Sher­lock makes its case on this side of the pond

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ge­off Boucher

LOS AN­GE­LES — If the ti­tle char­ac­ter of tele­vi­sion’s Sher­lock ever went look­ing for Hol­ly­wood’s Holmes, it would be the quick­est case in the his­tory of scenery-chew­ing sleuths.

That’s be­cause Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch — who plays a mod­ern-day ver­sion of fic­tion’s great­est de­tec­tive on the Bri­tish im­port now air­ing Sun­days at 9 p.m. on PBS’ Mas­ter­piece Mys­tery! — lives in a vin­tage L.A. wood-frame house that sits less than two blocks from the sleek of­fices of Robert Downey Jr., the Amer­i­can movie star who keeps it Vic­to­rian on the big screen.

“It’s just right over there,” Cum­ber­batch said with a nod of his chin as he sat at his din­ing-room ta­ble. “I should go throw eggs or do some­thing. I’ve never met him. I think he got a few (press) ques­tions and then af­ter a few more he was like ‘Who is this kid Cum­ber­batch?’”

You won’t hear that ques­tion in the United King­dom, where Sher­lock is a full-tilt prime-time sen­sa­tion and, with its bril­liant but quirky mis­an­thrope, can be thought of as the met­ric con­ver­sion of House, although the de­tec­tive’s caseload con­cerns the newly dead of Eng­land in­stead of the re­cently sick in New Jer­sey.

The show, cre­ated by Doc­tor Who vet­er­ans Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (and, work­ing sep­a­rately, Arthur Co­nan Doyle), costars Martin Free­man as Dr. John Wat­son, an army doc­tor who was in­jured in Afghanistan and finds him­self as the only true friend to the ec­cen­tric “con­sult­ing de­tec­tive.”

The show is play­ful (there’s much hu­mour, for in­stance, about the per­cep­tion that Holmes and Wat­son are a gay cou­ple) but it’s not as proudly daft as Doc­tor Who. Holmes also doesn’t spend as much time smil­ing at peo­ple.

“If he’s charis­matic, it’s an ac­ci­dent of who he is,” Cum­ber­batch said. “He’s an odd en­tity. He’s so­cio­pathic and there is a vi­car­i­ous thrill you get watch­ing some­one who carves his way through bu­reau­cracy and medi­ocrity like a hot knife through but­ter.”

The sec­ond sea­son finds Holmes him­self un­der the mag­ni­fy­ing glass, Cum­ber­batch says.

“He’s a de­con­structed and more vul­ner­a­ble char­ac­ter who is eas­ier to re­late to and care about,” the 35-yearold ac­tor said. “But it’s a slow learn­ing curve. He’s still stag­ger­ingly smart, vi­o­lent, phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble, ir­rev­er­ent, com­i­cally rude — to idiots or any­one vaguely in his way — and dan­ger­ous.”

Amer­i­cans are get­ting clued into Sher­lock — more than 3 mil­lion view­ers tuned in to the sec­ond sea­son pre­miere that aired on PBS last week­end — but the im­port’s strong­est do­mes­tic en­dorse­ment has come from CBS ex­ec­u­tives with their an­nounced plans to film a pi­lot called El­e­men­tary that also puts Holmes in the here and now. Ex­cept the “here” is Man­hat­tan, not West­min­ster.

Word of that new show sent Moffat into a tizzy (he had met CBS about an of­fi­cial state­side adap­ta­tion), but Cum­ber­batch projects only mild in­ter­est in the topic and has noth­ing but warm wishes for star Jonny Lee Miller (who costars in Tim Bur­ton’s new Dark Shad­ows) as he looks for clues on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion.

In a way, Cum­ber­batch is ac­cus­tomed to see­ing Miller as sort of his Bri­tish-lit dop­pel­ganger: The two ac­tors starred in Danny Boyle’s stage adap­ta­tion of Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein at the Na­tional Theatre and al­ter­nated roles each night, tak­ing turns as the hereti­cal sci­en­tist and the patch­work mon­ster.

“I view it like any of the clas­si­cal char­ac­ters in the canon of Shake­speare or Chekhov, there will al­ways be new in­ter­pre­ta­tions,” Cum­ber­batch said. “I think Holmes is the fic­tional char­ac­ter who has been (in screen in­car­na­tions) the most. I’m 76th or some­thing? Peo­ple com­pare you to oth­ers and that’s fine, I can deal with that.”

Yes, but how long will this Sher­lock stay at the scene of the crime? More and more, the ac­tor is hear­ing the siren call of larger screens and a wider world.

There was, for in­stance, the call Cum­ber­batch re­ceived out of the blue from Steven Spiel­berg, who had seen the ac­tor’s tele­vi­sion work and wanted him for War Horse. That job led to a sur­real mo­ment on an awards red car­pet when Spiel­berg in­tro­duced the ac­tor to Clint East­wood.

Cum­ber­batch got strong re­views for his work in Tinker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy, which fea­tured the deep­est Bri­tish cast this side of Hog­warts, and it added to a film re­sume that al­ready in­cluded Amaz­ing Grace and Atone­ment. Cum­ber­batch turned heads with the 2004 BBC drama Hawk­ing too, find­ing the cos­mic but also the con­nectible in the role of Stephen Hawk­ing.

Mof­fatt says that Cum­ber­batch — whose mother and fa­ther put to­gether long ca­reers in tele­vi­sion and on­stage — was a star just wait­ing for a spot­light when he ar­rived at his Sher­lock au­di­tion.

“He was al­ready one of the most ad­mired ac­tors of his gen­er­a­tion and, within the in­dus­try, uni­ver­sally tipped for star­dom,” Moffat said. “We were the lucky ones who gave him the break­through part. The chal­lenge of Sher­lock Holmes is to play a show-off, self-ob­sessed ego­tist and yet still be loved, and ac­tu­ally very few peo­ple have pulled it off. I may be prej­u­diced, but I don’t think any­one has pulled it off as well as Bene­dict.”

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Sher­lock.

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