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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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Bravo Steven, Mark and the BBC crew. As a long time fan of the stories and characters I so wanted to hate this. But I was gripped from the start, well at least from the scene setting for anyone unfamiliar with the classic stories. To bring forward probably the dozen core features of the originals and the cleverly weave them into modern society was genius. To get Mycroft (a little too thin for my liking Mark)and even a mention of Moriarty so early on wets my appetite. Can't wait for the next two and whatever the future holds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I was really looking forward to seeing this programme and was most definitely not disappointed. It was brilliantly written and cast; I cannot wait until next Sunday and wish more than three of them were being produced.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    We decided to watch the new Sherlock Holmes instead of Taggart and were VERY disappointed. What a load of twaddle it was !

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Absolute brilliance..Well done BBC. Back to doing what your good at..making on the edge of your seat drama..Excellent choice of writers and cast..Looking forward to next Sunday :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I have never felt compelled to comment on a BBC programe! However my son and I watched the first episode of Sherlock last night and loved evey minuit of it. It was witty, intellegent, clever, gripping, well written entertainment. I hope the BBC will be making more of this show as these sort of programes are few and far between, in a day and age of trashy soaps and so called talent shows this was a breath of fresh air.
    For even my 23 year old Army medic son (home on leave) to be waxing lyrical over a TV show is very rare. We are loving it please please please make more. We are eagerly awaiting the remaining episodes and are just sorry there are so few of them.
    I am a huge fan of the Basil Rathbone films and have always considered him the consumate Holmes but the casting was inspired and they pulled off this modern interpretation with utter brillance.

    Thank you for a show I can at last watch and feel part of.

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    Comment number 46.

    Well done Aunti Bi, with Sherlock you've reminded me why I should pay my tv licence! Where do I start?...well it has to be with the two main characters. As last seen as the dirty rogue in the film blockbuster "Atonement", I just knew Bennedict was going to nail Sherlock but it could not have happened without Dr Watson, played to a T by Martin Freeman, who could so easily have reminded me of the great "Office" but instead put in a beautifully restrained but knowing performance as DR T. What a Team! Cant wait for the next one. Also very excited to see who will play Moriaty!! Is it true there are only three shows?...Tell me it aint so..... loving it:-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Watched Sherlock last night, and I was gripped, it was brilliant both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed it, ever second, I am a huge Sherlock fan, I thought both Watson and Holmes were played superbly!!!!
    The writing was excellent, and the story line, considering it was the first, it was all good,
    all I can say is roll on next sunday and give me MORE MORE MORE>..............

    A very happy viewer and completely in love with Sherlock but do not tell my hubbie..
    Amanda Luckhurst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I don't often comment on tv programmes but "Sherlock" was great viewing this could turn into a cult as good or better than "Dr Who". I hope with all the cutbacks going on the BBC have the foresight to see they have a gem on their hands.

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    Comment number 49.

    I must congratulate all who were involved in this programme, what a change to sit and watch a quality show, fantastic writing, excellent cast (both Holmes and Watson - amazing!!) Both myself and my husband were enthralled throughout, some very hilarious moments as well. Can not wait till the next episode - hope more are planned. Well done everyone

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    wow what can i say after all these great comments (apart from one)

    i have to agree with everything that has already been said well done the writers and all the actors and hard working crew that put this great programme together i see that there are to be only 3 i have a feeling that if this had been a show in the states it would have been picked up for a 13 week first season and then maybe more come on BBC if you read these then take the money away from the likes of Easterners and put it into this and make more of them please please please

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I settled down to watch the show last night not knowing you'd been involved, but being a bit of a fan, was very pleased to see you not only in the show, but having co-written it. Me and my other half were gripped from the 1st minute and were thrilled to bits with the whole programme. I just wanted to say 'congratulations' and that I really hope that these 3 episodes do well and that you'll be asked to produce more!

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    Comment number 52.

    I loved it. i thought it was clever and witty. i can't wait for the next episode.

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    Comment number 53.

    Simply magnificent. thank heaven for the BBC

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    Comment number 54.

    Loved this first episode of Sherlock. Thought the casting in particular was great - photography and music too. Looking forward to next Sunday for next episode. My only problem was at the end when Sherlock asks the dying taxi driver, "did I pick the right one?". I just don't think this is true to character, he would have taken the pill back to his lab and analysed it, I don't think the taxi driver would have got the better of him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    At last the drama we've been waiting for!Most tv at the moment is absolute drivel.Excellence is the exception, where it used to be the norm on BBC.
    Stunning performances from both main characters and virtuoso fulminations from Sherlock.
    I have to agree with DJSakura.Jeremy Brett was a Maestro without compare.In fact the last two Dr Who's recent incarnations? owe much to his genius.This doesn't matter. In fact it's the distillation from them all that makes this offering such a delight!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    That was GREAT fun ... but only three episodes, how can you give us such a treat and then take it away so soon? Please give us more ... lots more! This is when I realy feel that I'm getting value (along with Dr Who) for my licence. Thank's again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Totally epic and engrossing - the only curveball was Mark as Mycroft. I had him pegged as Moriarty but, on reflection, it would've been jumping the gun. I'm puzzled about Anthea - is she Mycroft's PA or enforcer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Just wanted to let you know even across the sea there are Sherlock fan's.
    I'm one of them.
    And I'd just wanted to let you know I just absolutely loved the first eps.
    I'll try my hardest to see the other ones too.
    And if this comes out on DVD i will buy it for sure!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Sat down to watch Sherlock last night and absolutely loved it. Looking forward to the next episode and hopefully more will be commissioned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    i just want to say last nights programe was brilliant.


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