Thursday 19 Dec 2013
Steven Moffat is a Bafta award-winning writer whose career in television has spanned more than 20 years and produced some of the best-loved television dramas.
Hot off the success of the newly re-launched Doctor Who, Steven talks with his fellow Bafta winner, co-creator and Arthur Conan Doyle fan, Mark Gatiss, about their idea for a new contemporary update of Sherlock.
"We've been friends for years and were both writing individual episodes of Doctor Who. On our many train journeys from London to Cardiff, we talked about our love for Sherlock Holmes, how brilliantly modern Arthur Conan Doyle's writing was and how someone should do a contemporary version. So we decided to do it before someone else did," says Steven.
"There hasn't been a version of Sherlock on for several years and then all of a sudden you get two versions, the BBC contemporary update and Guy Ritchie's film happening at around the same time.
"We were aware the Guy Ritchie film was coming out last year", says Mark. "It's weird how these things happen, there hasn't been a Sherlock Holmes of any kind for ages and all of a sudden two come at once. We both enjoyed the Guy Ritchie film, but it's a totally different beast, really.'
Mark and Steven appreciate some Sherlock Holmes fans might have reservations about a contemporary update, but they are quick to ease these anxieties.
"Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer of genius and it's worth trumpeting that point," says Mark. "It's not said often enough. His short stories, particularly, are thrilling, funny, lurid, silly, strange, wonderful pieces of exciting adventure which lend themselves incredibly well to a modern setting."
Steven is also passionate about the direction that they did not want Sherlock to take.
"Some of the adaptations treat it as if it's Victorian period piece, making it a bit too reverent. Sherlock Holmes is not like that, it's so fast paced – it must have given the Victorians whip lash! And that's probably why Sherlock Holmes has captured audiences for so long."
With so many adaptations over the years, it's fair to say the duo have seen and been influenced by other versions of Sherlock Holmes.
"Our favourite is the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, says Mark. "It's absolutely wonderful. It plays fast and loose with some of the most revered concepts but, in the end, it is an incredibly nuanced, moving piece of cinema.
"Also, the famous Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films – they seem, to us, to be closest to the real spirit of the Doyle stories. We wanted to capture that spirit and, most importantly, it's made by people who love Sherlock Holmes."
As far as iconic roles go, you don't get more high profile than Sherlock Holmes, so how did the pair go about casting their contemporary Sherlock?
"Benedict came in and read for us and we thought: 'Just look at him,' says Steven. He looked right, sounded right and had huge talent. He's got an extraordinary face, amazing eyes and cheek bones – it all just comes together."
Mark adds: "A modern take on Sherlock requires a modern look and Benedict brings that to the role. He's in this sharp suit and a stylish overcoat, which gives him a great silhouette. He was our first and only choice.
"I think one of the great challenges of playing Sherlock Holmes is that so many actors have played the character, but few have made an impression.
"One of the critical things is to be able to play the cleverness and the deductions without seeming smug. I think Benedict has the right balance of warmth alongside an unapologetic assumption of imperiousness, which is spot on," says Steven.
Benedict stars alongside Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson. Mark explains: "At the heart of the drama is the relationship between these two unlikely friends and the adventures they have, so casting a Dr Watson was equally important.
"Benedict is playing a cold, almost alien-like man in Sherlock and John Watson is the person who humanises him – they are a unit together." says Steven. "We've all grown up with these two characters, they are a joy to write, a joy to watch and a joy to be with. You get that when you find a Holmes and Watson that work so well together."
Steven continues: "Sherlock Holmes is one of kind, whilst other detectives have cases, Holmes has adventures. Sherlock isn't a drama about police procedure - the police are involved but the cases themselves are Sherlock's and he's only interested in the strange ones."
The three 90-minute films will be a mix of material from the original stories and new material, says Mark.
The first episode, A Study In Pink, is partly an homage to Conan Doyle's first story to feature the fictional detective, A Study In Scarlet, written in 1887.
"There are many elements of that story that we've taken bits and pieces of and, hopefully, made an entertaining adaptation."
Character traits are important and Steven confirms that Sherlock does still play the violin. He also assures viewers that Sherlock and John meet in a similar way as they do in the original story, setting the scene for their friendship.
"Dr Watson is invalided home from war in Afghanistan and is looking for affordable accommodation in London when an old mutual friend from Barts Hospital introduces them both.
"London is such a character in the original stories and London is a very exciting city at the moment – there is a real vibrancy, the architecture and design looks great and we were keen to capture some of that," explains Mark.
The character Sherlock Holmes famously used drugs and Steven explains how that subject is tackled in the modern version.
"I think you'd have to ask the question would a man like Sherlock Holmes be a coke addict today? In Victorian times everybody was taking some kind of drug, largely because there was no such thing as a pain killer. It is a very different thing to say that Sherlock Holmes is a coke addict now.'
Mark adds: "Many people point out the drug use in Sherlock Holmes, but there are more references to Sherlock Holmes laughing than there are to taking cocaine or morphine but, oddly enough, people never think about that. I understand why, but the important thing is to not get it out of context with the rest of the character."
Steven agrees: "The original books are funny. If you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, the interaction between the two main characters is always funny and I hope we've captured some element of that. Of course it's funny - he's a weird genius, not an ordinary genius."
As for the villains, how do you find a good enough villain cleverer than Sherlock Holmes who isn't going to get caught in the first 10 minutes, particularly in the modern world of forensics?
Steven is straight to the point, Sherlock Holmes isn't about the villain, it's about the mystery and going on an adventure with Holmes and Watson to solve it.
A successful writing partnership must have a technique: "One word each," Mark jokes. They write each episode on their own but do exchange ideas and help each other out.
"The first line Sherlock utters in my episode was actually a line I nicked from you," Steven gestures to Mark.
The two are clearly passionate about being true to the original Sherlock but Mark also stresses that this is an interpretation: "We love Sherlock and are very confident about what we've managed to do with it. This is a sort of distillation of how we think it can be done and we hope this modernisation really sets it alight again."