Sherlock – The Hounds of Baskerville (written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Paul McGuigan) previewed at a special BAFTA Cymru screening in Cardiff on 4 January 2011. BBC Wales and BAFTA Cymru were kind enough to invite me to the event.
After the screening there was a Q&A hosted by Matthew Sweet and featuring Mark Gatiss, Stephen Moffat, Sue Vertue and Benedict Cumberbatch.
A transcript of the Q&A (more or less) is below. It contains spoilers for Scandal and Hounds and assumes you know how The Final Problem ends.
Matthew Sweet – This story has been told many many times before. It’s the most filmed novel in the history of literature so what kind of surgery did you have to perform on it Mark when you decided that this was the story you wanted to do?
Mark Gatiss – The biggest challenge was that because it’s the most famous Sherlock Holmes story and as you say the most filmed story ever is that everybody has seen a version of it. And it feels like there are a lot more moments in the original story that people are familiar with and you feel you have to honour a bit more. Unlike say The Sign of Four which is a less known story so you feel you could take more liberties but something about The Hound of the Baskervilles, the signal on the Moor, the names of the characters & things that like which were very very exciting and you felt you had to honour those moments. I took to calling it the Bitch not the Hound as it is an intractable story.
Steven Moffat – When we looked at the book the reason Doyle moves Sherlock Holmes out of most of the book is that if he turned up to early he’d just say “oh look for a big dog it’s not that hard.” So actually delaying the solution and the brilliant idea of Sherlock actually seeing a hound & therefore being thrown of the scent as it were was the solution there. But as a mystery novel The Hound of the Baskervilles doesn’t actually work. It works as a ghost story but making it work as a mystery was monstrously difficult.
Mark Gatiss – It’s always disappointing when you read it as a child as you think he’s not in this one so to grab hold of it and have Sherlock say “I wouldn’t miss this for the world” was very energising and exciting.
Matthew Sweet Is it exciting to manage audience expectations of those who are familiar with the novel? It took Henry a long time to get his famous line out “ the footsteps of a gigantic hound”.
Mark Gatiss – Well to some extent that’s for fans isn’t it? Fans of the original stories to delay expectations as you said but then there are also things like the signalling on the Moor and I suddenly had this revelation that it’s dogging. It takes care of that moment & actually reinvents it.
Matthew Sweet – Sue the dog is usually a physical animal when its being represented and there is always this moment of crushing disappointment when an unwilling bull dog is kicked into the frame but here it’s both and I wonder what kind of conversations you had about how to realise this creature which is both sort of a metaphor & something physical.
Sue Vertue– Many many conversations!
Mark Gatiss – The reassuring thing about it having been done 75 times before is that you realise throughout history since 1902 people have sat in rooms going “How are we going to do the bloody dog?”
Sue Vertue – The Mill did a fantastic job with the CGI.
Mark Gatiss – The great thing is that there is a great get out clause because Doyle cheats too. When Watson sees the Hound coming through the fog he says that there is fire rolling out of its eyes and it’s not true. It’s just glow in the dark paint but the idea was to have our cake and eat it. We explain it away that there is a dog but it’s just a savage dog
Sue Vertue – And it was going to be a headless dog but then we realised that there were going to be all kinds of problems with that.
Mark Gatiss – there is a Devon legend about a headless hound and I thought that’s interesting…
Benedict Cumberbatch – This is the first time I’ve seen it so I didn’t know when the reveal was going to come and it holds your suspense so beautifully because it’s always the best thing when the monster is kept to the end as when you know it’s a fiction you’ve dismissed it and you have to justify it again so I think the timing of it is crucial.
Matthew Sweet – You’re the first screen Sherlock Holmes to believe that this creature exists and to have his rationalism shaken.
Benedict Cumberbatch I think he had to be dragged in or drugged in because he’s there, he’s on the case so how on earth would it… The discovery of the monster or the creature is what Sherlock would have been doing. He would have looked for the big dog in the area so the fact that he is pulled in and that he sees it early on is a byproduct of him being involved earlier.
Matthew Sweet – It seems more suitable for your character as you are one of the more febrile and neurotic Holmes in about 100 years.
Benedict Cumberbatch Oh I don’t know I think they all have their fair share of paranoia and idiosyncrasies and psychotropic drug usage. Possibly, possibly. He’s young as well.
