Sherlock: The Empty Hearse Q&A with Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman & more…

Here's what the cast and creators said after December's preview screening of The Empty Hearse. Huge spoilers ahead...

Spoiler warning: best avoided if you haven’t seen The Empty Hearse.

After the posh BFI screening of The Empty Hearse in December, writer Caitlin Moran chaired a Q&A with the cast and creators. Mark Gatiss, who wrote the episode, was in attendance with Steven Moffat, Executive Producer Sue Vertue, director Jeremy Lovering, and actors Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. We’ve trimmed a few of the gags, and the four giggly minutes or so spent wading through an online fan-fic, but the rest is mostly intact. It all began with a scream…

Caitlin Moran: Collectively, having seen the mood outside before this started, and the mood in here today, if everybody would like to let free one big scream to let out the tension, on a count to three, that could be quite useful. Three, two, one.

[Loud, high-pitched scream].

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Benedict Cumberbatch: Good technique. I’m going to use it later [laughter].

CM: First of all, how difficult was that to keep secret? Run us through the logistics. Were there code words? Did everybody have code names?

Mark Gatiss: We just asked people not to say anything really. We filmed the solution in broad daylight in front of lots of people and nobody said anything. It was even in the papers. Also, obviously with the multiple fake things, you can never really tell what was a stunt and what was real. We also shot a completely fake scene in which I collaborate with Andrew [Scott].

Sue Vertue: It all got very confused as one paper, I think, said ‘the stunts are so dangerous, they had to use a dummy’.

MG: With a paper plate for a face!

Steven Moffat: I think it’s also worth saying it was kindness on the part of the papers and the people who were watching that got us away with it to be honest. We couldn’t lock it down. They stood and watched everything all day. You could have worked it out. It was an act of kindness and self-discipline on  behalf of the many fans who were there watching.

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CM: A gentleman’s agreement, basically? Some good, old-fashioned British politeness.

SM: It was shot in broad daylight, everyone saw it.

CM: There were no code words then, I was very much hoping that everyone here had different code names – Daffodil and Tulip and you wrote your script in code, or at least in Dingbats, so it was difficult to read. There was none of that, there was no actual spy action, it was simply down to politeness.

MG: No, sadly the real world isn’t like that.

SV: We’d just perfected blank faces, hadn’t we? When anyone asked us how it happened.

CM: How often were you asked? Did people just know not to ask you. Socially, has it been quite difficult? You go to parties and are people asking, ‘come on, you can tell me’. I know I did that a couple of times. How annoying were other people on a scale of one to me?

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MG: To be honest, we knew right from the start how we were going to do it. Unlike the original story where Sherlock disappears into the waterfall and the body’s mysteriously irretrievable even though it’s a waterfall and bodies float… We had absolutely no idea it was going to take on the epic proportions it has, so that really by the time we came to actually do it, we really had to address the fact that it’s become so huge because there are only so many ways you can jump off a building and not hit the pavement. I think people were expecting something mystical. The TARDIS… [laughter].

SM: Assuming of course that Sherlock Holmes has bothered to tell Anderson the truth.

MG: Indeed. That is a very plausible version of how he did it.

BC: I was sat there wondering at the end, gosh, I wonder if I even know? [laughter].

CM: You tried to make it more difficult for people, didn’t you? When you were up on that building at the height of the mystery.

BC: We were filming all the different solutions out of sequence, because you’re doing bits of them because you’re location-bound so we were doing the flak ones, the ones that were distractions, then I kind of got involved. When I saw Mark and Andrew – Moriarty and Mycroft – wandering out together, almost in arms, I thought ‘It’s my turn’, so I stepped in front of the camera and just went like that [holds fingers up in a triangle shape] for a long time, which is ridiculous. It means tessellate, anyone who likes Alt-J knows that they do that in their video. It’s stupid, it means nothing, but I could hear sort of ‘Oh is that how he does it, the angle of the… and the body bounces off a police car and…’ [laughter].

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SV: [To Benedict] Didn’t Andrew put your coat on?

MG: We were just coming out of the archway, and I said ‘Put his coat on, put his coat on’ [laughter]

SV: All the cameras came out.

