Watch­ing the de­tec­tive

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch and Martin Free­man tell Benji Wil­son why their team is a win­ner

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN the mid­dle of last year, film­ing on Peter Jack­son’s long-awaited adap­ta­tion of The Hob­bit was brought to a halt so its star, Martin Free­man, could fly back from New Zealand to do a Bri­tish tele­vi­sion se­ries. The en­tire bud­get for that show, Sher­lock, might just about cover The Hob­bit’s trailer. In the screen trade, where the only thing that pulls rank on money is more money, Go­liath mak­ing way for David is prac­ti­cally un­heard of.

When I met Mark Gatiss, one of Sher­lock’s cre­ators (and ac­tors; he plays My­croft Holmes), on set at Bat­tersea power sta­tion, he could barely con­tain him­self. ‘‘ The Hob­bit is work­ing round us. That’s . . . cool.’’

As it hap­pens, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, who plays Sher­lock, will also ap­pear in The Hob­bit, as Smaug the dragon. ‘‘ Peter [Jack­son] com­pletely un­der­stands Sher­lock and loves it,’’ he says. ‘‘ Spiel­berg loves it. Danny Boyle loves it. I found out David Bowie likes it to­day. He’s ob­sessed with it. That’s f. . king cool.’’ Ev­ery­one agrees: Sher­lock has ku­dos. Ku­dos enough to go tell a half-a-bil­lion­dol­lar movie to take five so it could bor­row its star. Sher­lock has Baf­tas and bou­quets aplenty; it has been sold around the world.

Yet its im­pact is way out of pro­por­tion with its ac­tual foot­print — a mere three episodes, broad­cast a year and a half ago. It should have suf­fered from au­di­ence­un­friendly for­mat­ting (three fea­ture-length slots, as op­posed to a bite-size six-part se­ries) and au­di­ence-un­friendly sched­ul­ing. It was, in Bri­tain, shown in the sum­mer, tra­di­tion­ally a death sen­tence ad­min­is­tered by sadis­tic sched­ulers. Yet Sher­lock turned out to be the most dis­tinc­tive, and prob­a­bly the best, all-bri­tish drama of 2010.

So solve this one: how did a re­boot of an al­ready much re­booted old sleuther be­come the flag-bearer for Bri­tish TV? Gatiss likes to quote a mo­ment in Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s Holmes story The Yel­low Face: ‘‘ Noth­ing’s hap­pen­ing in the case, and Holmes is mop­ing. Wat­son even­tu­ally per­suades him to come out of the house for a walk. And he writes, ‘ We ram­bled about to­gether, in si­lence for the most part, as be­fits two men who know each other in­ti­mately.’ I’ve never for­got­ten that.’’

That in­ef­fa­ble in­ti­macy, Gatiss says, is what lies at the heart of his and Steven Moffat’s up­dated sto­ries. ‘‘ It’s very much a men’s thing — they’re just friends. You can’t re­ally quan­tify it. I’m sure that you could never ex­plain it. Ex­cept that John Wat­son is grad­u­ally mak­ing Sher­lock Holmes more hu­man, and Sher­lock Holmes has given John Wat­son his mojo back. They form a unit.’’

Gatiss and Moffat were long­time Co­nan Doyle devo­tees. They loved that the plots were sec­ondary to the peo­ple; and that it was ‘‘ peo­ple’’, plu­ral, with Holmes and Wat­son an in­her­ent part of the whole. They hadn’t seen that brought to the screen in pre­vi­ous adap­ta­tions. Their Sher­lock was to be, first and fore­most, a study of male friend­ship.

‘‘ The stuff that peo­ple re­ally en­joy is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them,’’ Gatiss says. ‘‘ There was a long scene at the be­gin­ning of episode three last year with just them talk­ing, and we were wor­ried it might be a bit too long. But peo­ple loved it. Sure, the en­gine of the plot has to be the ad­ven­tures, but what peo­ple re­ally love — and we do, too — is the ban­ter and the rows and the proper feel­ing be­tween them, which re­ally leaps off the screen.’’

While some tuned in for the who­dunit and oth­ers liked the nudge-wink mod­erni­sa­tion — the pipe swapped for nico­tine patches; the deer­stalker and cape re­placed with a Bel­staff trench coat — what re­ally stood out about Sher­lock was that it showed two close male friends who weren’t dolts, tough guys, ladykillers or any of the other kinds of telly type­cast­ing. Oddly enough, two men plucked from Vic­to­rian Eng­land, one of whom ex­ists on the verge of om­ni­science, turned out to be more nor­mal in their in­ter­ac­tion than any­thing else on screen once the fog of pe­riod ac­cou­trements had been blown away.

A be­liev­able friend­ship, of course, de­pends most of all on cast­ing. ‘‘ Bene­dict was the only per­son we of­fered Sher­lock to,’’ Gatiss says. ‘‘ Cast­ing John [Wat­son] was much harder. Then, when we got them in the same room to­gether, Steve [Moffat] just said to me, ‘ Look, there’s the se­ries.’ And it was ab­so­lutely true. It’s an in­stant chem­istry, and they have it in real life as well as on­screen.’’

I rounded them both up at Bat­tersea power sta­tion in London to see what that meant. Free­man and Cum­ber­batch are an odd cou­ple. They are as dif­fer­ent in real life as Sher­lock and John. They de­scribe them­selves as good friends, but you sus­pect they wouldn’t be were it not for the work.

