Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss on Sherlock series 3, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, fandom & secrets

Here's the second of our Sherlock series 3 interviews, with co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss...

Read our Sherlock series 3 interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, here.

Perhaps fittingly for the man who reigns over two of the BBC’s most successful dramas – Doctor Who and Sherlock – a chair shortage meant that Steven Moffat started this round-table interview resplendent on an ornate, Gothic, regal-looking seat. Hesitating over its practicality, Moffat was urged Lady Macbeth-like by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss to “Take the throne!”. Wish granted, down Moffat sat momentarily before going off to fetch a less obtrusive seat with the words, “Actually, do you know what? It’s bloody uncomfortable.”

Ignoring any  eager-to-be-drawn metaphors about power, the round of musical chairs provided some Game of Thrones-related banter with which to kick things off…

This is Game Of Thrones now isn’t it?

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Mark Gatiss: I’ve never seen Game Of Thrones. [This interview took place three months before it was announced that Gatiss had been cast in the fourth season of the HBO series].

At all? You’d love it.

MG: I’ve only just discovered The Waltons. It takes me a long time.

And yet you watch America’s Next Top Model? [laughter]

MG: Yes! Obviously, I have my priorities right.

What can you say beyond ‘No comment’ about Sherlock’s third series?

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MG: That’s it. We can’t say anything [laughter] Episode two is called The Sign of Three. There you are. That’s all we can say.

Does that have any implications for the possibility that John might meet his potential future wife, given the Mary Morstan connection with The Sign of Four?

MG: Well, as you know, Amanda Abbington, who’s Martin’s partner is playing a part in the new show, a character of significance to both of them.

Are you able to say how many episodes Amanda’s in?

SM: That’s certainly something you should look forward to finding out [laughter].

Will we be set any more homework at the end of this series?

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SM: What homework were you set last time?

How did Sherlock survive the fall?

SM: That’s voluntary!

MG: And it’s good. That’s not homework is it.

It was meant affectionately!

SM: Homework’s much more terrifying. You have to do sums and physics and chemistry and things.

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But will there be a mystery? Something for us to ponder?

SM: Well, we wouldn’t give that away in advance would we? You’ll have to wait and see. We’re not going to do everything the same.

When you sat down to think about this new block of three, what was your thinking, what was your problem?

MG: The problem, the final problem, well first of all obviously it’s the resolution without the resolution becoming all that it’s about. We can’t spend ninety minutes explaining how he did it. Also it’s yesterday’s breakfast. Everybody’s very excited about it but I guarantee people will forget about it as soon as it’s done because it’s about the story.

The thing that succeeded massively for us, as originally intended, is restoring the friendship between John and Sherlock so that it’s about the impact this has had on John Watson that I think everybody’s really looking forward to seeing, so it’s the emotional part of the story which is the thing and then, similarly, with the other two stories, it’s about how the world changed around him since he’s been away.

Why do you think that relationship has worked so well, you’ve really bulked it up from the books, haven’t you?

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SM: I think it’s actually very, very faithful to the books. It’s just that oddity of a very close male friendship, which of course is very hard to write about because men don’t talk about relationships ever, and certainly two blokes who are friends with each other will not sit down and talk about their relationship.

MG: [deliberately getting Moffat’s name wrong] I agree with Simon [laughter].

SM: I think we’re faithful to it in that the story of that friendship is conveyed only in the adventures they have. If you look at the original stories, you were far more interested in Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes than you ever are in anything they may encounter. The best bits in all the stories are always the openings when they’re in Baker Street together discussing some nonsense, so people have been in love with that friendship for a very, very long while and in typical storytelling mastery, Doyle only addresses it once. For a second Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs thinks that Dr Watson has been shot, just for a moment, well he has been shot, and just for a moment when it comes to Watson, the mask falls and it’s a huge emotional thing but it’s once.

MG: And it’s almost the last story.

SM: It’s almost the last story. But you never doubt for a second as you read those original stories that these are two best friends in the world, they like nothing better than to sit and chat. They never say anything nice to each other, they never do anything fun together except go and find a corpse [laughter] but nonetheless what you are reading is the fondest friendship in fiction and a sort of exaggerated, daft portrait of what a male friendship of many years looks like and behaves like. It is undiscussed.