CM: It must have been an odd atmosphere shooting it. Martin and Ben, I mean, the crowds were massive weren’t they? On Twitter people were tweeting pictures of massive Beatlemania crowds standing and watching you, so it must have been almost like a theatre performance while you were filming?

Martin Freeman: Yes, it did.

CM: Is that weird?

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MF: It was like being at a premiere, wasn’t it? [To Benedict]. It was like being at a premiere and running lines. It was odd, it was not like doing a play, and not like filming either, it was a new genre of acting.

BC: The ‘what did I do on my day’s work’ genre of acting.

MG: You do tend to be mostly going in and out of Baker Street, rather than huge involved scenes.

CM: What are those crowds like? Describe what it’s like when you get there. Is it quiet respectfulness? Is there squeezing? Do they throw items?

BC: [To Martin] I think you should describe what it’s like. Do you know what? Incredibly respectful, very, very tolerant and understanding of the filming process.

MF: Tolerant of us?

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BC: Tolerant of us, and happy to be there. If there was a problem with rubbish or noise or any kind of crowd-orientated behaviour, they were very responsive and easy to correspond with.

MG: It was like [adopts US accent] ‘Sherlock is filmed before a live studio audience’ [laughs]. I remember once hearing this enormous noise and someone said, what happened? And I said, Martin just opened a packet of crisps [huge laugh].

MF: It was a good packet.

CM: Jeremy [Lovering, The Empty Hearse director]. What about the logistics of filming that way? Did I see some crowds in the underground shot at Westminster? You can see, in the very corner of a shot, about fifty fans it looks like, standing there holding books waiting to get things signed?

Jeremy Lovering: Oh no [laughter].

CM: Sorry. You’ve got time to re-edit it! You could just crop that.

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JL: Yes, when they were walking across the concourse, they were there. Basically there are certain areas we couldn’t control. In the London Underground, you’re allowed six people at any time as your entourage going through public spaces. Everyone was completely cool though and turned their back and accommodated us, so it was actually quite easy from that point of view.

CM: Are any of the underground crowd here today? Did anybody recognise themselves in that shot?

SM: Stop saying that! [laughter]

JL: They were so incidental.

CM: But it was lovely!

SM: The audience is in the shot! It’s a mistake.

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CM: But it’s like The Muppet Show. You turn around, you see the audience…

SM: [Shaking his head] This just gets better and better… [laughter] ‘Like The Muppet Show’. Two years in the making! [laughter].

CM: [joking] You could have got a professional journalist to do this. I just passed security and I’m here to ask what I want to ask.

JL: That is the last of it though, they will not be appearing in the back of any more shots.

CM: How long ago did you know what was going to happen? Because when we did the last premiere here, you were going, ‘Right, we’re going to have to get to work.’ Did you do all of the last series knowing what was going to happen in the next series?

SM: The very, very first thing we thought about doing in the second series was how we were going to end it, which was the impossible death followed by the reveal that he was definitely alive. Then we had to work out how to do it and that was a long and difficult process and we got help from people and all sorts of things and very much helped by the geography of St Barts [Hospital] because you actually wouldn’t see the body hit the pavement.

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MG: We were going to do it as a two-stage trick. There was going to be a sort of window cleaning platform which Sherlock would hit and then another body would drop out, this is an old trick. It’s actually why there is a reference in a newspaper to a refit of the historical hospital. And then we changed our minds because Toby Haynes, who was the director of The Reichenbach Fall, said the ambulance station is at exactly the right level, we don’t need an extra thing, so that’s how that came about.

CM: In that plot, is that actually feasible? Is there a Sumatra Road tube station that could actually blow up parliament?

MG: The Giant Rat of Sumatra! Sumatra Road is in West Hampstead, it’s a little off Westminster alas, but I couldn’t resist it. But there is a station in Hampstead called Bull and Bush, which was never opened. They built platforms and stairs and no surface building, but I love the tube, I’ve always loved the tube. I had a determination to put the tube in.

CM: It is a love story to London as well isn’t it, the whole show?

MG: Wasn’t that shot of parliament blowing up amazing? [laughter] Put it in all the trailers, it doesn’t matter!

SV: [To Jeremy Lovering, director] You’d just had a knee operation, hadn’t you? To get down there, you had to…

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JL: It was only 130 steps [laughter]

SM: [joking] And I suppose you were just too tired to notice those people in the back of the shot! [laughter & applause].

