Sherlock: For Holmes and Watson, the game is afoot

Friday 23 July 2010, 11:50

Mark Gatiss Mark Gatiss

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I still have the first Sherlock Holmes book I ever owned. It had a purple spine (the purple of one of Holmes' dressing gown, I liked to imagine), a Sidney Paget illustration on the front and a wonderful introduction which ended with the magical words, "I wish I were reading these stories for the first time."

I can remember the frisson I felt then. I was reading them for the first time!

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Now, more than 30 years later it's sheer delight to bring a modern-day Sherlock to BBC One. It came about as a result of very pleasant chats with Steven Moffat as both of us travelled to and from Cardiff for various Doctor Who duties.

It seems nicely fitting that it all started on a train. We're both huge fans of the original stories and the absolute copper-bottomed genius of Arthur Conan Doyle's writing.

It didn't take long, though, for us both to shyly admit that our favourite versions of the oft-told tales were the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 1930s and 1940s. Particularly the ones where they brought them up to date.

This may sound like heresy but really it isn't. Although Steven and I are second to none in loving the flaring gas-lit atmosphere of a lovely old London, it felt as though Sherlock Holmes had become all about the trappings and not the characters.

Also, the original stories are models of their kind. Incredibly modern, dialogue-driven, fast paced and short! What better way to get back to the roots of these fantastic creations than to make Holmes and Watson living, breathing, modern men just as they had been originally?

Happily for us, the BBC were immediately excited at the idea of modern Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, peers through a window

Some might think that's a depressing indicator of our major broadcaster falling back on the most familiar of fictional archetypes, but it isn't. Sherlock Holmes may be the most filmed character in all fiction but to reinvent him for a new audience - as well as fans - is not just thrilling and exciting, it's an honour.

From the very outset, what excited us was the very rare chance to go right back to the beginning. To get to the heart of the characters.

In the very first story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson, an army surgeon, is invalided home from war in Afghanistan. Well, sad but true, we're pretty much in the same war now.

A chance meeting with an old friend leads to him sharing rooms with a mysterious man called Sherlock Holmes. For 'sharing rooms', read 'flat-share'! Again, you don't have to strain for the modern parallels. If anything, the idea of two bachelors living together is more common now than in the 19th Century.

And then there's the immortal first meeting between the two men destined to become the best, but least likely of friends. It's still in Bart's Hospital, we still have young Stamford. What's thrilling, though, is that this legendary moment has hardly ever been dramatised.

And so a new audience gets to meet Sherlock Holmes through John Watson's eyes and ask the question: who are you?

After that, it was all fun with perplexing decisions! What are the immutable aspects of the characters and the stories? They'd call themselves Sherlock and John now, of course. Who calls their best friend by their surname?

Dr John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, leans on his walking stick

They still live in Baker Street, but next door to a sandwich shop, and they get a good deal on the rent because Sherlock did Mrs Hudson a favour. And the lady herself! Landlady not housekeeper.

Doyle wrote of Holmes having a "certain quiet primness of dress" so we've made Sherlock a neat, almost conservative dresser. Yet he needs to feel different. Special. So the Byronic Benedict in his big winter coat can't possibly wear a paper forensic suit or it's all too CSI.

And what about that? Doyle virtually invented forensic detection. How can Sherlock exist in a world where the police do all the finger-printing, criminal profiling and analysis that were once his unique attribute?

The answer, in our version anyway, is that Sherlock Holmes is still, and always, the best and wisest man there is. The police may be able to put clues together, but only Sherlock has the vast brain power and imagination that can make the huge leaps of deduction.

As for Watson's stories for The Strand magazine, he now writes up their adventures in a blog. It is online for all to see, including references to the cases we'll never know about!

Addressing the heresy once more, I can only say again that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are immortal. It's been a privilege and a thrill to put our new version of Doyle's blessed and wonderful creations onto the screen. We hope you enjoy. The game is on!

Mark Gatiss is the co-creator of Sherlock and writer of episode three.

Sherlock starts on Sunday, 25 July at 9pm on BBC One and BBC HD. To find out times of all future episodes, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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    Comment number 1.

    I recomment the bbc make a tv series of Donna Leon's inspector Brunnetti crime books, based in Venice. A receipe to go down in history,as a classic series .

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This looks utterly buttery!! I hope rumours of a Sherlock cross-over to Dr Who prove true. Mark and Peter Moffat seem to be re-igniting a new age for good telly. My HD box is primed for Sunday night.

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    Comment number 3.

    When I first heard about a 21st century makeover for Holmes and Watson trepidation loomed large. Said trepidation eased upon hearing Messers Moffat and Gatiss, those grand architects of spine tingling Doctor Who romps were at the helm. The remnants of the trepidation vanished altogether upon seeing the visual material.

