After their mind-twisting Victorian adventure, Sherlock Holmes and John Wa tson finally return for a full series that promises pure evil, parenthood and a canine companion. But is Moriarty really alive? Crime Scene joins the stars on-set, in search of clu
A special, six-page Season 4 location report with Cumberbatch and company.
Sherlockmania – second only in hysteria and volume to Beatlemania – is gripping the streets of north London. Crime Scene is corralled behind a crowd barrier in the vicinity of Euston Station. Night has fallen and we’re standing alongside thousands of fans, who have journeyed from as far afield as China and Japan. Since before dawn they’ve been lining up along North Gower Street which, as all card-carrying Sherlockians doubtless already know, doubles for Baker Street in BBC One’s global hit drama.
We’re getting completely drenched by three massive rain machines, which are pouring down outside number 221B, in preparation for a brief scene outside the house. However, no one’s ardour appears dampened. There’s certainly no lack of enthusiasm when Benedict Cumberbatch, clad in Sherlock’s trademark Belstaff ‘Milford’ coat, magically appears out of a side street, to commence filming in front of the consulting detective’s famous front door. The cheer from the assembled masses can no doubt be heard south of the River Thames. The game is on…
Chatting to Crime Scene in a nearby hotel before filming starts, the cast and crew are equally delighted that the show’s returning with a full series
after a three-year gap, “The Abominable Bride” being a one-off special. That gap was at least partially enforced by the fact that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Dr John Watson, have become megastars on the back of Sherlock.
Cumberbatch confesses that he’s having the time of his life on this fourth season.
“I love it more than ever,” he says. “I also love the character more now because I’ve got to experiment with playing different sides of him.” He then reveals that the fourth season has been very demanding yet richly enjoyable to make because Sherlock is, “troubled and challenged, at the top of his game and at the very bottom. So there are huge highs and huge lows, and you really find out who he is.”
Louise Brealey, playing Sherlock’s friend, sparring partner and resident pathologist, Molly, is also enjoying the filming.
“It’s so exciting to come back every couple of years and see everyone,” she says. “You don’t get so nervous, because everyone’s your buddy, from the make-up to the wardrobe department. Just being part of it is a beautiful thing.”
Mark Gatiss, the co-creator of Sherlock, laughs as he recalls how the show’s popularity has mushroomed since it began in 2010 – aided and abetted by dozens of fan sites around the world.
“In the first season, we shot Benedict and Martin in the middle of Trafalgar Square with no close protection,” he says, “We can’t do that now!”
In fact, Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat have to write certain scenes that may previously have been filmed on location specifically for the studio, to keep their stars far from the madding crowd.
Sherlock, which begins its fourth series on BBC One this New Year’s Day, has long since morphed from mere programme to a phenomenon. Now broadcast in more than 240 territories around the world, the series has won multiple Baftas and Emmys plus a prestigious Peabody Award. The show’s Victorian-era special, “The Abominable Bride”, was the single most watched show in the UK during the 2015/16 festive period, racking up some 11.6 million viewers, and beating Eastenders, the Queen’s annual address and Downton Abbey. When “The Abominable Bride” was shown in cinemas around the world, to augment the TV broadcast, it proved more popular than Star Wars: The Force Awakens in South Korea and topped China’s box office. In addition, the final episode of the third series, “His Last Vow”, broke a Twitter record when it triggered 10,000 tweets per minute.
The show has inspired fan art all over the world. On the set, a Japanese fan shows Crime Scene a graphic novel he’s lovingly made, while 2013 saw Korean pop group SHINEE enjoy a hit single, “Sherlock”, which was inspired by the drama. Indeed, when David Cameron went to China on official business in December 2013, locals asked the then Prime Minister if he could convince the BBC to make more episodes.
Gatiss, who also stars as Sherlock’s devious older brother, Mycroft, remains astounded that the show has become such a sensation all over the world.
“As huge Sherlock Holmes fans, Steven and I find it amazing that we have the privilege of holding the keys to Baker Street for a while and of making a show that has struck such a nerve,” he says. “We could never have predicted the scale of it. Ever since the pilot, we’ve always been proud of it, but the international scope of it is mind-blowing and daunting.”
