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 81.

    I was looking forward to this re-visioning, and was not disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed A Study in Pink. It was a clever and affectionate update of A Study in Scarlett with its own original and appropriate touches. Making Watson an Afghan veteran is also a great choice: just shows how long that particular 'three-pipe problem' has been going on for! I'm very much looking forward to the next instalment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    After having seen the first episode, I am stuck. The characters are great! The music is fantastic and I have to say the series reminds me of the Guy Ritchie movie and I would not have changed a thing about that as I fully enjoy this series! Finally a set of characters from a classic book, turned modern! I would like to say... Keep up the great work.

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    Comment number 83.

    Just watched Sherlock for the third time now. its incredible. exactly what i've always wanted to see

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    Comment number 84.

    Does anybody watch The Mentalist? By chance it was on Five USA just before Sherlock and really the similarities are intriguing - wierdly pretty boy non cop helps police, some of whom are bolshie and consider him a wierdo, and he deduces things others are too dumb to see. Does when get the feeling that someone somewhere was wondering - it is an old habit of British film makers - how to do a British version of something transatlantic?

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Quite simply the best bit of television of recent times. The updating works very well, as does the way it has been produced.

    There is but one small, and for most insignificant, fly in the ointment. Medical technology has advanced further than finding out about cerebral aneurisms. They can be treated.

    Sorry to be a pedant.

    I absolutely loved it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I was initially worried about this modern remake but was pleasently surprised, can't wait till the next episode!!! :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Loved the content and as an avid Sherlock fan, thought the links to the original stories wonderfully adapted. The fantastic Moriaty twist and the nicotine patches - totally addictive :)excuse the pun!

    Thank goodness I chose Sherlock not Coast!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    WOW!!! I wasn't expecting it to be THAT good! I've never commented on any TV programme before but feel compelled to congratulate the BBC for quite brilliant, extremely enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining TV. Please, please don't you dare stop at just 3 episodes - in my humble opinion it has the potential to become a classic drama series to rank with the very best!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    This is brilliant. More, more , more..... Write more episodes...... No, stop what else you are doing and write more. I mean it. More, more, more.... write more episodes. To stop at 3 is inhumane.

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    Comment number 90.

    "The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!" - the minute I heard this phrase in the silky voice of Benedict Cumberbatch in the trailer of this brilliant series, I was wholly convinced he would be perfect as Sherlock. And he was! Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson was also perfection. My favorite up till now was the adaptation with Jeremy Brett, but now I have a new love, or more like a renewed love for this immortal character, Doyle's Holmes. When I heard that Steven Moffat is going to make a modern version of Holmes, I expected a great thing from him as he had brilliantly done the same thing before ("Jekyll" with wonderful James Nesbitt - he and his Hyde alone makes worth watching that). I was not disappointed! Everything - cast, lighting, cinematography, pace, writing - is absolutely brilliant in "Sherlock".

    And I would also like to say something to a previous commenter (no. 84) who said that this "Sherlock" is based on "Mentalist" - American TV series (by the way, quite good series imho): no, actually "Mentalist" is based on Sherlock Holmes in a way, some parallels are there, but not the other way around! Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Holmes which were written in the end of 19th century, much earlier than "Mentalist" was created ;)

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    Comment number 91.

    One word "brilliant"!!!! Please can we have more than just 3 programmes. This the sort of programmes we should be getting more of!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Brilliant series. Enjoyed it thoroughly.
    How did Watson manage to jump over roofs and buildings with his damaged leg.

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    Comment number 93.

    Fantastic! I have just watched Sherlock and I was both surprised and delighted at how well you have adapted it. all I can say is I want MORE.
    WELL DONE....

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    `Holmes, is the epitome of todays TV programmers mindset. Young good looking lad, Present Time. London. I wont be watching!

