Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss interview: Sherlock

Ahead of Sunday night's airing of Sherlock, we interview creators Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss about updating Conan Doyle's classic stories…

Pining for Doctor Who? Have no fear, as even though the show is having a rest, head writer Steven Moffat has been hard at work on another project with Who writer Mark Gatiss: Sherlock, a modern re-setting of the Arthur Conan Doyle crime classics starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The first of three feature length episodes airs this Sunday, but to get you into the spirit, we’ve got three chunky bits of coverage coming up in the next couple of days.

Firstly, then, we have an interview with Moffat and Gatiss, conducted back in March, when we ventured out to the BBC studios in Wales with a bunch of eager journalists. The two creators were generous with their time, going into eloquent, rambly detail about their love of Holmes, the thinking behind the change in setting, and how Matt Smith almost played Watson.

How did the idea for this Sherlock series come about?

Steven Moffat: On the train to Cardiff, appropriately enough, because it was during the time when we were both writing individual episodes of Doctor Who. We’d been friends for years anyway, but we’d often been getting the train together for that reason, and the main thing we kept saying, was that someone should do what they did with Rathbone again. Someone should do it modern day – do the stories, not the trappings. And I said that to Sue [Vertue, producer], I said “Someone should do that, and it’s really annoying because it should be us,”, and she said, “Why don’t you?” So, Sue took us out for lunch to Monte Carlo.

Ad – content continues below

Mark Gatiss: Not specifically!

SM: No, we were in Monte Carlo at the time. And really, really fast after that – we did a pilot a year ago, and a year later we’re doing three 90 minuters, which is incredible speed in television.

MG: One of the wonderful, easy ways into this as an idea, and to explain to other people, is that in the very first, original story, Doctor Watson is invalided home from Afghanistan. And it’s the same unwinnable war, virtually. Once you start thinking like that, the whole show makes total sense. And I would say to anyone who is worried that it has to be about hansom cabs and fogs… it so doesn’t. It’s about the relationship between these two unlikely friends, and the adventures they have. And it works.

I suppose it’s difficult to know what to take out…SM: We didn’t take anything out. We’re actually quite thorough about our Sherlock Holmes. There’s very, very little you have to change at all to put Sherlock Holmes in the modern day.

It took them until 1939 to make a Sherlock Holmes in period, and they didn’t do it again for about thirty years. Think of it, in one sense, as like James Bond. We’re all going around saying that Casino Royale was a very authentic adaptation of Casino Royale, the book, which in many ways it was… but it’s set in the modern day! No one thinks about that.

Period has become welded to Sherlock Holmes, and I really don’t think that it should be.

Ad – content continues below

MG: But that’s not to be pejorative. There have been hundreds of versions, and there’ll be hundreds more, probably within the year!

The period ones are gorgeous, and part of the reason you get into it is a love of that flavour. But, Conan Doyle was a genius, genius writer, and it’s worth trumpeting because it’s not said enough. And his stories, particularly for Sherlock Holmes, are just models of their kind.

But what they are, they’re thrilling, lurid, funny, silly, strange, wonderful pieces of exciting adventure. And the moment you start to think about making it into a careful, period recreation, you start to lose that.

SM: It does become reverent. Some of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations, they’re treating it like it’s Jane Austen or something, and they make it really boring and slow. And it’s not. Sherlock Holmes isn’t like that. It’s something children would read.

In terms of Victorian literature, it is so fast paced – it must have given them whiplash to read it compared to other stuff.

When you were hammering out the concept, did you look at any other adaptations of the books for ideas?

Ad – content continues below

SM: We decided, at one point, that everything is canon, so you can raid from any adaptation. But yes, we know the stories incredibly well, and there’s loads of things in the stories that don’t often make it onto screen.

Like Sherlock Holmes laughs all the time in the stories, he’s always bursting out laughing, or roaring with laughter, or having a laugh. And Sherlock and Watson in the stories actually laugh together a lot. You never see it! He’s always stern. He’s not like that at all, he’s quite impish.

MG: Our favourite is the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, which is a perfect combination of reverence and irreverence. That’s why it’s absolutely authentic. He plays very fast and loose with some of the most revered concepts, but in the end is an incredibly affecting, moving piece of cinema.

We sort of wanted to get that spirit into it. It’s made by people who love Sherlock Holmes…

SM: The humour. Very often Sherlock Holmes is not funny. The books are funny! The interaction between the two characters is always funny. It’s a weird genius and an ordinary not-genius.

