Sherlock: Martin Freeman on Christmas Special ‘The Abominable Bride’

On a February set visit to Bristol, a group of journalists chatted to Martin Freeman about Sherlock’s Victorian-set Christmas Special…

Read the Sherlock special set visit round-table interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, here.

Filming on Sherlock’s first Christmas Special, The Abominable Bride, took place at the beginning of this year. Back then, very little was known about the episode, and the BBC was naturally keen to keep it that way.

Prior to visiting the Bristol set in February, we’d been told that the Special was set in the Victorian era, and that was more or less where the certainties ended. The rest was a hotchpotch of rumour, deduction and inference.

If the following cast and creators round-table interviews seem to have a hint of courtroom interrogation or parlour game about them, then, that air of secrecy explains it. Regardless of the constraints on what could and couldn’t be confirmed, the assembled press did what they could to tease out a sense of what to expect from Sherlock’s trip back in time.

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Here’s how the group chat went with Mr Martin Freeman…

What’s it like playing the Victorian John Watson? Is it any different to normal?

It’s slightly different. You amend what you’re doing very slightly. The plan wasn’t to suddenly present a whole different character or pastiche of him, but it does tighten you up slightly, physically and vocally. There’s less overly casual, modern speech, I suppose. The sentence structures are a bit more formalised so that, inevitably, makes you speak more properly.

Apart from that, it’s more the novelty of putting on different gear and having different props and 221B looking different and the moustache and hair and all that.

How are you finding the costume?

It’s fine, it’s slightly frustrating because you can’t get dressed on your own. You need help – that’s why people had butlers I guess. That’s slightly frustrating but I love the end result, I really love the clothes.

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What’s your understanding of the reason why Steven [Moffat] and Mark [Gatiss] have decided to do this?

They have said a couple of times since we’ve been on set that we’re finally doing it properly! We’re doing a correct version at last. I think it’s a: because they can, and b: because it’s nice to ring some changes, I guess. Obviously it still fits within the remit of what people think of as Sherlock Holmes, it’s obviously originally a Victorian story, that’s how people are most familiar with seeing it. I think it’s kind of funny that now we’ve got people onside with a twenty-first century version that we then go back and add a bit of something to.

No-one asks the question anymore about modern Sherlock, because everybody’s used to it?

No, they don’t. I think that went out the window with the first series, because then it just became its own animal.

Does the period change the dynamic between your two characters?

It might change it slightly. I think that one of the things people who really loved Conan Doyle liked about ours was that it wasn’t very Nigel Bruce-y. I love Nigel Bruce—that was one of the first Holmes adaptations I watched and I absolutely love their relationship and both those characters—but [his Watson] was much more able I suppose, like in the books. He is a very able man, and he would be the main guy in the room if it wasn’t for his friend. So he’s still that, he’s still a soldier, still a military man, he’s still capable, but I guess sometimes with the formality, that might change it slightly.

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I mean, there’s still the bite and obviously the Victorian era wasn’t five thousand years ago, people are still doing the same things to each other they’re doing now, but they’re finding slightly more polite ways of doing it, as befits gentlemen. So that might change it slightly though I still have my function and he still definitely has his, which is recognisable to Steven and Mark’s version.

Presumably the Victorian era changes John’s relationship with Mary?

Again, I suppose it changes his and the world’s expectation of a, what a woman should be doing generally and b, specifically what that woman would be doing. I’m hoping that our version last year surprised some people that she ended up being an international assassin [laughter]. I guess in 1895, that would be even rarer for a gentlewoman and essentially the wife of a doctor, as opposed to now  when you can be any number of five thousand things. Then, you were more likely, I guess, to be a wife and a homemaker. So that might change it slightly, but also, without being too stupid about it, it also might not. I don’t want to give too much away, but again, the surface is where it is but we also will always go underneath that.

So John’s attitudes towards Mary haven’t regressed?

Well, John’s outward attitudes might have changed as would befit a man of that time, he’s certainly not expecting her to be an international assassin! And she might well not be one in this version. His expectations at the time would be different. If modern John was completely dumbfounded by what he found out his wife is going to be, then Victorian John would be even more so, I guess.