MG: And because of our casting, it’s clicked. We said when Benedict and Martin first read together, ‘There’s the show’, and that’s what people look forward to.

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SM: People are always compelled, aren’t we, by friendships between people you’d never put together. They don’t even look similar. If you’d known Dr Watson, and you’d known Sherlock you wouldn’t say to them, ‘You should share a flat’.

MG: Unless you’re Mike Stamford [the Conan Doyle character who made the initial introduction between Sherlock and Watson].

SM: Unless you’re Mike Stamford, who was just in his lonely way trying to make friends with somebody and gets ignored for the subsequent fifty-nine stories. So it’s about the friendship.

We’re missing Moriarty, presumably.

SM: He’s dead. He blew his head off.

So will series three give us any villains to match him or to match Andrew Scott’s performance, which was superb?

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SM: Yes, we will present you with villainy.

MG: [laughter] This is like it would be to be politicians.

SM: [Adopting a politician-style voice] There are many villains…

MG: ‘I cannot foresee the circumstances…’

SM: There are many villains in Sherlock Holmes and also obviously we want to create brand new ones.

MG: The important thing to stress is that the point of Moriarty is that he was the badass, the baddest, he’s the anti-Sherlock Holmes. You don’t want to provide a lukewarm version of either Andrew or the character so as with the stories, it’s about trying to go in different directions. He was his nemesis for a reason.

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Are we looking at a loose story arc across the series in the same way that Moriarty provided in the first two series?

SM: There is a sort of arc, and it’s always a sort of arc. Always really, it’s about… I mean, I don’t think Moriarty was so much an arc as a threat you knew had not yet been resolved. The arc is always the same, oddly enough for a detective show – or more accurately, a show about a detective. It’s just about that relationship. How that changes and who those people are, that’s what you’re in love with, is the two men and their friendship and the adventures they go on are interesting because it happens to them. So that is always it, but you know, there will be threads, there will be things for you to follow. They’ll never be massive though, because we can’t treat them like films. You should be able to watch them independently of anything else. They’re bachelors who solve crimes.

MG: That’s a very good point though. I think it is a show about a detective, not a detective show. It’s something I’m tired of saying but the amount of effort we put in to solving the stories and then people just blithely go…

SM: Sometimes that’s a relief [laughter]

MG: Yes!

MG: Doyle set the challenge.

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How do you make your selection when you have however many stories to choose from? Do you each have a list on the fridge that you’re crossing off?

SM: We have a list in our brains, we don’t need to look at a fridge.

MG: We look at our mind fridge! [laughter]

SM: Our mind fridge!

MG: We have a lot of favourite stories, it’s just what works, you know.

SM: Once you get past the long ones, or the long one, which is The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is the only one that’s a full length adventure without some sort of flashback, once you get past that you’re pulling out ingredients. I think that’s a great villain, that’s a great moment, that’s a great scene, and sticking them together. Like the Rathbone/Bruce films did, they were very eclectic. The vast majority of the stories on which Sherlock Holmes’ fame rests would take about twenty minutes of screen time, so that’s not going to work for us, and it’s not going to work for any television show, but I think you should treat it the way Doyle would definitely treat it, which is to say ‘well, I’ll grab that, oh, that’s cool, I’ll have this’.

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You mention Rathbone, Benedict just told us that he wouldn’t be averse to performing a song and dance number, as in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. Is that something you could envisage writing for him?

MG: Oh I love that! The I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. It’s a very rare chance because Rathbone really is unrecognisable. I remember when I saw that as a kid I just didn’t get it until he pulls his false nose off. Again we’ve always said rather than adopting that kind of heavy disguise, there’s a line in episode three where he says that that the art of disguise is knowing how to hide in plain sight, which seemed to us a very modern way of doing it, he can disappear in a room rather than appearing like that [pulls theatrical face] so we tried to plough that furrow more and have fun with it but, a song and dance number? We’ve never really thought about it.