Cum­ber­batch may have the most apt sur­name in drama: it some­how cap­tures him pre­cisely. He is wordy, baroque, an­gu­lar and a lit­tle es­o­teric. Free­man hates the ob­vi­ous jux­ta­po­si­tion, that he is the chummy every­man — ‘‘ I don’t know what that means. I ac­tu­ally don’t think peo­ple know what it means who are say­ing it, ei­ther.’’ It prob­a­bly just means peo­ple like him; of the pair, it’s Free­man you’d take that empty bus seat next to, and find your­self telling him ev­ery­thing by the sec­ond stop.

Free­man says he knew they had some­thing as a pair from the first au­di­tion. ‘‘ Ben’s been gen­er­ous about how, when he first met me, he thought, ‘ This is go­ing to work.’ He was very pro my do­ing it, and I felt the same. For what­ever rea­son, it kind of worked im­me­di­ately be­tween us. What­ever we bring that com­ple­ments each other, what­ever dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties we have, they do work.’’ Scru­ti­n­is­ing the chem­istry, he sug­gests, is eff­ing the in­ef­fa­ble. Dare he sug­gest com­pe­tence might come into it? ‘‘ With­out be­ing too falsely mod­est, we’re both quite good. We know what we’re do­ing.’’

The public agreed. Last year, Free­man won the Bafta for best sup­port­ing ac­tor and Cum­ber­batch missed out, but it could eas­ily have been the other way round.

Some view­ers — per­haps be­cause they want to — see more in their quiet in­ti­macy than just two male friends. ‘‘ We’ve had lots of fun with the no­tion that, in the 21st cen­tury, peo­ple nat­u­rally as­sume that they’re a cou­ple,’’ Gatiss says. In the scene I watch be­ing filmed in the gaunt cathe­dral that is Bat­tersea power sta­tion, Wat­son is talk­ing to Irene Adler, Sher­lock’s love in­ter­est (played by Lara Pul­ver), about his part­ner, and says in pass­ing: ‘‘ For the record, not that any­one cares, but we’re not gay.’’

Wat­son’s right. No­body cares what he says — the in­ter­net has al­ready de­cided. In fact, from the minute Sher­lock ap­peared, the in­stant au­di­ence con­clu­sion was that Holmes and Wat­son were lovers. Cum­ber­batch and Free­man have been deal­ing with the fall­out ever since, in part with good hu­mour, in part with mild ex­as­per­a­tion. ‘‘ Much as Sher­lock adores John, and he’s fond of him, there’s no love, there’s noth­ing sex­ual — all the jokes aside,’’ Cum­ber­batch says. ‘‘ The prob­lem is, they [the jokes in the script] fuel the fan­tasy of the few into flames for the many. Peo­ple pre­sume that’s what it is, but it’s not.’’

The se­ries has in­spired cultish de­vo­tion that eas­ily out­strips its short first run. Hard­core Sher­lock fans have taken to sites such as Tum­blr in or­der to imag­ine what Holmes and Wat­son might get up to once the de­duc­tion is done for the day. Cue much ner­vous gig­gling be­tween Free­man and Cum­ber­batch. ‘‘ There is weird fan fic­tion out there — weird,’’ Cum­ber­batch says. ‘‘ They write sto­ries and do manga car­toons of what they think you get up to be­hind closed doors. Some of it’s funny. Some of it’s full-on sex. Get Martin to show you some.’’

Free­man, who hasn’t had a lap­top for long, and is thus new to the won­ders of slash fic­tion, sug­gests that I look it up my­self, but is happy to pre­cis: ‘‘ There are a lot of peo­ple hop­ing that our char­ac­ters and our­selves are ram­pantly at it most of the time.’’

The fact that the two leads in Sher­lock are now to ap­pear in The Hob­bit, an­other cult favourite, has sent the fan­ta­sists hay­wire. ‘‘ It’s al­ready started,’’ Free­man says, un­furl­ing the fa­tigued, world’s-gone-mad look that he has prac­ti­cally trade­marked. ‘‘ There are car­toons where Smaug has Sher­lock’s blue scarf and hair. And Bilbo’s got a woolly jumper like John wears, and they’re snug­gling up on a rug. I think it’s tongue in cheek — which saves it from be­ing re­ally scary. It’s peo­ple do­ing it know­ing they’ve got too much time on their hands.’’

Still, it takes a cer­tain type of show to in­spire a cer­tain type of ob­ses­sion, and it is be­cause of the na­ture of Sher­lock and John’s re­la­tion­ship — ‘‘ Two men who know each other in­ti­mately,’’ as Co­nan Doyle framed it — that fans like to imag­ine there are gaps to be filled. It is, in short, a com­pli­ment to the writ­ing and act­ing that view­ers think there could be so much more be­tween them.

‘‘ If you want to think that they’re se­cretly in love with each other, then you can,’’ Free­man says. ‘‘ But we’ve never played any­thing like that. I don’t re­ally think they are, but there’s enough of that for peo­ple to see it if they want. I think they’re just re­ally in­ter­ested in each other be­cause they give some­thing to the other that is lack­ing in their life.’’ And that, surely, is what friends are for.

The Sun­day Times

Sher­lock starts on Nine next week

Left, Mark Gatiss as My­croft Holmes in Sher­lock. Above, Martin Free­man, cen­tre, in Welling­ton with other Hob­bit ac­tors

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