July 2010. It is three weeks before the first series of Sherlock broadcasts on BBC One, and show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are panicking. The BBC has suddenly brought forward the slot for their show “by a substantial amount”. As summer is already a difficult time to launch a series, Gatiss and Moffat are bewildered as to how they will promote it.
“We were sitting around with our heads in our hands,” Steven Moffat remembers, “going, ‘There isn’t enough time to do this. It will broadcast to no one.’ ”
This was when they joined Twitter.
“It was really only one step up from individually knocking on people’s doors and shouting, ‘Sherlock is coming!’ through their letter boxes,” Mark Gatiss explains. “We were almost… desperate.”
“What did we think we’d get?” Moffat muses.
“Four million viewers,” Gatiss replies.
“Four million viewers, tops, and a couple of nice broadsheet write-ups. That was our best-case scenario.”
On the night the debut episode – A Study in Pink – went out, the core cast and crew assembled at Moffat’s house in Kew to watch it, in a state of nervous tension.
Gathering around the wine – “a lot of wine” – were Martin Freeman (Dr Watson), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes), Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s producer, who is, handily, also married to Moffat, “which has, over the years, saved us a fortune on cabs”.
In the event, when Sherlock began, the Moffat party had to immediately pause it, as Benedict Cumberbatch still hadn’t arrived.
“He called us – he was stuck in a traffic jam on Baker Street,” Moffat recalls. “Sherlock Holmes, stuck on Baker Street! We couldn’t work out if that was a good sign or not.”
“I think he might have made that up, to be honest,” Gatiss says. “But it’s a really good lie.”
When Cumberbatch finally arrived, the party who made Sherlock watched the show ten minutes behind the rest of Britain.
“But we knew when the climax happened,” Gatiss beams, “because suddenly all our phones were going off, everyone texting, everyone phoning. I mean, exploding.”
“An hour later, I went and sat in the garden,” Moffat says, “and looked at Twitter. I saw that Benedict was trending worldwide on Twitter, Martin was trending worldwide, Sherlock itself was trending worldwide. And people were talking about it with this… passion. As if they were lifelong fans – when, of course, they’d not seen it 90 minutes ago. Everything had changed in 90 minutes.”
He pauses for a minute, still looking surprised.
July 2011. A shabby-looking rehearsal room in Central London. This is the first read-through for the first episode – titled A Scandal in Belgravia – of the second series of Sherlock. Almost a year to the day of its first broadcast, it is now the most anticipated show of 2012.
For a Sherlock fan, it is impossibly exciting to be here. A table bears a huge pile of pristine, freshly printed scripts – each full of mysteries, corpses, grandiloquent scene-setting and bullet-train dialogue.
To the left, Mark Gatiss – who not only writes Sherlock, but also stars as Sherlock’s upright older brother, Mycroft – sips tea. To the right is Watson (Martin Freeman), eating a banana. I go to the toilet and, while washing my hands, express my joy at being in a building which will soon see the arrival of Mrs Hudson, played by Una Stubbs.
“Who’s talking about meeeeee?” says the unmistakable voice of Una Stubbs from the next cubicle.
Since the broadcast of the first series of Sherlock – for which Gatiss and Moffat nervously prayed for 4 million viewers – the show has racked up a devoted 9.2 million viewers, won two Baftas and Best Terrestrial Show at the Edinburgh television festival, been nominated for Emmys and promoted a slew of think-pieces about how it had single-handedly made Sunday night TV “the new Friday night”. Sales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books went up 180 per cent in the same month, and Belstaff – designer of the “instantly iconic” greatcoat Holmes wears in the show – had to put the previously discontinued design back into manufacture. At one point, the waiting list for the £900 coat was six months long.
Most notable of all, however, it made an overnight star of its Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch. Previously the kind of well-respected theatre actor who popped up in award-winning thinky dramas on BBC Two, Cumberbatch – with his clay-white skin, sexy-sloth face and pub-time jaguar growl – became instant pin-up totty; eventually going on to become GQ magazine’s “Man of the Year”, and be hailed by Steven Spielberg – who then cast him in his forthcoming War Horse – as “the greatest onscreen Holmes”. Sherlock has changed Cumberbatch’s life.
Entering the room today, the discrepancy between Cumberbatch and Cumberbatch-as-Sherlock is notable. Holmes would enter the room in a swirl of greatcoat, rattle off some nail-gun comment, analyse the contents of the biscuit tin to deduce that it’s someone’s birthday, then go into a high-grade petulant intellectual sulk.