SM: It’s be the person people don’t look at is the modern version of the Sherlock Holmes disguise, because usually, when any other Sherlock does it, with the honourable exception of that particular scene, usually Sherlock Holmes turns up in disguise and you can spot him immediately, he’s the most attention-getting person in the room. 

Does that make it easier for him to become someone else when he wants to be?

MG: That was our mission statement, wasn’t it? This is how he does it, and for all the potential fun of putting on putty noses and ginger wigs and funny teeth, it’s actually quite spooky, the idea that you would say ‘you know, he was here all the time, but the third diplomat from the left, the one who didn’t make eye contact, that was Sherlock Holmes’ it’s kind of sexy.

SM: You’ll see an example of it this series when he disguises himself by being the person someone doesn’t look at.

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You mention spookiness, Mark. Can we expect a horror theme to your episode once again?

MG: The Hounds of Baskerville is a very particular thing, it’s the closest that Sherlock gets to full-on horror, there are a couple of other stories which flirt with it, but it’s a proper blood and thunder thing. The Empty Hearse is a terribly different sort of story, to be honest, if it shares anything with the style of Doyle’s original, it’s that it’s mostly about Holmes and Watson coming back together.

SM: As it must be.

MG: Yes, that’s as it must be.

You had to put off filming, I believe, because of availability. Do you see that becoming increasingly difficult to get Benedict and Martin on set?

MG: It’s difficult because, obviously, we’ve accidentally but not at all cast the two hottest actors in the world at the moment, and they’re both hugely committed to the show and desperately want to do more, so given we only do three every now and then, it’s easier to block out time than to say ‘oh, you know, that’s just not going to work for me’. To be honest, everyone’s very busy, so we all love it and want to keep doing it, and by accident we have shown people that we’re not going to do it all the time, and therefore, people have been prepared to wait. It will be worth it.

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Can I ask you about Elementary, have you seen that?

SM: I haven’t seen it.

You’ve deliberately avoided it?

SM: Well, it would be a daft thing for us to watch.


SM: Just why? Why would we? I don’t have to answer that question. [laughter]

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Some people expressed reservations before it began about the modern-day setting, but actually, that’s turned into one of the fortes of the series, hasn’t it?

MG: We never get asked about it. It was the only thing people asked about before they’d watched the first episode, and now of course people don’t, because it clearly works.

SM: Yours is the first question about it.

Why do you think it works so well for these characters? Did they just naturally fit into a modern setting?

SM: They did naturally fit because it was always wrong to think they were a function of Victorian times, they just happened to be there. People are fond of saying that Basil Rathbone was the first updated Sherlock Holmes, in fact, he was the first period Sherlock Holmes. The first two films he made were the first ones deliberately set in period. Up until that point, it was just like James Bond films, they just set them whenever you were making it, and at a certain point, they decided to do Sherlock Holmes in period, which is fun, love period, got no problem with doing it, I love Victoriana, but there’s nothing intrinsically Sherlock Holmes that is about the era in which it was set. You’d never think about it with the James Bond movies, you just walk right past the fact that he’s a 1950s spy in the heart of the Cold War and he’s still doing his stuff in 2013.

MG: If you actually go through the films, because Doyle wrote the last Holmes stories in the 20s, because the last one I think was actually published in 1930, the very last one, and the films that were made immediately, because he’s the most successful character in fiction, are all modern. People in the 20s were still wearing wing collars and things, but they’re about an existing time and then the next ones really after that are the Rathbones and they make a conscious decision for the first two only to set them in the 1880s and then they just go, let’s bring them up to date, so it just works.

SM: I think another thing to say about it is that by doing this this is what we said was true before when we pitched it, and to our astonishment, turned out to actually be true, is that by putting it in the modern day all you do is remove the separation from the audience. The original readers of The Strand magazine were reading about a contemporary man that in their wildest dreams they could go and visit and meet and ‘offer to be housekeeper for’, which lots of women did at the time  – it always surprised me when I read that, ‘I want to be his housekeeper’, I never realised what they were really offering!

MG: They were writing letters from the beginning to Baker Street because it was a real world to them.