If you read the first chapter of The Valley Of Fear, they’re on particularly good bantering form with each other. Some very good deductions about a book code. It’s brilliant. It’s really really clever. And they’re hilarious, the two of them, just fencing away, and Sherlock taking the mickey out of John all the time. It’s just very, very, very funny.

Ad – content continues below

MG: There’s also the continuing strand which is definitely just Conan Doyle winking at us, of the stories that never made it because they were too strange. They’re so outrageous…

SM: The Politician, The Lighthouse And The Trained Cormorant.

MG: The Giant Rat Of Sumatra, ‘…for which the world is not yet prepared’! He’s definitely just having fun with his readership. And within the original stories, they are commenting on the stories, because John Watson is writing them up and publishing them, and Sherlock Holmes has an opinion about them. It’s very modern.

SM: Imagine if James Bond started commenting on the last film! It’s an extraordinary idea. But all that impishness and playfulness and fun gets released very easily by just making it modern day.

By taking a great big liberty, you’re saying ‘We’re just not being well behaved, are we?’ We’re being faithful to everything that matters, but we still like to be fun with it.

People often comment to us – and it always surprises me – “You’ve got a young Sherlock Holmes.” And we think, no, we haven’t. You look at the story, he’s about 30. He has to be! The stories go on for another twenty-odd years after that, so, unless he’s ancient by the end, at the beginning, he must be about 30, and he is referred to as a young man. We’ve got used to the idea that’s he fifty, but he’s not. He can’t be fifty!

Ad – content continues below

What made you choose Cumberbatch?

SM: Look at him! There’s only so many people who can play Sherlock Holmes in a generation and look it.

I think Robert Downey Jr’s done a great job of being Sherlock Holmes, but I’m never, ever going to look at him and believe he actually is Sherlock Holmes. He’s too little, and he doesn’t look like him. And his accent is shite!

And what is he like with Martin?

SM: That was the thing. It was all about finding the match. And we saw a lot. In fact, the first person we saw was Matt Smith. A week before he auditioned for Doctor Who.

MG: But, with Martin, they got on immediately. Martin has a very dry sense of humour, which comes out in John Watson’s character. It just clicked.

Ad – content continues below

Are all of the films adapted from the books?

SM: The first one is A Study In Pink, which is A Study In Scarlet, and there are many elements of the story, and the broad shape of it, but we mess around with it a lot.

I always forget that Steve’s one, Steve Thompson, is actually the The Dancing Man, but it is a very, very clever adaptation, in that it’s gone a long way from that story. And when you’re told what it is, you say, “Oh. Yes. All those things are the same.” But, actually, he’s changed every detail.

We’re not trying to grab the icons, we’re trying to take the clever bits. Some of those stories are awfully clever, and are full of great moments. We’ve nicked some of the great ideas from the story and changed the superficial details, yet it’s still the same thing.

After you transplant the characters into the modern day, and get rid of the Victorian imagery, what ideas did you have for the look of the modern series?

MG: London is such a character in the original stories, and London is a very exciting city, always. But, at the moment, there is real vibrancy. It looks great. There’s a lot of brilliant new architecture. We wanted to celebrate it without having a union jack bus driving through shots. And Paul McGuigan, and Euros Lyn were all of a mind to get that wonderful, nighttime aesthetic.

Ad – content continues below

SM: We did discover, also, in the making of the pilot, that the things that worked best for our show is when it looks modern. That’s when it’s most exciting. I swear you’d recognise them, even if you knew nothing about it. If you saw Benedict and Martin walking around in costume, doing their thing, you’d think, “That’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson,” even though it doesn’t look like them in the normal version.

Is Sherlock being aimed at a family audience?

SM: It’s pre-watershed, but it’s an adult show that kids will love watching. We sometimes call it Doctor Who an hour later. Definitely for grown-ups, but kids will ask to stay up to watch it.

We tried it on our kids, and they absolutely loved it. They were seven and nine. Oddly enough, the thing they really enjoyed were the deductions. They were very, very hard to write.

MG: That’s why Conan Doyle stopped bothering.

SM: Or they become rubbish. ‘How did you know I was on the train?’ ‘I saw your train ticket!’

Ad – content continues below

MG: ‘I was sitting next to you on the train!’

SM: We’ve got some tricks up our sleeve. We are still finding it, and will continue to find different ways to portray how Sherlock sees the world, and how that information feeds through to the audience.

MG: A big thing for us early on, because, really, Holmes invented forensic science. So, in a world where everybody does it, does he still have a role? And he does, and the reason is, he is the genius in the room.