Cumberbatch himself, on the other hand, is wearing a faded band T-shirt, and exudes the air of an indie kid in his late teens or early twenties. He’s bright and enthusiastic and friendly – his is the air of someone who helps mums carry buggies up stairs.
When the read-through starts, however, this gonky teenager disappears, and he slips, effortlessly, into the stiff-backed, cold-eyed, Pentium 20 brain of Holmes. His delivery can still the room – even in his T-shirt, in this bright summer sunshine. Spielberg was not wrong.
When the read-through ends, everyone claps.
“I love that we’ve all applauded ourselves spontaneously at the end,” Moffat says, drily. “Well done all of us. Now we’ve just got to make the damn thing. Better than the last series. No pressure. Off you go.”
Out on the street, Cumberbatch is fiddling with his phone. Tomorrow is his birthday: “And I can’t get a restaurant reservation,” he says, mournfully. “They won’t call me back. I should have said my name was Sherlock Holmes.” He squints down the street. “I guess I’ll just have to… have a picnic.”
It is a uniquely dolorous delivery of the word “picnic”.
Early August, 2011. We are in 221b Baker Street. It is raining outside, hard.
Inside 221b, however, it is cosy – Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are lolling in the armchairs of Holmes and Watson, looking perfectly at home.
We’re not really in 221b Baker Street, of course – this is the set, in a hangar in Wales. After a few minutes, someone outside turns off the rain – it’s just a hose, pointing at the window.
“Come and look around,” Gatiss says, springing up from his chair.
Seeing Moffat and Gatiss here, in domestic repose – giving the impression of being a Holmes-loving Bert and Ernie – seems very fitting. Much of Sherlock’s potency comes from reconfiguring the friendship between Holmes and Watson – Freeman’s Watson is more than equal to Holmes. Yes, Watson’s there as a dragon tamer, to whack Sherlock with a stick when he starts monstering around, or climbing up on the furniture. But it’s also Watson who misses active service; Watson with the gun. Holmes and Watson cry, “The game is on!” from different motives, but with equal delight.
And it is the joy of the game that binds Moffat and Gatiss, too. When they were both working on Doctor Who – Moffat runs the show, Gatiss is a guest scriptwriter – they would while away the long train journeys from London to Cardiff by talking about their favourite Holmes books and films. Today, they quote classic lines to each other, tripping over each other to be the first to finish. This steeping in the canon is what powers Sherlock’s astonishing pace and zip: Moffat and Gatiss abstract the existing Sherlock movies and books with the extravagance and hook-hungry eye of hip-hop producers ripping beats. Their Sherlock is like some turbo-charged, bass-heavy, super-smart mash-up of all that has gone before.
Their delight in the show’s set is palpable. They fly around showing off Holmes’s collection of 240 different kinds of tobacco ash, Holmes’s bust of Goethe. In this series, we see Holmes’s bedroom for the first time – I note it has an en suite bathroom, and is very tidy. (“Holmes is the kind of flatmate who would keep his room tidy by throwing all his mess out into the front room,” Moffat notes.)
I bounce on the bed a bit. I feel I owe all of womankind this action. I refrain from sniffing the pillowcase. That feels undignified.
The level of nerd-detail is high: there are 17 steps up from the hall to the front room, as specified in the books. The Christmas cards in the hallway have all been filled out inside, to the landlady, Mrs Hudson. On the set, however, there are no actual quarters for Mrs Hudson.
“She doesn’t have a room,” Gatiss explains. “She just… stands at the end of this corridor, and hibernates until the front door bell rings.”
It’s interesting that – given this level of obsession with Holmes – Gatiss and Moffat found one aspect of their Holmes wholly mysterious until very late in the process.
“We didn’t know if he was gay or not until the [first] series had actually finished, did we?” Gatiss muses. “We kind of had to… work it out. It wasn’t obvious.” You don’t say.
Wander outside, and you find Benedict Cumberbatch, in all his Holmesian glory, sitting at a picnic table, smoking a fag. Today is a good day for Cumberbatch, he reflects,as he sips from a polystyrene cup of coffee marked “Benedict”. (“I try to get them to write ‘Sir Benedict’ on it. Occasionally they oblige.”)
Yesterday, however, was a bad day. Holmes’s trademark, tack-tack-tack-tack monologues are one of the most high-profile, technically arduous tricks in the business – as Holmes’s extraordinary deductive skills are presented as “a superpower – an achievable superpower”, the deductive monologues are the bits where Cumberbatch has to, essentially, pull on Holmes’s underpants over his tights and fly. He has to look like the cleverest man who ever lived.