SM: Because it was a real world and because it was contemporary. By putting him back in the modern day, all you’ve done, the only thing you’ve done, is take the fog away, as you [to Mark Gatiss] keep saying.

MG: Yes.

SM: Everything else we’ve done, although we’ve changed the details of the time, is actually terribly faithful to the original.

MG: What’s thrilling is that most people who now go back and read Doyle get excited because they think ‘I know that bit’ or ‘that’s clever’ or ‘that’s an inversion of that’, but it’s so brilliant to think people have been pointed back to the brilliant source.

SM: Which will always be definitive. And when you ask them, ‘do you find it different?’ they don’t really, any more than if you read a Fleming book now, it feels different, but it feels fundamentally the same thing as you’re watching.

MG: The odd trapping, the odd word that you don’t understand, but mostly, that’s what brilliant about Doyle – the dialogue is so great, so snappy and so funny, it’s really like [clicks fingers]. To dramatise them properly, you’d have to do them in a quarter of an hour, it’s so fast.

The feverish fandom really has always been with it then?

MG: Yes.

SM: Oh yeah. But if you look at the early – at one point I think you and I [to Mark Gatiss] were paying ourselves the compliment that we’d got women to be interested in Sherlock Holmes and we’d made it more emotional, and then we remembered that was bollocks, that’s exactly like that at the beginning. People were emotional about Sherlock Holmes and upset when he died, and women certainly liked him, and wanted to ‘housekeep’ for him. I wonder if that’s what Benedict gets… [laughter] ‘Can I be your housekeeper?’

MG: It’s a very interesting thing, isn’t it, about the illustration which famously the commission to do the illustrations was sent to the wrong brother, to Sidney Paget instead of his brother Walter and Sidney then based Sherlock Holmes on his brother Walter so if you see a photograph of Walter Paget, it’s like a real photograph of Sherlock Holmes. He was a very, very handsome man. Doyle always said he was portrayed much more aquiline and good-looking than he ever intended him to be.

SM: Something the lady readers might have appreciated…

MG: A different world.

How do you keep your secrets, it’s so difficult. It’s very important to keep what’s going to happen secret for your viewers, but how do you do it in the world of Twitter and so on?

SM: We don’t talk about them [laughter].

MG: It still works!

On Mad Men, Matthew Weiner has these huge confidentiality clauses, he locks the sets and stuff like that.

MG: A lot of it’s good will isn’t it?

SM: Good will. I’ve discovered on the other show, sometimes you just ask people, ‘Please don’t give this away’, and that does work if you just assume a certain amount of maturity in people who are reporting on it and looking at it, then you can get secrets onto the screen. I think it will get harder and harder with Sherlock, because the second series, to our surprise, was bigger than the first, and the first one was very big.

MG: I think also you’ve got to keep in perspective that we’re filming today in our Baker Street, there’ll be certain things that possibly might be spoilt. The vast majority of our enormous audience will not look at that and when it pops up on screen, they’ll go ‘Oh, I love this’ and that’s all that matters. If certain details are spoiled because of people who think about nothing but Sherlock, you can’t do anything about that. They’ll find out somehow, but you can’t think ‘Oh, that’s ruined now’, because ten thousand people know that secret. It only matters if the big audience knows.

SM: I remember a world in which I didn’t know what Tom Baker would be wearing as the Doctor until his first episode.

MG: I miss those days. Because I think things are massively over-reported. Inevitably in the digital age, it’s not even like ‘Oh, that headline didn’t make the paper, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow’, it’s updated on a minute-by-minute basis.

SM: And absolutely everybody carries a camera.

MG: Which means that the stories are updated and they need more stuff to feed them, so really as we know, things are made out of nothing. A casual comment becomes a huge bust-up or a headline or something like that. What’s annoying is that everybody really knows that if you just sat down with a surprise, that’s the best thing. When it still happens, it’s fantastic.

SM: When you can pull off a surprise, it’s fantastic.

Is there anything since filming started on this series that you’ve been forced to reveal that you would not otherwise have done? Would Amanda Abbington’s casting have been out there for instance?

