This little domicile is the new home of Sherlock Holmes, who returns to our screens on Sunday for a three-part crime thriller, courtesy of BBC One. The series is called Sherlock, it stars Small Island actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and it was concocted by Gatiss and writer friend Steven Moffat, the man who now calls the shots on Doctor Who (for which Gatiss has also written episodes).
But while the accoutrements look familiar – there’s the violin, a knife stabbed through a pile of post and the general untidiness – there’s something different about this flat. A laptop on the dresser gives the game away. Good deduction: it’s set in the present.
“Bringing it out of the fog,” is how Gatiss describes the idea behind the series, which sees Holmes and his sidekick Watson (The Office’s Martin Freeman) on the trail of serial killers and crime kingpins in 21st-century London. The opening episode is a loose reworking of the first Arthur Conan Doyle story, 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, with hints that a modern-day Moriarty may be skulking in the shadows.
‘I think it’s worth saying that both [Moffat and I] are in love with Victoriana,” says Gatiss, who is best known for his comic roles in The League of Gentlemen but has recently been ploughing a writing furrow, with a forthcoming Poirot and an adaptation of HG Wells’s The First Men in the Moon also to his name (he pops up in an acting role in Sherlock later, too). “We felt, however, that it was time to reclaim Holmes,” he says. So don’t expect to see any deerstalkers or velvet dressing gowns: this Holmes is a netbook and PDA kind of sleuth. Watson, meanwhile, is writing a blog and seeing a therapist.
So far, so 2010. But what will the traditionalists make of it? Cumberbatch – who is no stranger to playing geniuses, having previously incarnated Van Gogh, Stephen Hawking and Pitt the Younger on screen – isn’t fussed. “Why should we serve up what people have already had so sublimely already?” he says, referring to the countless TV shows and movies that have made Holmes, apparently, the most portrayed character in the history of film. “We’re setting out to do something new,” he says.
There are some good arguments why modernising Holmes might be an unexpectedly good idea. First, Conan Doyle’s tales did once feel genuinely modern; snappy, action-oriented, always more concerned with plot than period details. Second, many of the Holmesian “trimmings” were invented by others; the curly pipe, for example, was introduced by playwright and actor William Gillette in the 1890s.
And third, Conan Doyle was possibly the least precious author in literary history. “May I marry Holmes?” Gillette asked him, while working on a stage adaptation (meaning, marry him off). “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him,” came the reply.
The new series has smoothly integrated modern details into its storylines. “There’s a famous deduction in The Sign of Four,” Cumberbatch says, “where Holmes examines Watson’s watch and rather discourteously announces that his brother [who once owned it] is an alcoholic loner in need of money, but who is too proud to come to Watson for it. We’ve got a version of that in this, but with a twist.”
The twist is that the object is now a mobile phone – scuff marks around the power connection suggest it was regularly plugged in by shaking hands, hence probably by a drunk (Conan Doyle’s version involved scratches around the keyhole used for winding up the watch).
Another neat reworking involves Watson’s back story. Gatiss and Moffat have been able to follow Conan Doyle and make Sherlock’s right-hand man an Army doctor recently injured in Afghanistan – from 1878 to 1880, Britain was engaged in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, a costly, if temporarily successful, encounter with the country’s tribal warlords.
Emphasising the new Watson’s psychological scars – he is supposed to be blogging about his feelings – lends the character weight, and stops him from becoming the buffoon so often played on screen, notably by Nigel Bruce in the 1940s Basil Rathbone films. “Because,” says Gatiss, “Holmes wouldn’t have an idiot as a friend; that’s what weak people do.”
This puts Sherlock firmly in the tradition of Jeremy Brett, the man often anointed as the screen’s greatest Holmes. His Granada TV series, which ran from 1984 to 1994, grew out of a desire to rescue Watson from the ignominy of past portrayals.
It’s too soon to say if the new Holmes will follow Brett into the pantheon of favourite Sherlocks. But he has a fighting chance. Cumberbatch’s sleuth – Byronic, sociopathic, often killingly funny – is just the right balance of psycho-nerd and winning eccentric, the sort of person you’d love to have as your flatmate. If you could stand the mess.
To judge by his conversation, Cumberbatch may even have fallen a little under the detective’s spell himself. “I have found myself casually [analysing] people on the train,” he admits. “At the businessman, say, who had a pale line around his ring finger. I’d think, ‘Hmm, I wonder what’s going on there, then?’ And I’d look at his shirt collar to see whether he had washed it, and the size of his luggage to see if he had been away overnight…” He grins. “Well, you can’t help but go there in your mind, can you?”