Mark Gatiss – We’ve talked about this. One of the great things about them starting as young men is that they are not fully formed. They have only recently moved in together and there is a lot of fun to be had from that. This is not Sherlock Holmes at 55 who is absolutely definite about his world view. He is still capable of having it challenged or shaken so across these three stories we wanted to do Sherlock and love, Sherlock and fear, Sherlock and death and that’s what we described it as.
Matthew Sweet – how did you go about choosing which stories you would fasten upon for this series? Was it simply a matter of choosing the best that Doyle has to offer and cannibalising them and making them your own?
Steven Moffat – It was possibly because it had been, and I’ll just mention this, such a huge hit that everyone was asking when we were going to do the Hound, everyone wanted Moriarty back and if they knew their stories they also said what are you going to do about Irene Adler? So we said that we could feed these stories over the next 12 years very slowly and kill him off in the last episode and it would be much more exciting. Kidding! Mind you… I just watched it today (The Reichenbach Fall) it’s heartbreaking isn’t it? I think the concept was to hell with deferred pleasure let’s just do them all now.
Matthew Sweet – I suppose Doyle killed him off at the end of the second series didn’t he?
Benedict how is this character changing for you?
Benedict Cumberbatch Gosh I don’t know where to start.
Matthew Sweet – what about the technique of deduction?
Benedict Cumberbatch I suppose it’s evident if you back up the episodes that it’s less about an immediate… they basically have an action outside of deducing the problem so its not a show of understanding detail and creating a pattern out of individual moments or signals its actually more about what they serve as a function telling the audience about his state, about the relationship to the person being deduced, about the audience..
There is much more about who he is. We’re not just sitting back and marvelling at him talking quickly. The fact that in the pub he’s becoming completely undone and completely unwound is because he’s still suffering the side effects of the drugs and he doesn’t want to believe that he’s not who he was before he went to the Hollow.
I think deduction wise they have much more of a dramatic purpose other than just to show the extraordinary human skill that he has in weaving a fabric out of what seems to be nothing.
Mark Gatiss – That particular deduction he’s using it as a weapon. He’s proving his worth. It gives you the chance to do a big deduction but it has a different basis to it.
Steven Moffat – That was a challenge that one because we were thinking how can we make a dramatically interesting at this point. Does the scene just stop for him to do his parlour trick? And you came up with the brilliant idea of him doing it to prove that he’s still sane and I think it’s one of his finest hours.
Mark Gatiss – He needs to prove that he’s still Sherlock Holmes.
Matthew Sweet – With the deductions there is almost this link between deduction and magic.
Mark Gatiss – Back to Doyle as one of the things you first love as a child is the notion of “I want to do that.” I remember going on the No 16 bus & trying to deduce peoples professions out of cigarette ash & things like that. They are the most difficult thing which is of course why Doyle fazed them out because they’re so hard to come up with. But if you get a good one, like the girl on the train which I thought of on the train to Cardiff mopping up my own coffee and thinking “well if I‘d written a phone number on there and I cared about it I’d go over it again with my own pen but maybe…” and it sorts of spins from there…
Matthew Sweet – Have your powers of deduction increased?
Benedict Cumberbatch We get quite good at it when you’re doing the series as your brain sort of tunes into it. Because its such a high state to be in that sort of alertness.
Mark Gatiss – At the time people would write in. There’s a wonderful story about The Adventure of the Priory School where Sherlock makes the deduction about the German master’s bicycle Mr Heidegger and Sherlock says he was obviously riding this way because of the tire impressions and someone wrote to him (Doyle) from Dunlop and said it was bollocks. And he rode around saying “Oh he’s right” and he retrospectively made something up in a letter to this man. Within the magic of it all because you buy into the idea that Sherlock Holmes is the most brilliant man in the world it does get you out of a lot of corners.
Matthew Sweet – when writing deductions what end do you start from?
Steven Moffat – You start from what you want to deduce and then make up a way of working it out and the marvellous thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he is never wrong. Whereas if you try in real life and you say “I see you’ve just come by bus” they say “No that’s someone elses bus ticket!”. They are great fun to make up and the good thing is you can make them sound persuasive rather than they would actually work. I remembering the bicycle one now which I completely bought when I read it. I can remember thinking that’s so clever “You can tell which direction he was going in because the rear wheel has crossed the path of the front wheel”. What the guy (who wrote in) said was the rear wheel is behind the front wheel so will always cross. But I completely bought it. So the trick is selling it and from Benedict’s point of view too.
