Early last summer, filming on Peter Jackson’s long-awaited adaptation of The Hobbit was brought to a halt so that 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.
At the time, I met Mark Gatiss, one of Sherlock’s creators, on set in Battersea power station, and 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 is f***ing cool.” Everyone agrees: Sherlock has kudos. Kudos enough to go tell a half-a-billion-dollar movie to take five so it could borrow its star. Sherlock has Baftas and bouquets aplenty; it has been sold around the world; and, on the eve of its return for a second series, it is being marketed as the BBC’s gift to us all for the new year.
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 audience-unfriendly formatting (three feature-length slots, as opposed to a bite-size six-part series) and audience-unfriendly scheduling. (It was 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.”
The adventure is key, but what people really love is the banter and the rows and the proper feeling between them, which leaps off the screen
Gatiss and Moffat were longtime Conan Doyle devotees. What they loved about the stories that they hadn’t seen brought to the screen in previous adaptations was that the plots were secondary to the people; and the fact that it was “people”, plural, with both Holmes and Watson an inherent part of the whole, was important. 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 whodunnit and others liked the nudge-wink modernisation — the pipe swapped for nicotine patches; the deerstalker and cape replaced with a Belstaff trench coat (which promptly sold out) — 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 on screen.”
I rounded them both up at Battersea power station 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 — it’s worth tuning in just to see what art-deco wonders are lying idle inside — 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 précis: “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 on Sherlock that viewers think there could be so much more between them than there is.
“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.