other portraits of Holmes?

Not really, no. We’ve established ours and so have others. We’re still very different from the Guy Ritchie version. This isn’t steam-punk action drama, it’s still our version. It still has the nuances of the original book with our twists. So, no. There will always be comparisons, always, you can’t help that.

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As I keep guessing, I think I’m the seventy-sixth and Robert Downey-Jr is the seventy-fifth. When you’re one of that many, and some truly immeasurably iconic previous versions in the original era, it’s not healthy to compare.

The other gorgeous thing about going back in time to this is that you can actually look to the books as your source material, which is what I always do for our version anyway but it’s even more qualifiable to lean on them for some inspiration, insight and characterisation, so that’s been good, more than going back to other versions, is just going back to the source material.

Do you think you would have wanted to do period Holmes if that was the series?

Yeah! Very much, very much. I’ve really, really loved it. I said to Sue this morning, ‘it’s going to be hard to…’, you know, talking about maybe doing it again. It’s really enjoyable.

Do you almost prefer it?

I don’t know. They’re too different to compare in some ways. Yeah, I’m really crap at answering ‘favourite’ questions [laughter].

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There must be something satisfying for you about having slicked-back hair and…

Because that’s the more familiar. Like I say at the beginning, you feel like some of the weight is taken off you, you’re not trying to establish this man in the 21st century.

I don’t know any other actor that’s been that spoiled with this role. Well, Rathbone leaped forward to the forties and fought Nazis, so that was their version of it. There’s quite a lot of modern clobber. I think I’m pretty much the only one that’s done that quite so severely as we have.

The original Holmes was a champion boxer. Are we going to be seeing you fighting?

Yeah, I’m always up for more fights. I keep saying that to them. I do like throwing myself around a set.

Is your Victorian Holmes quite progressive? You said earlier that he’s calling people out for being sexist and so on?

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I think he always was, he was very charming with women. He gave a lot of people respect that otherwise you wouldn’t necessarily have thought in that era he would. He’s a man who goes for quality rather than the social hierarchy, but I don’t think he’s any more that than he is in the books is what I was trying to say.

There’s no danger that modern fans might be alienated by a Victorian Holmes?

I don’t know. I don’t think so though, he’s got a lot of fight in him, he hasn’t become patronisingly nice and charming. He defines things as they are, he’s very straight with people.

And you’re smoking a pipe this time?

It’s a pyrotechnic pipe. I’m not smoking it, it’s an effect. Even that is fun, just to have that as another part of him. There might be a magnifying glass that might be slightly bigger than the one I usually use, it might be slightly more familiar…

Any syringes full of cocaine?

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Again, the props department are having a fantastic time on this job. All sorts of things are being brought into play.

Steven Moffat once said that you have to wear the Belstaff coat in every Sherlock. But you don’t in this?

It’s not contractual [laughter]. It’s getting a bit tatty now. Mark gave me one at the end of the first series, I was like ‘what are you doing?’ he said ‘you should enjoy this, just enjoy it, because you’re only going to have two months of wearing it, you look great in it’ and I was like ‘oh great’ so I did for a little bit, but even then I started to think ‘well, it’s not like somebody’s going to take a photograph of me now, but what if somebody accidentally did and it then says ‘Wandering around Hampstead Heath in his fucking coat!’ [laughter] to seal my reputation as being a dick. So I felt self-conscious about it.

But also, I had to give it back because we’ve run out of them. Belstaff doesn’t make them anymore and the replicas don’t cut it so it’s back in the cycle of the ones we’ve got. I’m sure he’ll wear his coat again. It’s like the hair, the coat, the key ingredients… but what really brings me back for more cross-generationally is just the evolution of him and the characters within the stories that you know and the stories that we create out of the stories you know. That’s the real level of engagement with him I enjoy, the stuck-on bits of the doll will hopefully change at some point because what goes on underneath has to change a lot as well. As an actor, that’s what intrigues us all to come back and play these characters is that there is scope for them to expand and change and evolve.

Do you think doing a Christmas Victorian episode could become a bit of a tradition?

Keep coming back for more? Maybe, maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see how this one goes. I think if it becomes impossible to schedule a season every year, year and a half then yeah, absolutely, why not.

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It’s a great deal of fun, this, but it does advance things, it’s not just on its own.

How determined are you to keep making time for Sherlock?

Pretty determined. I’m still enjoying it. We’ll see how the next series goes, but as it is in this room, as I’ve said many times before, I’d love to keep ageing with him. Martin and I started this relatively young compared to a lot of Holmes and Watsons, so why not?

The Abominable Bride airs on the 1st of January 2016 on BBC One, time TBC.

Come back tomorrow to read the set visit round-table interview with Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.