Scotland Yard absolutely take the footprint casts and the fingerprints and all that sort of stuff, but he is the only person who can fit it together, and make those massive leaps. There is a big Derren Brown comparison… he says something that is outrageous, and then he shows you his working out.

SM: And even if you look at the originals, it doesn’t tend to be “I’ve measured carefully each footprint.” It tends to be something much more homely, like, “I noticed that your suit is creased.”

So, all the police have got better at is amassing the information. Interpreting that information is still an act of genius, as it ever has been. It’s actually much more compelling, because if you do the CSI stuff, you don’t feel as though you can go and do that yourself. If you’re 11, watching the show, you don’t actually have a chemistry set that good.

Ad – content continues below

MG: When I first read the stories, you immediately put them down and go, “Right. I can do this!” It’s like a challenge, it’s very exciting.

SM: So, we’ve really made that central, so it happens in episode. And they’re good ones.

Do you explore the drug-based side of the Holmes character?

SM: We’re updating it properly. I remember us having a conversation about what they would call each other. They cannot call each other Holmes and Watson, that’s absurd, nobody does that. It has to be Sherlock and John.

And so, with things like drug abuse. What would happen, with a man like Sherlock Holmes nowadays? Would a man like Sherlock Holmes be a cokehead? Would he, nowadays? It’s very, very different to that time. In Victorian times, everybody was taking some kind of drugs. Even if you had toothache, you had to do something. So it’s very, very different, to say is Sherlock Holmes a cokehead now.

MG: It’s worth saying, because people obsess about it. There are more references to Sherlock Holmes laughing than taking cocaine or morphine but, oddly enough, people never think about that one. The important thing is not to get it out of context with his character. He takes drugs in the original stories because he’s bored, not because he’s a smackhead or anything.

Ad – content continues below

SM: It’s also the case, it’s one of these bizarre things, it’s only in the very, very early stories, before Sherlock Holmes is a big hit in the Strand magazine that that is referenced. Once he becomes a hit, and he becomes a bit wiser, a bit nicer, and a bit more heroic, it’s quietly disposed of.

Off the top of my head, I don’t know, but there are maybe references to his drug habit in maybe three or four stories. It’s not a major part of the character, and it’s become one.

Is there much difference between writing the Doctor and writing Sherlock Holmes?

SM: I think the Doctor is more human. I think he’s more playful, and more ordinary and more distractable. They are sort of opposite. The Doctor is an alien, a remote outsider, who aspires to be one of us. He likes playing around with us. And Sherlock Holmes aspires to be a Time Lord. I don’t know how they’d get on with each other.

MG: [Cheekily] Series 3.

There are a lot of other crime drama series out there. Without the Victorian setting, how will Sherlock Holmes stand out?

Ad – content continues below

SM: Other detectives have cases. Sherlock Holmes has adventures. That’s the one, I think.

MG: This is not a police procedural. Lestrade’s there, the police are involved, but the only cases that interest him are the strange ones, and it just wouldn’t work if it was kidnap of the week or something.

SM: Also, those two characters. We’ve all grown up with them, so we forget. They’re a brilliant pair of characters. They’re a joy to write, and to watch.

MG: It’s no accident that they’re the most filmed characters in all of fiction.

SM: By a ridiculous amount.

MG: It’s Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Dracula and Tarzan.

Ad – content continues below

SM: The other ones are way, way behind.

MG: That’s because the characters are absolutely immortal.

Mr Moffat, you’ve brought a piece of Victorian literature into the present before with Jekyll. Do you have anything else on your mind to update?

SM: It sounds like it was a great procedure… Jekyll was different, because it was a sequel. And this is just transplanting the characters. Not especially, no… It’s not an agenda.

I think it’s interesting to remember that Sherlock Holmes and Dickens were contemporary. They were a very different experience for the people who first read them, than for us reading, because it was set in the world they saw outside their window. They were not period pieces. They have accidentally become one.

MG: I think it’s entirely down to the story, because the best film version of Emma is Clueless. It’s a fantastic film. Fantastic. And it’s absolutely Emma, but it’s been very, very cleverly rethought.

Ad – content continues below

That’s Jane Austen, where you imagine that it has to be about the trappings, the period. And no, it isn’t. It just has to be thought through that way.

And it’s the same with Dickens. I’m sure there’s a version of Hard Times to be made at the moment. And that’s exciting. It’s about keeping it totally relevant, and not a museum piece, which is the death of anything.

Tune in tomorrow for more Sherlock coverage. The first episode, A Study In Pink, airs on BBC One on Sunday 25th at 9pm.