CM: There are some lovely new additions to the Sherlock family and cameos. First of all, keeping it a family affair, we’ve got Mary. I think everyone is very much loving Mary? [Whoops and cheers from audience]. Martin, given that that’s your wife, how difficult was that audition? When you were doing the chemistry reads was it a case with everyone else who came in saying ‘no, I’m not feeling this’ and ‘this is the one!’

MF: You’ll have to ask Mark and Sue and people about that. It wasn’t a John and Yoko thing where I said ‘I want my missus in it’ I think they had thought who would be a good Mary, and I think Amanda is a really good Mary. If she was nothing to do with me, she would have been somebody who definitely would have gone up for it. She’s thereabouts in that casting and Mark had worked with her before, Sue had worked with her before and we all just got on, and we knew that chemistry would work.

CM: What was it like on set? If they have an argument, is everyone else…

MF: Amanda and I never argue [laughter] In thirteen years we have never even spoken to each other [laughter] This is the first time we’ve officially met. Obviously, we do row but we try not to at work. Like everybody else we work with, we love this show and Amanda was delighted to be in it, and I’m delighted to have her around. I hope everyone else is as delighted.

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BC: You were delightful with her as well [big ‘aww’ from audience, followed by a ‘really?’ look from Cumberbatch, then laughter].

CM: Also the BBC must be happy because it’s just one cab for you two to share and one for you two [Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue]. Then the other cameo in the show, which I’m surprised so many people noticed, when we see Sherlock’s parents, they are Ben’s parents, Wanda Ventman and Timothy Carlton in real life [huge applause].

BC: Try sharing a cab with the two of them! I nearly cried watching that, I was so proud of them and I was so proud of the reaction they got. They’re brilliant in that and again, I think they’re perfect casting as my parents.

MG: What’s worth saying is that this is really the first time that we’ve gone beyond. I don’t know if Sherlock’s parents have ever been shown in any version and it felt like the right thing to do in the third season, to be even cheekier. Why not? We’d had this idea for a long time that Sherlock and Mycroft are a bit like Niles and Frasier Crane, they have very ordinary parents who are just lovely people. Actually, Sherlock is more likely to be the product of a loving home than a broken one, in a strange way, because he’s slightly indulged.

CM: What was that like, working with them?

BC: It was kind of nerve-wracking. They are Equity card-carrying members, but it’s nerve-wracking because they’re actors and they get nervous as well, and yet they were brilliant and they hit home runs and they were fantastic and it was lovely, really, really nice to have them on set. We did the Baker Street scenes quite early as well, so I think everyone was getting back into it again. It was really gorgeous and a very special feeling.

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CM: Let’s talk about the fandom of The Empty Hearse in the show and the fiction of them. Is that a loving thing? You love those fans? Is that a cheeky little wink?

MG: It’s the same sort of thing, knowing how big it’s become, you can’t not address it. We started with Kitty Riley’s character really in The Reichenbach Fall, she’s introduced wearing a deerstalker and it’s a sort of elision between reality and… It’s about Sherlock becoming as much of a celebrity in the real world as he is in the fictional one. Then there was this idea of Anderson, who, by the end is like Inspector Dreyfus [The Pink Panther] and has lost his job and his mind really, because he’s become obsessed and guilt-stricken about what he’s done so he might actually put together a group to try to work out theories, which, in a way, is a bit like what people have really done, so it sort of all comes together.

SV: When we were filming it, though, outside your trailer, do you remember, there was a little Empty Hearse group wasn’t there?

MG: Literally that moment at the unit base we just looked out and they were there in their deerstalkers. Actually, we didn’t have enough for the shot, we should have asked them to come down!

SM: [To Jeremy Lovering, director] I’m surprised you didn’t get them in the shot! [laughter].

CM: I believe the only complaint that’s ever made about Sherlock is that there isn’t enough?

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MG: I believe the whole of China just said that, to the Prime Minister! I was very tempted to Tweet, as Mycroft, “I am afraid Mr Cameron does not speak for her majesty” [laughter].

BC: Oh, one can but dream.

[Five giggly minutes or so of online fan-fiction being read out and discussed here, before the questions were opened up to the audience].