    Oh, this is going to be fun and required viewing for the next 3 Sundays. Can we just hand the drama department over to these 2 gentlemen and enjoy the results???

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    Comment number 4.

    There has never been any reason Holmes' adventures could not be updated for the 21st Century and knowing they have been by excellent writers who are also fellow Sherlockians makes this all the more exciting. The trailer looks fantastic and I for one am really looking forward to Sunday night.

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    Comment number 5.

    I'm looking forward to this since I'm a fan of the work of Moffat and Gatiss.

    Though I disagree about Holmes becoming all about the trappings in respect to the Granada productions.

    The setting for me with that version was irrelevant. It took second place the moment you saw the acting. I watched for the brilliant acting of Brett and Hardwicke.

    If you want to see a good Holmes/Watson relationship its all right there.

    That scene of them in The Red Headed League, is a great example.

    The humor, the camaraderie, the great friendship between them, its all there in the Granada production.

    I first found the books when I was 8 and to me, seeing Brett was truly like seeing the man in those books come to life.

    I'll always think of him as my Holmes, but that doesn't mean of course I can't enjoy a new twist on it if done well and given the talent behind this production, I have high hopes this will turn out well.

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    Comment number 6.

    I cannot wait to see this tonight! Gatiss and Moffat have become some of TV's greatest writers in the last few years to I expect nothing more than pure genius. I was thoroughly spooked out by the wonderful Crooked House, finding it hard to go up to bed after watching it! What more could you want from a creepy story? Moffat's writing on Doctor Who provided some of the best episodes ever, and I am looking forward to seeing how he helped with the new Tin Tin movie script.

    About 6 months ago my boss was asked if the BBC could come and view our workplace as a potential set for a new series that was filming starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Said set scouters came and decided that it would be perfect. I can't tell you how excited we all were when we heard it was an update of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately the producers decided to use another building so our hopes were crushed! Hey Ho that's the way life goes sometimes!
    Perfect writing, perfect casting I cannot see how it could go wrong. :D

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    Comment number 7.

    As someone who adored the Jeremy Brett version of Holmes and was convinced it was the definitive portrayal and as someone who loathed The Office and Martin Freeman - I have to admit this update is absolutely superb!

    What a fantastic combination: Sherlock's mind and the use of 21st century technology. Watched in HD this series will be burnt to DVD to be enjoyed over and over again. Only seen the first episode - but already am hoping they do the whole series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    As the last poster commented I am a big Sherlock Holmes fan and I too thought that Jeremy Bretts' Sherlock couldn't be bettered. I still think that, he epitomised everything that was victorian London and the Sherlock of that period...but... I have to say that I thought this first episode was superb.
    Somehow you managed to update the stories yet still kept a sense of the original Conan Doyle spirit. Bloody well done and I look forward to the rest of the series. Thankyou for giving Sherlock fans a fresh chance to admire the eccentricity and genius of the worlds greatest detective!

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    Comment number 9.

    One of the best BBC series in a long time. Worth paying the licence fee for such brilliant drama. BBC however you move this series on please don't take it off the airwaves this is a fantastic series, we've laughed, we've had a go at deducing the case but all in all we as a family have all loved the writing, the acting, the drama and the whole experience of this new take on Sherlock Holmes. Well done!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Just finished watching 'Sherlock' Wonderful acting, lighting script, concept. Totally gripping. Well done ALL

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Loved the first programme and the rapport between to two main protagonists.

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    Comment number 12.

    Worth my licence fee in itself. Magical.

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    Comment number 13.

    Pure genius, absolutely loved this. Brilliant casting can't wait for next episode. Thanks BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I was really concerned about this programme, and firmly convinced I would hate it, and have been totally proved wrong. Great cast, great screenplay, just an all round joy. Thank you, I look forward to the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Excellent, exciting, intriguing, satisfying - the friendship between Holmes and Watson (Sherlock and John) explained, understandable and real. I loved the spiral staircase and roof jumping scenes, and Sherlock telling John that most people tell him to "p*** off". Looking forward to next week's episode.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I have to admit I was worried about this show, but I take it all back. This was a wonderful, gripping and thrilling TV program, and I am very very excited for next week! Just brilliant!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Just finished watching it on BBCi player. Fantastic show, loved it. AND love all the trappings - Sherlock's website, Watson's Blog etc. Great idea, great concept. by the way - you could've made the secret message a bit more difficult - come on we're sherlock holmes fans we need a challenge!!!

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    Comment number 18.

    I watched Sherlock last night and was utterly transfixed. The charaterisations were fantastic, truely believable and weird at the same time. Both charaters were individually intriging, they outshone the rest of the cast...a great introduction to what could be a fabulous Sunday evenings entertainment, well done BBC!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    New, shiny, bright Sherlock on the BBC and old, dull Taggart on ITV-no contest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Brilliant! I loved it, about time BBC... can't wait for next week! Just Brilliant


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