Matthew Sweet – Have you come to believe it yourself?
Benedict Cumberbatch What that I have this power? Oh god no. You play someone like this and you really want to be able to do it.
It’s not like playing Superman where you put your pants on the outside of your trousers and jump off buildings it’s about something that is achievable, that’s the real magic of this, like magicians magic. You feel that it is real and with him it is the power of deduction, it is an ability to observe the world in absolute detail as it is and to construct a logic and an understanding out of that. And people do that in their daily profession. They don’t do that at his capacity but people who are criminal pathologists, people who piece together evidence in a case to represent someone in court, there are people doing it in every aspect of their life, teachers trying to sort out problem kids, there are people doing it all the time but it’s just about doing it in a mass of concentration and at incredible speed. It would be a lovely super power to have but it’s not a super power which is what makes it more tantalising.
Mark Gatiss – The great thing is it is based on a real man, on Doyle’s teacher Joseph Bell who did do it. He developed it to a precise degree and he would astonish people like a magician and as Sherlock himself says in the stories if I tell you how it’s done you’ll be disappointed. It’s like a trick you go from here to here and you knock out all the bits in between and it’s indistinguishable from magic but if you explain it everyone goes… (disappointed sound)
Matthew Sweet – This is a part which has a reputation for making incursions into the lives of the actors who play it.
Benedict Cumberbatch I do sometimes wish I was a bit more like him which is a dangerous wish isn’t it but it’s a skill set I wish I had.
Matthew Sweet – Do you have to keep him at bay?
Benedict Cumberbatch Well no I just keep myself busy doing other things as well but you do a little bit. My mum watched Scandal and she went “Try and bring home the nicer version that kisses Molly not the other one.” I think she was specifically talking about him saying “Hope you haven’t re-arranged the sock index this time.”
There are probably elements I need to be careful of and impatience with mediocrity and stupidity and having my time wasted, Good night (pretends to leave). I really love a lot of him and I like where he’s going it as it feels like there is an evolution to him. It’s not just about repeating the same magic. It’s about seeing him grow and mature and change as much as anyone can be changed by another person in a relationship but not ‘in a relationship” and that’s what Watson does amongst other things to bring Sherlock more into the world and that part of it is always fascinating to play.
Mark Gatiss – I remember your mum saying “You can’t play Sherlock Holmes you’ve got such a lovely little nose.”
Benedict Cumberbatch Oh that’s much nicer she just said “you’ve got the wrong nose”.
Matthew Sweet – How is Holmes as a character developing because its possible to argue that he’s a fairly static creation in the Doyle stories or that he changes by osmosis rather than by self conscious development?
Steven Moffat – I don’t know how conscious it was on the part of Doyle but it is something that we’re following because it works that he’s absolutely cold and terrifying in A Study in Scarlet and slowly moderates until he’s a much wiser, you would never say kind, but kinder man as the stories go on. At the beginning he’s humourless and you would say autistic but later on he’s much nicer.
Mark Gatiss – I think they both meet each other at exactly the right time. Donovan says Sherlock is going to end up straying on the other side of the law and John Watson is a shattered war hero and they just make a perfect partnership and we join them at that stage in their lives and they just gradually humanise each other
Matthew Sweet – and the result Sue is 9 point something million people tuning in.
Mark Gatiss – I think since we sat down it’s become 15 million!
Sue Vertue – It’s interesting because on Sunday I found these notes from our first ever meeting which I wrote down and it was quite interesting to see what you thought the basis was.
Matthew Sweet – what did it say?
Steven Moffat – There was an odd thing which we noticed and we’ve strayed from which is that in Doyle’s stories Doctor Watson never makes any jokes. He’s absolutely humourless and in fact our Doctor Watson is very funny so I suppose we’ve strayed.
Mark Gatiss – This is going into the detail now but in the brilliant introduction by Christopher Morley to the Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes he also takes issue with Doyles contention that Watson is humourless and states that all the references to the unrecorded cases are just basically very sly jokes from Watson.
