Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat – Sherlock

Updating Sherlock Holmes to the modern day sounds like a car crash of a gimmicky idea. But then you listen to The League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss and Doctor Who's Steven Moffat talking about it. Even before you see the frankly quite fantastic end result – and with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on board, it is jawdroppingly good – they've swept you up in their sheer bubbling passion for the idea. If anyone was going to be able to turn this into dark, engrossing, exciting telly, it was these two…

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Where did the thought of doing a 21st Century Sherlock Holmes come from then?
Mark Gatiss: Well, Steven and I have known each other for a long time, but we were on trains to and from Cardiff for Doctor Who a few years ago and we fell to talking about Sherlock Holmes and how we'd both always loved the stories. A guilty secret emerged very quickly which was that our favourite versions were always the Basil Rathbone films of the forties, particularly the ones where they brought them up to date and fought the Nazis, things like that. And as heretical as that sounds, it was simply because they seemed to us to get closer to the spirit of the original stories. Because they were so much fun - they were fast and fluid and funny and strange and they sort of got to the heart of the whole thing. We just looked at each other and thought, we should just do this in the present day.

If there was one thing that was an immediate conduit to the idea it was the fact that Watson in the very first story, the original story, is wounded in Afghanistan and sent home. We're in the same sort of situation now. It's a direct channel.

Steven Moffat: And taking the period piece element away allows it to be fun again. Which Sherlock Holmes always was in The Strand magazine. The Sherlock Holmes stories are far funnier than people think. The opening chapter of The Valley of Fear is genuinely hilarious.

That's another function of updating it in a way. If you do it as a reverent period piece a lot of the humour disappears. I've seen this happen - I've seen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories and thought "but that was supposed to be a funny exchange!" It all becomes very. very serious. Period sort of means serious.

Make it modern, though, and these two remarkable opposites, this incredibly dynamic psychopath and his incredibly reasonable best friend become much more interesting again.

How are more traditional fans going to react?
MG: The great thing about Sherlock Holmes – and we can speak as people who grew up with it and love it – is that it's a hugely broad church. He's the most filmed character in all fiction. There'll be another version made by the time we leave this room! That's the wonderful thing about Sherlock Holmes - if you don't like it, really it's fine, because there'll be another version along in a minute.

SM: Is that what we're putting on the poster?

MG: Yes! “Sherlock Holmes: There'll Be Another One Along In A Minute..."

SM: If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, then you know that we are too. We've put insane levels of detail into this. We've even tried to sort out one huge continuity error from the actual stories. In the first story Watson is wounded in the shoulder and in the subsequent stories it's in his leg. So we even take things like that on board. Anyway, I think quite a lot of Sherlock Holmes fans have a sneaking regard for the Basil Rathbone stories.

MG: A few years ago I was privileged enough to address the Sherlock Holmes Society Of London at the House Of Commons...

SM: I was his date!

MG: …And my speech that night was essentially the pitch for this programme and I was thrilled to discover how many people thought it was a great idea. And that's because people who are absolutely dyed in the blood addicts of Holmes know that there are all kinds of versions to enjoy.

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You play with a couple of oft-dragged out preconceptions about Holmes and Watson a bit here, don't you? The homoerotic thing for instance…?

SM: Well, the only thing that we really do with that is have people assume that these two men may be living together in a more absolute way. That's about all we do with it. I think if they were both gay, those guys simply wouldn't be going out together!

And then there's the popular idea that Holmes was a raving drug addict...
SM: It's become very trendy in versions of Sherlock Holmes stories to make a big fuss about him taking drugs, but if you read the stories, it's in the first few and then Conan Doyle wakes up to the fact that kids are reading it and poof, it's gone! It's really hard to imagine the Sherlock Holmes of the middle period tories doing anything so outrageous. Also it meant something else in Victorian London – they didn't have any painkillers at all so they all took drugs!

MG: We do make the suggestion that because he is an addictive personality there may be something in his past, but it's not the same. The mistake people often make is too have him shooting up in the middle of his most exciting cases. Whereas he only ever would have done that stuff when he was bored, to stop his mind from whirring. We don't want to make a big issue out of it because it never was in the stories.

There are three 90 minute episodes in this series. Do you have plans for more?
SM: There are three episodes. Three movies, we like to say - three 90 minuters.
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G: But we would love to carry on…

And are they all standalone stories or is there one plot arcing over the three of them?
SM: We were quite strict on the idea that you could watch each story individually. You get more if you watch all three – please do! – but they do stand alone. There is something carrying on between them, though, the story of Moriarty…

You’d originally made an hour-long pilot. Did you expand that or start again from scratch?
SM: We'd made the 60 minute pilot and then the BBC came back and said: 'We love it, but we want three ninety minute episodes.’ So the one thing that had changed for us was that we didn't have that 60 minute version in the bank. You can't just take a 60 minute pilot and stick in five minutes here or there of shots of a nice lake or something! So we had to start from scratch. I think it was more fun, though, writing three 90 minuters. You've got more size, more scope. The characters are rather big in the Sherlock Holmes stories. You want them, as well as the murder mystery, to have enough space.
(
Ceri Thomas)

Sherlock airs at 9pm, BBC1 on Sunday nights for three weeks from 25th July

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