MG: We were prepared, because as soon as we knew we were going to film outside, we knew it would get out, so we just prepared it in advance, so that’s the most sensible way of doing it really, to sort of manage the story rather than being led by it.

Do you take that into account when you’re writing? If you have a really important scene with things that could be spoiled, do you make sure that’s a scene you shoot in the studio instead of outside?

SM: You can’t. In the end, you’d be cramping your narrative to keep a secret. You just can’t. You just have to go for it and hope. Sometimes, you look at the schedule and realise, ‘they’re not going to know about that’, all of that person’s scenes are in a studio. I knew we had a fighting chance of keeping Jenna [Coleman] secret in The Asylum of the Daleks because she’s all inside.

You can’t make a worse show, but a more secret one. [laughter].

Assuming we’re looking at a Christmas air date, there’s nothing that references Christmas in the first episode?

MG: There was last year and it was great. We leaked some photographs of Baker Street at Christmas and everyone then assumed it was The Blue Carbuncle.

SM: Because we only turn up three times every so often, if we wanted to cover Christmas again, we would just do it out of season.

It may be hard for you to answer, but why do you think it’s caught fire this series?

MG: It’s great! [laughter]

But if you could be a bit objective about it?

SM: If you get Sherlock Holmes right, it will succeed. It’s the biggest hit in fiction and that’s not an exaggeration. I’m not even sure what the second biggest hit is.

MG: [In a Transylvanian accent] Dracula.

SM: Dracula’s way behind Sherlock Holmes, way behind.

MG: He’s the most filmed character.

SM: It’s also because we had a bit of miraculous casting, two pieces, we had Martin in his next signature role after The Office, and The Office is one of the all-time television greats and his performance was that as well, and he had another signature role and we didn’t find Benedict Cumberbatch, he was already a massively successful actor, but he wasn’t a star. And when you can just make him a star, and say, there is the Sherlock Holmes for now, and he’s brand new and you’ve never seen him before.

MG: I think having Andrew [Scott] as well, and Lara [Pulver] as well, it is a wonderful thing that, because you think there are certain rules about television that you think have now become immutable that just get broken. You can make a star and people love that, it’s not just the same old face, it’s a new face.

SM: I do get a tremendous sort of pride when you say Andrew Scott’s his first credit will always be Sherlock [Ed – not strictly true, but you see his point]. Lara has been in exactly one episode, it’s still her first credit mentioned [Ed- well, almost] and that’s very, very exciting.

MG: Luckily, we’ve hit something, we’ve chimed with something and it’s actually felt like the right time for a modern Sherlock Holmes, despite people’s initial reservations about it being heretical, it clearly has proved that it works and people are very very fond of it which is a wonderful thing. If you could box it, we’d do it for everything.

SM: I’ve never sat through anything like this, or been involved in anything. I can’t even recall the last thing I’ve seen where it went from nowhere to a hit on its first episode, it’s bizarre. One day, it was just a show we’d barely finished making and was just our private obsession and no-one gave a stuff about it, and the next day Benedict was a star, and I’ve never seen that before, and I don’t expect ever to be involved in that series of events again, when it went from nowhere to the same size as Doctor Who.

Are you ever nostalgic for those days?

SM: Before it was famous?

Before anyone gave a stuff about it.

SM: I’m not. I can’t even remember them. It was seriously so short a time. They brought forward the broadcast dates. Sue [Vertue, Executive Producer] was protesting us barely having time to finish the episodes to air them, so it felt like we stumbled off the set and out of the wrap party into the press launch and then suddenly all these reviews are coming in and it was like rising without a trace. You had none of the normal heroic conquering of the world, it was an instant hit and you think you can’t really remember now when it wasn’t. So there’s nothing to be nostalgic for.

MG: And then it instantly wasn’t as good as the previous one. [laughter]

SM: I think it jumped the shark when he got into the taxi about an hour in to the first episode, it was instantly, not as good as it used to be, which is the condition of true fandom.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, thank you very much!

Come back tomorrow for our Sherlock series 3 interview with Martin Freeman.

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