From the audience’s perspective, a Victorian John with Victorian attitudes might be slightly harder to get a grip on? Perhaps he’s slightly less likeable than the modern John?

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[Deadpan] No, I’m very likeable. I’m always likeable at all times. [Laughter] I don’t know. The idea is obviously not that. Again, Victorian John was likeable, Diary Of A Nobody sounds like it was written yesterday, to me. So I don’t think it’s that different. I think we have to obey and nod to the differences but also…

Is he quite a modern Victorian man, then?

I think so. Also, there were elements of the Victorian age that were absolutely modern anyway and were absolutely recognisable to us anyway. Given that, historically, it’s five minutes ago, it’s no time at all ago really, but people spoke a bit more properly and wore fucking shirts [laughter]. Essentially, they’re still us.

The Victorian Watson was very much in awe of Holmes. Are we going to see the character getting exasperated in the special in the same way we do in the modern stuff?

That’s probably a slight difference between our normal modern one and this one. In that way, I can fight less the idea of me standing back in awe of someone, because there is more of it. Victorian Watson, the original Watson, was much more outwardly generous in his thinking that his friend is a genius than modern Watson is. Modern Watson definitely thinks his friend is a genius but also an enormous pain in the arse [laughter]. The difference for Victorian would probably be that he’s got more patience, I guess.

Are they Holmes and Watson rather than Sherlock and John?

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You mind your own business! [laughter] This feels like Richard Nixon’s last stand, because we’ve just been told to ‘say nothing! Deny everything, Baldrick!’ So yes, possibly.

Just because that was one of the idioms of the new series?

Yes it was and that is certainly the way they spoke to each other in the stories was more ‘Holmes’ and ‘Watson’, so there is a bit more of that.

Did you feel the need to go back to the original Conan Doyle stories more with this one, because this is a more faithful adaptation?

Well, I’m quite familiar with them now. I listen to them a lot when I’m travelling about or going off to sleep, I like listening to them.

As part of your preparation for playing it?

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Yes, well actually just now because I didn’t do it at the age of eleven, I did it as a grown man. I discovered the pleasure of reading Conan Doyle much later than a lot of people do, so now I’m just doing it for pleasure, which also happens to be homework. Because I don’t really like homework and I’m not very good at it, so fortunately it’s a pleasurable thing. But it does inevitably feed into the general universe of my playing him.

Tonally, how would you say this episode plays in terms of nodding to the differences between the modern series and the Victorian? Is it very knowing, subverting what you had before?

It probably is trying not to be too winky about it and not too self-knowing, and not send up the fact that it’s a hundred years ago. Like sometimes, when things are set in the seventies, it’s our way of laughing at people from the old days, and I don’t, personally, find that very interesting. But there are inevitable differences between the way that we see, not only our world, but the way we see these characters. If we like this programme and we’ve got used to this programme then we know how they speak to each other, we know how they interact and there’s slight differences between that and how they would have done at the turn of the twentieth century. They’re there to be enjoyed without being sent up.

Tonally it’s still… there’s a lot of action and a lot of peril and it’s still very, very smart. It’s still fast-moving, there’s no sense of it being sedentary because it’s old. It’s still our version, but different get-up and slightly different formulation of sentences, but apart from that, it doesn’t feel like I’m playing a completely different character.

Does that show how faithful the other series is, because you’ve had to change relatively little?

Maybe. I think that’s what so many real Doyle-bods loved about it. And they could have hated it. I could have hated it! There were things that were begging to be disliked [laughter]. I think just the fact it was written by two people who treat Conan Doyle virtually as holy writ that it was faithful without being slavish, but tonally that was the thing that people really liked.

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From my point of view, I have no interest at all as an actor in playing someone who is a statue watching someone else be great, no interest in that at all, so playing a character who is as able and is almost the equal of the main guy, that’s what I’m interested in. That seems to be what people mainly respond to. Mainly, mainly, what has gone over a lot is whatever fortunate things happen between Ben and I.

Is there anything mischievous about doing this when the last series ends on a big cliff hanger?