Audience member 1: What was it like returning to the characters after two years away?

MF: For me, it’s a little bit like slipping into an old coat and feeling very familiar with it. I love the familiarity of the world and the writing and working with Ben and the newcomers on set. It just feels like something that we really enjoy, and saving our own presence, we’re quite good at it now. We love giving it to you [laughter].

BC: It was a lot of fun to do, bike rides and bungee jumps and bonfires and

Audience member 1: Operation?

BC: That game of Operation was really, really good fun and we get as much fun as you do, hopefully when we first read the scripts. So, if we’ve done our jobs half right from the audience reaction then I know that’s transmitted, but it begins with these two boys here [Moffat and Gatiss], but it’s a lot of fun to be back.

Audience member 2: The fake solutions presented there, did you come up with those yourselves, or were they directly taken from fan speculation?

MG: Certainly, there was a collision of things around the idea of Derren [Brown] being involved.

SM: It was very early when we talked about starting that way, it was when all the theories were starting to kick off, and we just thought we’d make up a bananas one of our own.

MG: There’s a reference to the laundry truck, which is a famous one but impossible, and if you notice, he says, in the second of the thirteen solutions, he says ‘there’s a system of Japanese wrestling’ and it gets cut off, which is actually Conan Doyle’s ludicrous solution to the end of The Final Problem.

BC: The paving slabs, as well, from an episode of Jonathan Creek

MG: Yes, Alan Davies said he knew how we’d done it!

SV: It was interesting seeing everyone watch it though, because it started off and you see people gradually losing confidence. [laughter].

MG: There was a round of applause for the squash ball! Everyone going, ‘yes, I knew that’. An extraordinary one was that rhododendron pollen, which was in Reichenbach, is a drug that will simulate the effects of death, it’s like a coma thing, and it’s a total coincidence, that. People ran with that one for ages.

CM: That was why he was crying apparently, because it was a reaction to a drug. Have you thought about doing it again, it’s not conclusively wrapped up, there’s still some mystery around it. Could you come back and do another version?

SM: I think that would be a little bit uncreative.

CM: Keep it going forever. Every six years, ‘this is another way we could have gone’.

Audience member 3: The episode was a lot of fun, but when it went to a Terrorist plot, I found myself having a fear reaction. Did you think about, tonally, what it would do to bring that into it? It was very tastefully done and had wonderful emotional pay-off but did you think about that at all?

SM: We do aim for tasteful terrorism [laughter]

MG: Terrorism has been with us for a very long time, it’s ever-present. A friend of mine who saw the episode a couple of days ago, and actually I think it’s a bit of an odd coincidence, we made it a while ago and really what’s happening at the moment with Snowden and everything, there’s a lot of interesting stuff embedded in there about the secret state and some of it is just what’s happening at the time, really. I just thought it was a lovely idea of a Bonfire Night plot and essentially, it’s just a way of having a great big bomb. But you have to be aware of these things. It’s odd, Martin had a line about the IRA getting restless again, which they have just done.

BC: Our version is in the twenty-first century. It should be about the reality that is part of our lives.

MG: You’ve got to say, it’s always meant to be a bigger version, it’s a slightly more lurid world. I remember there was a pompous letter to the Radio Times after the first series saying ‘How can you have a 7 foot 2” assassin called The Golem?’ Because it’s Sherlock Holmes! We’re still within workable parameters in our world, without things becoming too ludicrous, but yes, you have to be aware of these things because there are taste issues.

SM: Did you mean about the reality of that?

Audience member 3: I’m from Boston, so it’s maybe a little bit of a raw nerve. I had the same reaction to the opening sequence in Star Trek Into Darkness, because it’s real and it happens all the time.

MG: We’ve had terrorism longer than Sherlock Holmes, that’s the truth of it.

BC: We’ve had terrorism in our underground as well, so it wasn’t treated lightly.

CM: Is there anything too dark that you wouldn’t do? Do you bear in mind the audience and when it’s going out, you’d never do an eleven o clock show, was it always going to be that slightly post watershed?

SM: We’re aware that kids do like watching it, so we make sure that it’s alright for them. I wouldn’t characterise it a children’s programme at all, but we know that children watch  and we wouldn’t want them to be excluded from the audience, and that wouldn’t be right for Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes isn’t like that, those stories have always appealed to children.