“I had a non-stop monologue and I just… fell off the edge of the cliff,” Cumberbatch says, sighing. “I couldn’t remember all the words. I just… stopped. It’s horrible. Sometimes it feels like, rather than acting, you’re being a machine. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Holmes is just very… still. Still but fast.”
Cumberbatch isn’t one for dwelling or moaning, though: today is a better day, and he’s pretty sure he won’t get a Retrafta.
A Retrafta? “It’s something Martin and I made up. Where you act so badly, they come and take your Bafta off you.”
On set, they turn the hoses back on. It starts raining again on Baker Street. Cumberbatch tamps out his cigarette, and, about halfway between picnic table and sound stage, starts walking like Sherlock Holmes again.
Late August, 2011. Battersea Power Station.More than 50 crew members, actors and sundry personnel are gathered on a location shoot. Ostensibly, they are here because the dilapidated early 20th-century grandeur of the power station – with its glowing walnut parquet floors, 20ft windows and rows of clockwork chrome dials – makes one of the most exquisite TV location-shoot interiors in Britain.
In reality, however, it’s hard to shake the suspicion everyone’s here because Moffat and Gatiss could not resist the lure of a single one-liner: summoned to Battersea by Mycroft, Watson notes, drily, “He’s got a power complex.”
Standing outside a location trailer is Martin Freeman. He is notably not wearing the safety helmets that are mandatory for everyone else on set, and is in the middle of explaining to one of the Sherlock runners – who is wearing her safety helmet – just why this is.
“I’m a big fish, you see, love,” he says, sipping at his tea. “I’m… Johnny Big Bollocks. And you’re… you’re… what’s that stuff whales eat? Krill. You’re krill. Location krill. Krill wears a helmet.”
Freeman is on very good form today. Incredibly funny and incredibly filthy, he makes a comment about Una Stubbs that it would be inappropriate to repeat in The Times. (“I’ve been flirting with Una,” he concludes, after the bad story. “Well, it’s actually sexual aggression, but I often find the line between the two quite blurry.”)
This season of Sherlock has been scheduled around Freeman’s Watson. Having committed to a second series of Sherlock, Freeman was then offered the role of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming, multimillion-dollar, two-film version of The Hobbit. A man of honour, Freeman had to – agonisingly – turn down The Hobbit, only for Jackson to declare that Freeman was the only man for the job and shift the entire, gigantic production schedule around him.
This time next year, after the release of The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, Freeman will be one of the most recognisable men on the planet. In the meantime, it typifies Sherlock’s embarrassment of riches that he’s sitting in a car park in Battersea, drinking tea and waiting to play Dr Watson.
“This is harder than The Hobbit,” he says. “That’s a half-a-billion dollar operation. The way they look after you is… nuts, really. I mentioned that I’d seen this gig with these two great DJs, doing Northern Soul, then a couple of weeks later, I go into the lunch tent, and they’d got these two blokes with their turntables, with their speakers and a bit of lino, so they could do their Northern Soul turns. Just for me. It’s a weird thing being incredibly grateful while you’re eating your lunch, stone-cold sober, in what is essentially a nightclub.”
Freeman does Sherlock because he loves it. He regards Cumberbatch incredibly highly: “He’s sweet and generous in an almost childlike way. He’s very easy to screw over. I could take advantage of him playing cards. Actually, I must take advantage of him playing cards. But as an actor, he’s one of the very few people I’ve worked with whose taste I don’t question. Even subconsciously I’m not going, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have done it like that.’ He commits.”
Freeman is called out for a shot. I wander over to Cumberbatch’s trailer. He’s dressed as Sherlock, and looks a bit bored.
“Is my eye spasming?” he says. “I can feel it spasming. Is it spasming? Look! Look! It’s doing it now.”
I can see nothing.
“I’ve never been this near a power station before,” he frets.
“It’s been decommissioned since 1983,” I remind him.
Cumberbatch pretends to dislike Freeman. “He’s always doing kung fu on me,” he says, mock-peevishly. “We’ll be standing around, and I won’t be paying any attention to him, and then he suddenly goes, ‘HYYYMMNNNN’ and his hand is right next to my windpipe.” He pauses. “On the other hand, before now he’s asked to have jokes for Watson taken out of the script, because he says it’s taking the attention away from me doing Holmes. He’ll be doing some subtle, Mike Leigh thing, and I’ll be… the posh talkative one with the flouncy coat.”
