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 21.

    That was entertaining and only one grammatical mistake. New Holmes: voice good but looks too young. (Was the actor considered for Dr Who?) Some unanswered questions - what poison? how did the killer get it? how could he manage to make identical capsules?
    Your colleague writing in the RT didn't mention the best ever Holmes - Carleton Hobbs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    . At 5:15pm on 23 Jul 2010, lesqualita wrote:
    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 .

    I have been writing to the BEEB, ITV & C4 for years over this same topic. I even suggested TWO Brunnetti possible actors.Ciarán Hinds (Rome & Munich) or Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Lovely Jubbly. Thoroughly enjoyed the first episode and can't wait for more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    15. At 11:24pm on 25 Jul 2010, Dorothy Merriman wrote:
    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.

    I loved the very PC (tongue in cheek) "this is a three patch problem" - instead of the three pipe problem.

    The other was telling Mycroft he was putting on weight, (He was alway portrayed previously as a 'Dollop of a man'

    Finally, the bit about the deodorant being the same for the CSI guy and the DS lady - plus the throw away about her knees........PRICELESS

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Sherlock, a fabulous hour of escapism, could Benedict be the next Dr Who? I think so. Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, great casting. Well done BBC, about time having some watchable programming after all the football earlier. Thank you. Keep it coming.

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    Comment number 26.

    Really enjoyed the new Sherlock.

    On a plot point - am I being thick? (probably) - how did Sherlock know the deceased's mobile number so that he could text the killer? Was this explained and I missed it?

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    Comment number 27.

    BBC1 has come up trumps with Sherlock. Congratulations to Stephen Moffatt, Mark Gatiss, and all those involved with writing, directing, and producing this brilliant new drama. Who needs plot with such witty dialogue, fast-paced action, and superb performances? Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor who impersonates fans' image of Sherlock immaculately. Just right for 21st century audiences and equal to Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone in their day. I do hope this 'wow' factor series will introduce new young readers to Conan Doyle.
    Lots of details to comment on but love the whole way in which the transposition works right from the parallel of Dr Watson returning from Afghanistan as he did in the original - plus sa change ...
    Fantastic. No one should grumble about BBC1 turning out the same old stuff when we have this kind of impact drama to entertain us on Sunday night.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I thought this was great TV, well written, well acted. Loved it roll on next week.

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    Comment number 29.

    Absolutely brilliant. Very well pulled off and so much more than just a rehash.
    So many of these fail to live up to the original but this, rather like the recent Casino Royale, is well thought out and has done well with its modernisation of the key elements of the Sherlock Holmes ethos.
    Good investment by the BBC of licence fee and thanks to the management who OKed the series.
    Well done guys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Absolutely fantastic!!! Not only are the actors all very good but Sherlock Holmes is very sexy! The way the modernisation has been handled is superb. I like the way Holmes and Watson meld together. Lestrade is brilliant too. Mrs Hudson's role is quite a hard one but Una Stubbs plays the role to perfection. I cannot wait until next Sunday and i will certainly be buying this when it comes on DVD.

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    Comment number 31.

    Dear All,
    I'm a bit of a Holmesian on the quite so I was interested when I saw this programme. I must say I did enjoy it, particularly spotting all the references to the original story; Study in Pink, I ask you but all in all I did think this was a good BBC programme and the main casting is very good too, the guy playing Holmes is very believable.
    Well Done BBC
    Rob Morgan

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    Comment number 32.

    Really enjoyed Sherlock! All 3 leads, Holmes, Watson and Lestrade were great choices and gave new life to the main characters, so that despite being slightly sceptical 10 minutes at the beginning of the programme, I was utterly engaged by the story. Great to have some really good drama on TV, which makes a nice change from endless parade of depressing reality shows. Can't wait for next adventure!.

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    Comment number 33.

    Finally, Sherlock Holmes is something to watch that engages the mind and makes you laugh out loud. Thank you - well acted, well written and at a time when I can watch in peace! Well done all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Similar to other comments, I too was concerned about an updated version of S.H. and my fears were confirmed. What a load of fast-paced, juvenile nonsense. To turn A Study in Scarlet into some sub-Dr Who blethers with added texting is a travesty of the genre. Are you sure it shouldn't be shown at 6pm Saturdays. Granted 'A three patch problem' raised a smile, but hardly worth the wait or the money. Glad there's still the radio versions on BBC7 - required listening for all ages.

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    Comment number 35.


    from the word go it hit every right note, brilliant plot writing everything. also love the use of text overlaying the story to describe his thinking and what he sees on the mobile.

    groudbreaking stuff!

    ...can we have more of the same please?

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    Comment number 36.

    This is the first time I've logged onto the BBC's websites - just to show my admiration for the great care and skill that has gone into this drama by everybody concerned. Bravo - I hope there will be many more to come.

    The performances and the settings were excellent and the story was very inventive too. I prefer Wilkie Collin's the Woman in White to Conan Doyle's writings, so the Sherlock phenomenmom has passed me by somewhat.

    From a TV viewer's point of view, last night's show seemed to blend the best qualities of Johnathan Creek and Spooks - though in my opinion the completed whole was much better than both of these series. It was even better than the recent Robert Downey/Jude Law movie, which I also enjoyed very much. And do give a bigger role to Lisa Harrison in future -she is lovely!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Hugely enjoyable and brilliantly cast. Like some who have commented, I was initially sceptical: 'Oh no, not another one!' and 'How on earth are they going to transport Doyle into the twenty first century convincingly?' But they did! Texts for telegrams, black cabs for hansoms, Watson's mobile phone instead of his watch, and nicotine patches for the pipe and 'seven per cent solution.' Well done, beeb!

    Highlights for me were:

    - absolute respect for Doyle's original characterisation - and I loved the mischievous nods and references, such as shots of SH beating corpse with riding crop to see if it will bruise. Not sure that episode has ever been filmed before. Also, the 'three patch problem,' and SH not getting it quite right with Watson's 'brother.'

    - brilliant pairing of the the principle actors. Particularly liked Martin Freeman's Watson. His 'stillness' is a perfect foil for Cumberbatch's non-stop, high-octane freneticism (even when he's standing still), but there isn't a single moment when he comes across as 'second fiddle.'

    Roll on, next week!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Thank you so much for your brilliant program Sherlock. My family and I sat enthralled. We loved everything, the cast,the production,and the script . The best thing for years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Watched last night and enjoyed very much. Loved Watson, great casting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Absolutely brilliant. A last some drama that's not engineered towards the thick-pleb end of the viewing audience.

    More like this...would make the licence fee worth it.


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