“Sherlock Holmes, I’ve seen your website,” Dr Watson says, soon after being advised by his therapist to “keep a blog”. The viewer need not share the great detective’s deductive prowess to see that the BBC is intent on dragging the 19th-century sleuth into the 21st century. But while we may grasp the what, we may be shakier on the why. The deerstalker and Meerschaum pipe have served generations of thesps, from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett. To what end would anyone equip Holmes with a website and a mobile phone?
“The idea,” explains Benedict Cumberbatch, the 33-year-old actor charged with bringing Holmes to life in three feature-length specials, “is that Sherlock Holmes is the origination of all modern detectives. He was a forerunner in forensic fields, he started experimenting with footprints and fingerprint analysis and bloodstains. Any number of brilliant maverick detectives have been inspired by him, whether it’s Cracker or Tennyson or Rebus or House, all of whom knock about with a bottle or some kind of addiction or personal quirk. It’s a worthwhile experiment to see whether he still has a workplace in the 21st century.”
The updating, by Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat and Mark “League of Gentlemen” Gatiss, may seem forced at first, but it soon settles down. Both men are Holmes enthusiasts who have discussed the project for years. Their neat twist on A Study in Scarlet, in which Holmes deduces that Watson has an alcoholic brother through the scratches not on his watch but on his mobile phone, lets us know that we are in safe hands. And when he is in the mortuary, recreating events from marks on the victim’s body, it is apparent that here is a Holmes for the C.S.I. generation.
Another interesting gamble is the casting of Martin Freeman, from The Office, as Watson. It is typical of Cumberbatch, a public school-educated graduate who began his career playing brainboxes such as the young Stephen Hawking, that in praising his co-star he makes a very nice distinction. “Nice” as in precise: “Martin’s a very fine actor,” Cumberbatch says, “and by ‘fine’ I mean in that very carefully balanced, nuanced way. He is a very delicate screen actor, and though he can do comedy at the drop of a hat he is achingly real as Watson, this man who is slightly lost in the civilian world, traumatised by his experience of the Afghanistan war but also slightly in thrall to it and missing the adrenalin. Also he’s an audience figure, an Everyman through whom to meet this slightly odd creature, this character of the night, this sociopathic, slightly autistic, slightly anarchic, maverick, odd antihero.”
This Holmes is so afraid of boredom that the serial killings in episode one positively excite him — by the end we glimpse the immoral maze that that could take him into. He is a mercurial, unpredictable figure, a plane above mere mortals — not a million miles from Doctor Who. You can see how, after that hugely successful reboot, the BBC might be keen to update another TV hero. Was Cumberbatch considered as David Tennant’s successor? “Aaaaaaah … possibly,” he says, at last, as though unburdening himself of a state secret. “David and I talked about it, but I thought it would have to be radically different. And anyway I didn’t really like the whole package — being on school lunchboxes.”
He has, however, enjoyed the chance to bring a new physicality to Holmes. Cumberbatch is tall and confident, expressive when acting out a story. He was a sporty type at school and went on “an adrenalin junkie thing” in Namibia, “throwing myself out of planes, that sort of thing”. It was, he realises now, a reaction to being carjacked. “When you’ve been forced to look into the idea that you die on your own you go, ‘Oh, OK, well if I’ve got my own company at the beginning and the end of this life, I might as well do a few crazy things with it under my own steam’.”
He spent his gap year teaching English to a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, which perhaps accounts for his philosophical bent. “They taught me about the duplicity of human nature but also the humanity of it and the ridiculous sense of humour you need to live a full spiritual life. There was a time when these two rabid dogs were all over each other, screwing in the back yard, and there was all of this laughter — ‘Sir, sir, quick, come sir, sir, quick’ — and these two dogs were just stuck together, having sex, like a pushmi-pullyu [the two-headed creature in Doctor Dolittle], and the monks were on the floor laughing at these sentient beings’ pain and ridiculousness. ‘Kodak moment sir, Kodak moment!’ Brilliant!”
Cumberbatch has, it seems, worked non-stop in the past few years. He has played William Pitt, Vincent van Gogh, a cad in Atonement, the writer of Stuart: A Life Backwards. He earned a Bafta nomination for Small Island and is now on stage in an acclaimed production of Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance. “Someone said to me, ‘You must be taking a break after this play’, and I made the standard actor’s joke of, ‘Yes, definitely, unless Steven Spielberg calls.’ And he did!”
And so, in his few spare hours, Cumberbatch is brushing up on his equestrian skills in order to lead two cavalry charges in Spielberg’s film version of War Horse. Whether or not Sherlock is recommissioned — and early indications, apparently, are good — it’s elementary: Cumberbatch’s star is on the up and up.