Probably. But then I think we’ve always had a bit of fun with mischief anyway, or just confounding people, not, hopefully, in a completely obstructive way. I’m also a big believer in not just giving people what they want because, why should you?

Also, people have ended up getting what they want even though they didn’t know they wanted it, when they thought they wanted something else. There was resistance about series three among die-hard fans—‘die-hard fans!’ the show’s five minutes old—people who thought ‘oh, it’s not as good’ and they give it a couple of months and watch it again and…

It sinks in?

It does. I’ve always just felt, if it’s something I’m not involved with, whether it’s music or television or film or books… let the artist do what they want. I’ve never thought I’d dictate, or should dictate what album someone makes, because then it’s just down to me whether to like it or not, and inevitably, you end up following that person anyway. You decide to follow them on that journey or not.

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I don’t think we’ve lost too many people. Even the people that were ‘is series three as good? Has the dynamic with Mary Morstan changed things?’ actually, people still really liked it.

People only get angry because they’re still engaged by it.

Absolutely. They’re the angriest! They’re absolutely the angriest people, who hate us most, are the…

Ones who watch it over and over…

Mark Chapman, ladies and gentlemen! He wasn’t a Kinks fan, he was a Beatles fan, he was too much of a Beatles fan.

Would you have been interested in joining Sherlock if it was always a period drama?

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I would if the writing had still been as good, absolutely I would. I was resistant to it because it was modern. Before I’d read it, I thought ‘Oh, modern Sherlock Holmes, could that be…you know. Well, it could clearly be rubbish because most things are rubbish whether they’re modern or old or whatever. I was resistant to it but I saw how good the writing was. Now if it had been set in the Stone Age, then or now or whenever, if the writing is that good, I’m always up for that. This version, this script I would have thought was always good.

What have you enjoyed more about the Special compared to making the normal series?

Nothing! Nothing more. Nothing particularly. That’s not meant to sound like I’m not enjoying it, but nothing more. It’s just an enjoyable show.

Do you and Benedict meet up between series or is it a case of just turning up on set on day one and saying ‘hello!’

There’s a bit of that, because, thank God, we’re both working. We’ve got our own stuff to do, our own lives and all that. My family takes up a lot of my life, even when I’m not working. Whether I am working or not working, that’s what I’m doing, either trying to get to them or doing normal Dad stuff. We don’t hang out an awful lot, no.

Where does Sherlock fit into your career? Is it a bit of a touchstone, something you hope you can maintain in the future?

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I think so, yeah. I’ve always believed in doing things as long as one wants to do them. I think as soon as you don’t want to do something, I think you should stop, unless it’s marriage, then you should work at it [laughter] You shouldn’t stop as soon as you feel like that. You should at least work for a week on it. I think as long as we’re all free and enjoying it. I know it’s a good show, we all know it’s a good show. The truth is though, it has got more and more difficult to factor in, that’s the truth of it.

Is spending huge chunks of time away from home something you’re trying to avoid?

Kind of, but there’s no way round it. Well there is – I could stop acting, but it would just mean not taking interesting opportunities. Even though it’s second in importance to my family, it’s a close second, because I was doing it before I met Amanda and I was doing it before I became a dad, so I’m very, very passionate about my job. But yeah, I don’t massively want to be away all the time, that’s true. I’ve got to really want to do something to go away.

John Watson had the moustache in series three, now another in this. Can fans expect any more facial hair in Sherlock series four?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I’m going to try to rein that in I think, in series four, not let Steven and Mark think that this is an ongoing thing now and get me up as Robinson Crusoe or…

There seem to be some David Burke and Jeremy Brett parallels with Sherlock and John’s costumes in the Special. Is that a deliberate nod?

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No it’s not, I think they just got it right, and we’re getting it right. I think both series just tried to be truthful to the period and the source material is there for all to see. Like those two, one of us is smaller than the other one and one of us has a moustache, but I think beyond that, it’s definitely not a conscious thing. It’s much more on the books, and images and photographs. More on that, really. But that series, they got it right. I still love watching that.

The Abominable Bride airs on BBC One on the 1st of January. Time TBC.

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