Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Dr John Watson – early-thirties. He's been through hard times and seen bad things. An army doctor just invalided home from military service in Afghanistan, he's a lost soul, adrift in London, until a mutual friend introduces him to a strange young man called Sherlock.
Martin Freeman plays Dr John Watson in the new BBC drama Sherlock. The drama sees Arthur Conan Doyle's famous novels brought into a contemporary setting and Martin admits that, initially, he was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of an updated portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
"When I heard they were updating Sherlock, I thought it might be a bit anachronistic for its own sake."
Despite his initial fears, Martin found the scripts "gripping and fantastically written", which quickly dispelled any concerns.
"I was sent the script and by about the end of the fourth page I just thought: 'This is genuinely brilliant'. It was probably the best script I'd read for ages, it's fantastically well written, regardless of when it's set."
Martin didn't read the Sherlock Holmes books growing up, but he did enjoy watching the likes of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett in film and television adaptations.
On landing the role of Watson, he was keen to familiarise himself with Conan Doyle's original stories.
"I have acclimatised myself to the original books now, I really enjoyed getting to know them, also listening to the audio books."
Although Dr John Watson has often been represented as Holmes' sometimes "bumbling" sidekick, Martin describes a very different character to the one viewer's might be used to.
"In this version, Sherlock and Dr John Watson are both evenly weighed. John is not just a side-kick, he has a really good role to play. Every actor wants to play someone three dimensional and this is as close as you get.
"Part of what attracted me to this version of Sherlock is, as in the original Conan Doyle stories, Watson is the story-teller. You're experiencing these adventures through Watson's eyes and through Watson's words. My character writes up all the cases in his blog, just as Watson wrote the cases that formed the original books.
"I saw no reason to see him as anything other than very able. He's a military doctor, just returned from Afghanistan – he's somebody who can handle himself and makes life or death decisions on a daily basis."
In terms of the dynamic between Watson and Holmes, Martin says: "Sherlock likes the game of it, whereas John is, at first, horrified by how Sherlock treats a dead body as a game. Sherlock wants to be the cleverest person in the world – he's got a real ego.
"Sherlock is 'un-socialised' and I think John likes that about him, but it also infuriates him. I think he's flattered to be the person who Sherlock wants to hang around with, though."
Martin describes Watson as "Sherlock's eyes on the world, but also the world's eyes on Sherlock, everything is filtered through John."
Sherlock Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor Martin hadn't previously worked with, but one he admired nonetheless.
"I'd never met Benedict, but I'd liked his work as a viewer. Benedict looks like you'd imagine Sherlock Holmes should be and he can really act. It was really nice to watch a really good actor in the driving seat. We found working together quite easy – we seemed to gel and we kind of understand where one another is coming from. Chemistry-wise, it felt good."
Sherlock co-creators and writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are huge fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, a fact that Martin believes will bode well with fans of the original books.
"We have two genuinely fantastic writers at the helm. They also happen to be big, big 'Doyle-heads'. Clearly they love Conan Doyle, so they want to facilitate it, it's not like they are going to kick out stuff to make it a bit more hip, more Skins or In-Betweeners.
"They are very respectful of Conan Doyle work, without it being dry. Steven and Mark are very good at incorporating plot and character; one isn't sacrificed for the other."
One aspect of BBC's Sherlock that Martin particularly liked was the "intelligently-written action". Ironically, Martin was injured, not during the filming of an action scene, but coming out of his trailer.
"I was injured on day three. I slipped on the ice coming out of my trailer with a bowl of porridge and I went down like a ton of bricks and did my wrist in. I had to go to hospital and we lost a big mission of a scene, a massive scene. We'd already lost the second day because of a snowstorm and then this third day was basically kaput – Ben had to go and pretend that he was acting with me."
Some may question the idea of bringing Sherlock Holmes into the present day but Martin is confident the contemporary version makes total sense.
"I think it really stands up. Steven's rationale was that we update Ian Fleming with Bond all the time – we're not seeing Daniel Craig in the Fifties. Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are certainly rich enough to do that with."
And, in terms of who he thinks will most enjoy Sherlock, Martin says: "Well, its written by huge Conan Doyle fans who really love this stuff as well as being very enjoyable so there should be a few boxes ticked for the Doyle-nuts, too!"
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