MG: It’s the spirit of adventure, isn’t it?

SM: It’s murder by luminous dog!

SV: It was actually made for pre-watershed.

MG: CBeebies, originally [laughter].

Audience member 4: Mark, is it different writing a character you then have to play?

MG: It is difficult. It’s a bit easier really, because I find it easier to learn my own words. It is fun. In the second series, the only scene in The Hounds of Baskerville with Mycroft, I don’t say anything, but it was required for this episode. I can still say [launches into a few lines in Serbian with relish – applause]. The only Serbian I’ll ever know.

SM: There’s a whole line, and it’s quite an important line, in His Last Vow, which was never written down, it was just agreed between us, we just said ‘no, it’s fine, Mark’s going to say that’.

CM: What was that line?

SM: Not saying.

MG: There’s a certain baddy at the end, with his round spectacles you may have seen…

CM: Can you say anything at all about what’s coming up?

MG: Well episode two is called The Sign of Three, in which John Watson and Mary Morstan get married.

CM: Is it at all like your own wedding, could you get the old dresses out and save the BBC a bit of money?

MF: My dress doesn’t fit [laughter]. Not really, no. Much more eventful, this one. Much more eventful, in really entertaining thrill-riding ways.

MG: It’s not about the canapés!

SM: Episode three is based on a story called Charles Augustus Milverton, so you can go home and read that right now. He’s a really interesting villain, a really hideous villain, I think the only villain that Sherlock Holmes genuinely hates. He doesn’t really hate Moriarty, apparently [in reference to the almost kiss in The Empty Hearse]. He absolutely hates Charles Augustus Magnusson, played by Lars Mikkelsen, doing an absolutely brilliant and terrifying turn as our new villain.

CM: Can we just confirm that Moriarty is definitely dead? As dead as someone in Sherlock can be, or actually dead?

SM: They did not fake suicide at each other. Imagine how stupid you’d feel if you bumped into each other [mimes, ‘what, you too?]. He’s dead.

Audience member 5: Your version of Sebastian Moran is quite a step away from a sniper. Could you tell us about that?

MG: Sebastian Moran is the sort of baddie in the original story of The Empty House and he’s Lord Moran in there, it’s just a tiny glancing reference really. We talked a lot about this, Doyle had it himself, Sebastian Moran is assuming quite big proportions in the world of Sherlock, but really he’s just Moriarty’s henchman, there’s not much more to it. Doyle, I think, had the same problem of him not being Moriarty, so rather than just have a villain at the stake of it, we just didn’t do it really. Like The Empty House original, the most important thing is getting them back together and the Doyle story is a very, very flimsy locked room mystery in which you just can’t wait for it to happen and in a sense it’s the same sort of thing happens really. It’s just a wonderful excuse to have a great time.

Audience member 6: What were Benedict, Martin and Mark’s favourite scenes to film in this one?

MF: We’re kind of spoilt for choice really. I did enjoy filming in the tube train, I thought that was fun.

Audience member 6: Where you were mournfully staring forward?

MF: Just me doing that [crosses arms]. No, I liked the end, I did enjoy doing that with the bomb going off, I thought that was good fun.

MG: That tube train, the bomb at the end, was designed by Arwel Jones, our amazing designer, it’s not a real train. We couldn’t get a real tube train, so it was incredible.

BC: [To Mark] Do you want to go next, because I’m still thinking. I liked our deduction scene, actually, I liked doing that with you, that was really good fun.

MG: We do play that in real life, and get nothing right.

MG: My favourite scene in it, actually, is the reveal of Sherlock in the restaurant as the waiter and the look when Martin finally turns around, it’s just fantastically played, and the range of boiling rage and shock and horror and grief, and then when he’s suddenly exposed, like Poirot, ‘this was a bad idea’ [laughter].

BC: Honestly, the deduction scene, I loved doing that, and also the reunion, although there was a lot of pressure on it to get it right. I liked the one in the tube as well, that was a fun day. Despite what it may look like, being bungeed is a lot of fun, falling onto an airbag is a lot of fun. 

Read our spoiler-filled review of The Empty Hearse, here.

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