Cumberbatch goes on to talk about how Sherlock’s overnight success has changed his life. “In my career, I hadn’t really made myself a target [for the media]. I had played Stephen Hawking, Van Gogh, William Pitt the Younger, Frankenstein… and now…” he sighs, and tries to think of an example.
“One woman came up to me,” he says, eventually, “and asked me about my favourite cheese. I told her which one – how you chisel away so you can get a little shard that tastes so good, because you’ve worked so hard for it. Then she said, ‘Can you draw the cheese?’ and I’m afraid I said no. You know,” he says, both despairingly and indignantly, “it’s really difficult to draw cheese.”
We then move on to what I think is the most devastating revelation I’ve ever got from an interview subject: Cumberbatch does not like his Sherlock hair.
“I was short and blonde in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and I really, really didn’t like coming back to this hair for this second series. I can’t think of a wittier or even accurate comparison, but I just think it makes me look a bit like… a woman.”
November 2011. Air Studios, Hampstead. As part and parcel of the lavishness of Sherlock, it has a proper score – written by the Grammy Award-winning Bond soundtrack composer, David Arnold, and Michael Price.
I walk in just as the orchestra is syncing to the emotional denouement of the episode. Benedict’s face looms, huge and pale, on the screens; the piano and strings fall like sad rain. Sherlock’s own violin motif rises and falls, like a bird dying of heartbreak. It’s impossibly affecting. You just don’t get this on Midsomer Murders.
Arnold – a man of martini-dry humour – composed Sherlock’s theme tune, too.
“If you look at the score to the theme tune,” he says, in his rumbly murmur, “the notes spell out ‘SHERLOCK’.”
“Really?” I ask.
“No, you tit,” he replies. “That’s Morse.”
Between takes, all the talk is of the forthcoming Sherlock premiere, at the British Film Institute, London. It is becoming an increasingly big deal – the blogosphere is in a state of mild hysteria about it.
“There are tickets being touted for £350 on eBay,” David Arnold says. “£350.” He pauses. “If I can get them up to £500, I’m having a skiing holiday. And I can’t even ski.”
December 2011. The Sherlock premiere at the BFI. Dedicated Sherlock fans have been camping outside the BFI since 5.30am, in the bitter cold, hoping for returns.
It’s now 5pm, and BFI staff have let them inside, where the 50 most dedicated clutch cameras and presents for the cast. Well, Cumberbatch, really. They’re all here for Cumberbatch. When he walks into the room, there is proper fan-girl screaming – followed by low, communal moans over his beauty. You don’t usually get this for stars of classy BBC Sunday night dramas.
Sitting on a bench, observing all the pandemonium, is a slight figure in a woolly hat. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent it’s Una Stubbs.
“Why aren’t you in the green room with the rest of the cast?” I ask her. “Oh, I don’t want to make a fuss,” she says, cheerfully.
In the cinema, there are whoops and screams as Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Benedict Cumberbatch enter and take their seats. The opening credits to A Scandal in Belgravia begin in a room full of love and excitement – but what you notice, as you watch it, is how much more love and excitement there is on the screen.
However much the fans of Sherlock love Sherlock, it is dwarfed by the passion and obsession of the people who actually make it. On a tiny BBC budget, on schedules that nearly broke everybody, the new series of Sherlock looks like a love affair with possibility and ambition: visually dazzling and vibrating with unexpected neural leaps, it spends half its time being the funniest show on TV, and then casually cracks your heart, right across the centre. And, oh, the sheer brightness. I have seen audiences clap for things that move them, or make them laugh – but this is the first time I have ever seen a plot-point so clever and unexpected that it prompts a whole room to applaud it.
Sherlock’s instant eminence, the first time it broadcast, seems obvious: it does only take 90 minutes for everything to change when you’re moving this fast. This kind of velocity is inarguable.
Three minutes in, Mark Gatiss leans over to Steven Moffat and whispers something. Moffat starts to laugh – and then looks quite sombre.
Afterwards, in the bar, I ask Moffat what Gatiss said. “That it’s never going to get any better than this,” he replies. “I started to laugh, because I thought it was a joke – and then I realised he was right. It probably won’t get any better than this.”
“Until we write the next series, obviously.” He looks down into his wine. “That’s going to be amazing.”
Series two of Sherlock starts on BBC One on New Year’s Day