– It takes a lot of effort to play clever

Interview by Alex Strachan

Sherlock Holmes is bored. When Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modernized, 21st-century Sherlock returns this weekend on PBS’s Masterpiece showcase with the first of three new weekly instalments, Holmes is wrapped in a blanket, staring at a computer screen in his flat at 221B Baker Street. The game is still afoot, but he’s become a blogger, making Watson do all the dirty work on the outside world, while he stays at home in front of his computer, barking instructions through a camera phone. He’s wrapped in a blanket because it’s too tedious even to bother with clothes. There’s a persistent ringing at the door. “Shut up!” Holmes shouts, but the ringing won’t stop. A pair of stone-faced government officials walk into the room in neatly pressed suits and conservative ties – bureaucrats from up high, of the sort you’ve seen lately on the telly, grilling media mogul Rupert Murdoch over his (alleged) ties to power and influence.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Holmes,” they tell him, “but you’re coming with us. And where you’re going, you’ll want to be dressed.”

That would be the Palace. Yes, that Palace. As in Buckingham. Cases may be tedious, you see, but when they involve scandal, blackmail and an unnamed member of the Royal Family, country comes first.

“Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on,” Holmes is told, in no uncertain terms. “For your client.”

“And my client is?”

“Illustrious. In the extreme. And will remain, I have to inform you, entirely anonymous.”

The first of the three new Sherlock tales, A Scandal in Belgravia – loosely based on Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia – aired earlier this year, New Year’s Day, in fact, in the U.K., to glowing notices. “It fizzles down like a glass of New Year bubbly,” the Guardian wrote, “full of wit and sparkle.”

Days after it aired in the U.K., Sherlock’s real-life doppelganger, London, U.K.-born actor Benedict Cumberbatch, faced a group of reporters from the U.S. and Canada, and talked about how well Sherlock’s new episodes would translate to a North American audience.

He needn’t have bothered. The first season was nominated for three Emmys, opposite Downton Abbey, and won a Peabody Award, along with the Banff Television Festival’s Rockie Award and Television Critics Association Award for outstanding achievement in movies and miniseries. It’s elementary: Sherlock has already found an avid audience on this side of the pond.

A Scandal in Belgravia is notable, because it features the one and only woman, in Holmesian lore, ever to have won Holmes’ heart. Irene Adler, played by Essex stage veteran Laura Pulver, is reputed to be “the smartest woman in England.” A Scandal in Belgravia’s ending, according to Masterpiece producer Rebecca Eaton, “is deeply ambiguous, typical of Steven Moffatt.”

Cumberbatch, for his part, was at his most effusive and theatrical on this day. No ambiguity there. Told, by Eaton, that he’s facing a group of “ink-stained wretches who are just finishing their lunch,” Cumberbatch replied, without missing a beat: “Christ, yes. I can see them now.”

A Scandal in Belgravia may have an undercurrent of romantic longing, at least at first, but that doesn’t mean one of television’s most subtle and witty thrillers is going to suddenly morph into Grey’s Anatomy.

“This isn’t going to be a love, guys, where we get boring and mushy,” Cumberbatch insisted. “They’re an even match for each other. She’s extraordinarily brilliant, as you’ll see.

“It’s a rare challenge, both for the audience and for an actor, to take part in something with this level of intelligence and wit. And you have to play with it. You have to really enjoy it. It is hard. It’s a form of mental and physical gymnastics. It’s hard sometimes, in the heat of summer – when we filmed this (season) – to actually get the words out without beads of sweat dripping down. It takes a lot of effort to play clever.”

If Sherlock has touched the popular nerve, Cumberbatch says, it’s because writers Moffatt and Gatiss haven’t dumbed down Conan Doyle’s 19th-century tale for a 21st-century TV audience, even if blackmail threats once delivered by hand-written letter are, in the updated version, delivered in the form of uncompromising pictures on an iPhone.

“It’s a thrill to bring something to an audience that isn’t patronizing, it really is. To be received with so much love is validation. It’s an acknowledgment that, even though they may not understand on first viewing, there’s such a rich texture of detail there, that they can go back to it. They get an awful lot out of it the first time, but it’s something that rewards repeat viewing, as well.”

Romance, even the merest hint of romance, sounds remarkably un-Holmesian on the face of it, but Cumberbatch says the pleasure lies in the plot’s details – the fact, for example, that Pulver’s character, Irene Adler, is a practitioner of something called “recreational scolding.”

“I think he meets a like mind,” Cumberbatch said, quietly. “That’s the fundamental attraction. He meets someone who is a challenge, who is rather good, and it takes him by surprise – not because he’s a misogynist, not because he views women as any lesser species; he views them as equals. It’s just that, from his point of view, pretty much all people other than himself are a bit stupid. The fact that he meets someone who is a worthy opponent, of either sex, is of great intrigue. There’s a side of her that’s utterly mysterious to him, and he has to break through why he can’t read her. The fact that she is a difficult objective to overcome is what attracts him to her. She’s a puzzle, as most of us are to each other in relationships. It’s extreme here, because of the way they are and who they are and how they live their lives. If there is attraction, it’s through these masks that are constantly shifting in an effort to engineer control. That dance is a very, very entertaining one, and very witty. It’s interesting to see this man slightly touched and moved, and possibly humanized by this experience.”

Any physical aspect of their relationship is implied, not shown.

“This is sex on public television,” Eaton interjected. “He touches her hand.”