CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Hit British series Sherlock is back for a new season, and its actors — and audience — are being put through the emotional wringer, writes Justin Burke
For Martin Freeman, returning to the role of Dr John Watson for a fourth season of Sherlock was satisfyingly difficult. “You want to go home at 10 o’clock at night exhausted and think, ‘I really worked today’, because you’ve cried or run or screamed. There’s nothing worse than going home tired because you’re bored,” says the 45-year-old English actor.
Boredom is perhaps the last word anyone is using about this show. More than 12 million people watched the season three premiere on BBC, making it the highest-rating drama in Britain of the past 15 years. The Emmy and BAFTA award-winning series returns on Monday on streaming service Stan, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, alongside Freeman, Andrew Scott as Moriarty and new recruit Toby Jones ( Detectorists).
The show’s cast and creatives are famous for keeping the plot under wraps but the new season’s trailer suggests a sinister turn, which Freeman confirms.
“The season itself was very enjoyable and we had a lot of fun doing it but the fictional content is pretty dark,” he says. “There has always been gruesome things or dastardly people in the show, but I think this season is the most shocking, and I’m looking forward to the audience seeing it.”
Freeman says his character, who becomes a father this season with wife Mary Morstan (played by Amanda Abbington), is not exempt from the punishing plotlines.
“I love the amount John gets to play. He is a very 3-D character, with strength and vulnerability, humour and heroics — he gets to do the lot — but, like everyone this season, he is put through the emotional wringer very badly,” he says.
“Some of the things our characters come up against are the most emotionally testing that we have seen them deal with. There’s a lot of meat.”
After four seasons, Freeman says the fact he and Watson are becoming more like each other is inevitable.
“You begin to meet in the middle. It’s a natural part of you making sense of a character’s emotional life, given that your own emotional life is the only reality you know. If it makes you tick, it will make your character tick, and it will hopefully make the audience tick.”
Freeman, who had starring roles in The Hobbit film franchise and in new series StartUp on streaming service Amazon Prime, as well as acclaimed roles in The Office and Fargo, is philosophical about the focus on Cumberbatch and the title role.
“The show is called Sherlock, it’s not called John. Sherlock Holmes is the most famous fictional character in history, John Watson is not,” he says.
“But John Watson is the audience’s way into the show; there won’t be that many people watching the show who are very like Sherlock Holmes, whereas John is a more recognisably human figure.
“Even though people love watching Sherlock’s mental acrobatics and agility, and they laugh at his inability to connect emotionally with people, they also enjoy seeing their friendship develop. I think he’s a bit more human now as a result of being John’s friend.”
The show’s creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who also stars as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, say the decision to cast Cumberbatch and Freeman back in 2010 is the secret of the show’s success.
“One of the things people underestimate is that very few actors have cut through in those roles. Lots of people have played those parts but Ben and Martin are the Sherlock and Dr Watson of this era,” says Gatiss, 50, also a writer on Doctor Who and best remembered from television comedy ensemble The League of Gentlemen.
The co-creators say successfully adapting the most adapted fictional character in history called for a mixture of love and irreverence. “There are so many adaptations: Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work is so brilliant and beloved, it’s a great leg-up, but the thing you have to do is do something distinct with your work,” says Gatiss.
“Our version stands out, I hope, because it is
IN A WORLD THAT HAS TURNED ITS BACK ON EXPERTS WE HAVE A SHOW WITH A HERO-EXPERT IN IT
Sherlock set in the modern day and despite the essential heresy of the format, it is a very faithful and loving version of the original.
“But we have exactly the same reverence that Conan Doyle did — absolutely none. We love it to death but you mustn’t approach it as holy writ, because it isn’t.”
Moffat, 55, says he once believed popular British characters such as the Doctor, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond showed audiences preferred a brainy rather than brawny hero, but after the Brexit referendum in Britain and the election of Donald Trump as US president, he is no longer sure.
“I would say half the world is going mad, but the massive popularity of our show and the character continues to give me hope,” he says.
“Britain seems to have changed, and I find it very dispiriting. In a world that has turned its back on experts we have a show with a heroexpert in it. Being good at stuff and clever is important, and can be quite sexy.
“Since we seem to be favouring dolts at the moment — as if somehow they have anything to offer us — and in an era when we have elected the first genuine moron for [US] president, I think it’s good that we have Sherlock.”
That’s not to say Sherlock is becoming political, though the first episode of this three-part season is titled The Six Thatchers, on account of a mystery involving someone destroying images of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
“Sherlock has never reflected the headlines; it’s a slightly lurid and heightened version of reality. You have to accept there is an intellectual superman who can do these incredible things and make the police look stupid, and go on adventures with him,” says Moffatt.
“Sherlock has to be slightly out of the loop for us to enjoy the escapism of it. Maybe increasingly we want more of it because the world is so bloody dark.”
Gatiss finds the distinction between dark and light, drama and comedy, to be artificial.
“Life as we know it is a strange mishmash of both, like laughing hysterically when you shouldn’t, and finding humour in unexpected dramatic situations,” he says.
Moreover, Gatiss, Moffat and Freeman are positive about the chances of a fifth season. “We obviously don’t know if a new season will be commissioned, but we would love to carry on, and everyone wants us to,” says Gatiss. season four premieres on Monday on streaming service Stan.
Freeman with co-star Benedict Cumberbatch in
Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson, left; Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, above