    Another example was the four episode `Silence'. I won't comment on the programme story but it WAS supposed to be based in Bristol. That, as usual, was in name only because we did hear one Irish, some Scottish and plenty of South Eastern accents but not one Bristolian. Typical!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I have never posted a comment on any web site but I just had to register my thoughts about the new "Sherlock" episode on Sunday night. I have read Holmes stories since I was 12 (quite a few years ago), both the originals and others and have also a few versions on vhs, dvd and audio, as well as having seen a couple of theatre productions. I think some people thought that enthusiasts such as myself may not like this up to date Sherlock but I was hooked within the first 10 minutes. The balance between some of the original story plot,dialogue,character traits, relationship between Sherlock and Watson and relevance to a modern day audience, whilst still somehow keeping an air of old age mystery was incredible (almost like that last sentence). Look forward to more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Utterly brilliant. I too am a huge fan of the Rathbone era of Sherlock Holmes, and if I'm honest, I wasn't expecting to like the new BBC version. I now wish I'd bothered to record it (is that still allowed these days?). I could watch it on the iPlayer, but when you're on 60KB broadband, there's not much joy in that.

    I knew only fifteen minutes in that I was going to enjoy this new Sherlock, and it's been a very long time since any TV drama has had such a positive effect on me. I was struck by the quality of the acting throughout, and it's one of those rare times when you forget that the actors are actually acting.

    I do however seem to be the only person who sees a striking resemblance between the Sherlock character and the British hacker who's been in the news in the past year or so. Anyone else see the likeness too?

    It's good to see such a well produced program such as this come from the BBC, especially after so many cut-backs.

    10/10 to the BBC for this new gem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    As others have written, I've never commented on a TV programme before. Also, like several others, when I heard about this I thought "This will either be horrendous or brilliant". It was brilliant :-)

    Curiously, I'm currently reading my way through the entire Holmes canon in chronological order and have just finished The Final Problem so this seems strangely appropriate because it's all so fresh in my mind at the moment.

    For me, the definite Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson as Conan Doyle imagined them will forever be Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, who, with a brilliant production team and some class actors created the most superb evocation of the period. But ... this is a 21st century take and the way that the old and the new are woven seamlessly together is an absolute joy to behold. The clever references and incorporation of so many original parts of A Study In Scarlet, but tweaked for modern times, was masterful. The performances were superb and the evocation of London was spot on. I loved the display of the street maps, mobiles on screen and the thinking process made visible for us as well as the characters.

    Like Coventry_Viewer I dispensed with my TV back in 2003 because almost everything made these days seems to be 'reality' drivel, a cookery bake off, a home/gardens makeover race or never-ending soaps and an insult to my brain. If the general standard of programming headed back towards acting, plotting, direction and originality of this standard I might even reconsider that licence ...

    So, eagerly looking forward to the others and yes, more than 3 episodes please! Let's have the lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I have just finished watching this and loved every milli-second. In todays economical climate I think this programme is worth every penny!! Well done to all concerned and I really hope there is many more to come xx

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    First off, this is an excellent piece of TV, the Beeb should pat their backs for airing this, and both Gatiss and Moffat should have a pint on everyone - job ruddy well done chaps!!

    Secondly - why, oh why has the Beeb not commissioned a FULL SERIES?! You numpties, a three-parter is no good! Can you not recognise brilliance when you see it? I mean come on, you aired 2 series of the utter tosh that was "Bonekickers", which as an archaeological scientist made me vomit with disgust! In comparison, "Sherlock" is a piece of television mastery, and should be taken up wholeheartedly!

    And finally, the few tiny niggles. Although 99% was pure excellence, there is always room for improvement. Lestrade, although portrayed by a fine actor, should not be portrayed as he is here. He was always an incompetent, blundering fool which is not what we are seeing. Also, Mycroft was barely mentioned in the original stories, and could never have been Moriarty - the two were complete polar opposites! Holmes' brother was for all intents and purposes a bloated government think tank in one man, whereas Moriarty was a dasterdly and spritely effigy of evil.

    That is all for now, but heads should roll if this show does not get a prolonging to its life span...

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Dear Mr Gatiss (the man in black) and Mr Moffat (don't know what colour you're wearing),
    Why not adapt some of the strangely titled referenced stories in the originals, such as "The man with the aluminium crutch" or "The trained cormorant". Doyle must have been having a silly 5 minutes! Great! Also, there was some mention about a murder in Abergavenny that Holmes investigated alone I think.
    Anyway, I'm sure you'll think of something! You've got a lot of source material and so far so brilliant.


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