With almost childlike glee, Moffat adds, “Like Mark, I used to obsessively buy books about Sherlock. I was fascinated by him. I found him exotic and un-claimable.” The 55-year-old writer and executive producer, who’s also the showrunner on Doctor Who, continues, “So now I find it bewildering, but delightful that whenever one of those books comes out now, our production will probably be on the cover. That’s amazing.”
The creators try to account for the fact that Sherlock has chimed with audiences right around the world.
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was baffled by the success of his creation towards the end of his life,” says Gatiss, who’s also written for Doctor Who and Poirot. “We are not comparing ourselves with Conan Doyle, but we’re not baffled – we’re just grateful.
“It’s like bottled lightning. Something happened the moment the writing and the casting came together. It’s just one of those shows. It will never happen again. We’ve all had hits before, but this is a phenomenon that sparked at just the right time.”
Moffat takes up the theme. “We’ve probably got the moment on tape,” he says. “Among several Watsons, Martin had a chance to audition with Benedict. The moment we saw them acting together for the first time, we knew that was the show right there.”
The creators of Sherlock are touched by the passion of the fans. “I was actually answering some fan mail this morning,” says Gatiss. “Some of it was so old, I was ashamed. I had to start telling lies about how packages of letters got mislaid! But from China to Russia, the devotion is astonishing. You get some very moving
letters about how the show has affected people’s lives. Some have had depression that has lifted or made friends through it. It’s very gratifying to have had that effect – just by making 10 episodes.”
However, as is their wont, Moffat and Gatiss are much less keen to talk about how the new series will develop. Part of the show’s popularity derives from the fact that every episode comes as a complete surprise to its audience. Consequently, everyone involved in the show is very strict about not giving away any spoilers – the code of omerta prevails on the Sherlock set.
“We could give you three words describing it that actually have nothing to do with a series,” Gatiss teases.
“Wolverhampton. Peanut. Throttle,” Moffat adds, with a mischievous grin.
For her part, Louise Brealey even begins our interview by admitting, “I’m just going to look at the list of things I’m not allowed to say to you. Bear with me!”
What we are permitted to know about the fourth series, which opens with an episode written by Gatiss and entitled “The Six Thatchers”, is that Sherlock is unsure about the continuing involvement of his apparently dead foe, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). The image of Sherlock’s arch nemesis was seen endlessly repeating “Did you miss me?” at the end of the last series. In the new season, Sherlock is seen musing, “Something is coming. Maybe it’s Moriarty, maybe it’s not.”
What is certain is that Sherlock will be confronted by another seriously devious baddie, Culverton Smith, as played by Toby Jones ( The Witness For The Prosecution). He was originally the tropical diseases expert and poisoner in Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure Of The Dying Detective” which, for the second episode of the new series, has become “The Lying Detective”.
Culverton Smith is “completely different”, according to Moffat. “He’s the darkest villain we’ve had,” he adds. “There was always something charming and engaging about Moriarty. There was something fascinating and actually amoral, rather than immoral, about Charles Augustus Magnussen. But this guy is the purest evil. Sherlock is actually appalled by him. He’s the most evil villain we’ve had. I don’t think that, when you see it, you will disagree. He’s horrific.”
Another element of the new series which is already in the public domain is the fact that John’s wife Mary, who was revealed to be a ruthless assassin in the last series, gives birth to their baby daughter. And how does Mr. Holmes respond to this new member of his extended family?
“I can’t talk about the effect that the baby has on the relationship between Mary and John because there is an impact,” says Cumberbatch, apologetically. “But Sherlock reacts in a very Sherlockian way. However Sherlock would react, that’s what he does.”
Gatiss reveals more about how this series connects to the last: “It started to rain when we were shooting ‘His Last Vow’ so Stephen and I took shelter in the production office bus and spun a few ideas around. By the time we got off the bus, we had plotted this entire series. We’re like magpies, taking bits from different Conan Doyle stories – ‘Oh, that bit could fit here’. Doing it only every two-and-a-half years means the scale of the story has to be pretty big. It can’t just be a story of the week. It has to be major stuff really.
“But it’s particularly epic this season. At the end of ‘His Last Vow’, Sherlock is apparently going into exile. He’s killed a terrible man, but what’s going to happen next? The last Christmas special took place in a five-minute gap, but we knew where we were going after that because Mary is pregnant, which changes everything. The unofficial title of the first episode is ‘The Three Watsons’ because the baby alters the dynamic, not in a cutesy way but because it’s a different place to put the characters.”
There will also be a dog in this season, which may or may not be Toby from the Conan Doyle story “The Sign Of The Four”. As expected, the team are remaining tight-lipped regarding all things canine. All that producer Sue Vertue will say is, “Things we’ve learnt during this series: don’t shoot with a baby and a dog!”
“The oldest rule of showbiz, broken again,” sighs Gatiss, in mock exasperation.
Thanks to the malevolent presence of Culverton Smith, this season has been advertised as the darkest yet, but the cast assert that it’s also the best.
Amanda Abbington, who plays Mary and is Freeman’s real-life partner, says that they take great pleasure in working on the scripts together at home.
“We get the scripts and then we read them together in the sitting room,” she reveals. “So we’re finding out together, which is lovely. With this series, especially, we got the first script and we were like, ‘Crikey, this is incredible!’; and then we got the second script and we were like, ‘This is even better than the first one!’; and then we got to the third one and it was – ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to pull this off?!’ But I think if we do pull this off, it will be amazing.”
Cumberbatch experiences similar pleasure when he’s collaborating with Freeman. “It’s been a joy to us, as actors,” he explains. “We always have that moment where we read the script and ring each other. We have that communal moment between the two of us, of going, ‘Oh my God, this is so exciting! We’re so lucky to be doing this!’”
So what of the future? Can we look forward to Series 5 in the next few years? Cumberbatch, who recently starred in the Marvel blockbuster Dr Strange, is hopeful.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “But yes, of course, it still maintains a fascination, otherwise I wouldn’t come back for more. I’ve got a lot going on in my life at the moment, thankfully. I’m very lucky as an actor. So it’s not just about employment; it is about wanting to do it, and I’m very lucky to be in that position. And also to have a character like this, who I still really want to play.”
Freeman, who’s also taken leads in The Hobbit films and Series 1 of Fargo, agrees with his co-star, who he knows as ‘Ben’.
“My feeling is always that if you enjoy something, then let it breathe and give it a chance,” he says, “but stop something when you’re no longer enjoying it. But at the moment, I’m having a really good time.” With a wry smile, Freeman adds: “But the show is called Sherlock. The show isn’t called anybody else’s name, so you know, next time, we’ll probably all be dead and it will just be Ben. Because, ultimately, he’s the thing that it can’t go on without.”
Abbington, who was also in the BBC police drama Cuffs, has her own thoughts: “It’s about Sherlock and John, and I don’t want Mary to become the third wheel. I want the show to be about them, really. And I think the fans do as well. If it was called Mary, it would be a different thing. That would be a spin-off about her life as an assassin and how she got into it.”
Actually, that isn’t a bad idea… “You’re right! Tell Steven and Mark. It should be called Mary! – exclamation mark!”
After having a ball on “The Abominable Bride”, Freeman can also see another spin-off series working: “We just really enjoyed being in the 1890s. Occasionally, I would look at Ben and then look at myself in the mirror, and go ‘Thank God we’re finally playing Holmes and Watson, instead of John and Sherlock’. So we played them as Conan Doyle intended, and it was a lot of fun to do that.”
So what other era would Freeman like to see the duo transported to? “I’d like to do 1066. It would be about how Sherlock and John handled the Norman Invasion!”
Sherlock Series 4 is scheduled to start on BBC One this New Year’s Day.
Things we’ve learnt: don’t shoot with a baby and a dog!
The Sherlock family now has another member.
Coping with Holmes may well turn your hair grey. Toby Jones plays “the darkest villain we’ve had”.
Gatiss pulls the strings, both on and off screen. ‘Do you miss him?’ Well, Moriarty may not return. Abbington,c umberbatch and hound on location. Rachel Talalay directing the first of the new series. Where would Holmes be withoutmrs. Hudson?