Luckily what we’ve done in Martin is get one of the funniest and most brilliant actors you could get. At his core he’s an incredibly funny man but he can be absolutely heartbreaking like all the best Watsons.
Q – How do you react to The Guardian article accusing you of having a sexist Sherlock?
Steven Moffat – I don’t think I have a sparkling or witty response to that I was very cross about it to be honest. It’s one thing to criticise a programme, it’s another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and accuse him of having those feelings. I’m certainly not sexist or a misogynist and I think that was beyond the pale. I think that was wrong. I think that strayed from criticism to defamation and was wrong but then again you can’t take it too seriously I suppose. I wish I’d made a fantastic joke to finish that. If you can just imagine I did that would be great.
But it’s not true and certainly in terms of the character of Sherlock Holmes it’s interesting as he’s been referred to as a bit of a misogynist but he’s not. One of the lovely threads of the stories that we’ve picked up on is that whatever he says about women, he cannot abide anyone being cruel to a woman. Anyone harms a woman and he actually becomes incensed and full of rage. There is a wonderful moment in The Case of Identity where there is a stepfather who has been really mean and cruel to his stepdaughter and Sherlock Holmes grabs a riding crop off the wall and chases him. He just cannot bear it so far from being a misogynist he’s chivalrous. I think he’s frightened of women if we’re being very very honest and maybe with Irene Adler we saw why but I don’t think there is any misogyny in those stories at all. But is Sherlock Holmes sexist? He’s decided he wants to stay away from women but that’s not my fault.
Q – The Daily Mail said there was 25 minutes of titillating action before the 9 pm watershed…
Steven Moffat – You must have been re-winding it a lot if you found 25 minutes worth…
Sue Vertue – And then of course they printed the picture (of Lara Pulver as Irene Adler nude in the chair).
Steven Moffat – I think it’s worth saying very definitively, no nudity. Apparent nudity. She wasn’t naked. And you never saw any of the items that I’m sure the Daily Mail would have printed had they had the opportunity to do so. We were very cross with the Daily Mail for printing those pictures well, well before 6 o clock. Any child could have picked up that paper and been offended .
Q- He’s a very human Sherlock in this episode and he tries to get Watson back on side and I don’t think I’d read that in the books.Was that a departure for Sherlock do you think?
Mark Gatiss – No. It’s very sparing. He has to say “I don’t have friends I only have one”. He’s giving him something there but again this is early days. It takes Doyle until almost the very last story The Three Garridebs when Watson gets shot and he says “If you’ve hurt my Watson” and Watson says “It was worth every slice to hear that.” It’s rather moving and beautiful but he’s reaching out I think to demonstrate that he’s not a calculating machine.
Sue Vertue – In this series though I think Sherlock feels that they’re much more on the same side.
Mark Gatiss – They have a laugh and they’re a great unit and they have adventures together and they’re both aware that they’re having the best time of their lives. And what’s happening is that Sherlock keeps saying “Is that not good?” He’s learning in a rather endearing way I think. He’s trying to put out feelers to the world “Is this what I do?” “If I got on a bus now how would I behave?”
Q Did you ever expect Sherlock to be so huge?
Mark Gatiss – Right from the beginning from the pilot onwards we were very proud of it. It’s born of love. Steve and I had this idea years ago, a ridiculously long time ago now to do what the Rathbone films had done, which is really our favourite version, which was to bring them up to date and to have all the excitement of re-discovering the stories in that way. But it’s a love affair with Sherlock Holmes and it’s got that all over it. But the extent to which people have gone for it is absolutely extraordinary and humbling.
Sue Vertue – But I think it is the love that you have for it that comes across. When we were designing Sherlock’s bedroom and the joy that the two of you had deciding what was going to be in there!
Q – I was wondering what happened to the whale with the harpoon?
Mark Gatiss – It was a pig. I wanted a very striking opening and I was on the train to Cardiff and I rang Steven up and said “I’ve just re-read (The Adventure of) Black Peter and I’ve got it.” It’s a story very rarely done. It’s not a particularly memorable story but it has this fantastic opening where Sherlock comes back from walking through the streets of London with this harpoon and he’s been sticking it into pigs all day because a sailor has been found pinned to his wall and I thought well that’s it isn’t it?
Sue Vertue– It was just about the last thing we shot. The first thing we shot was you coming out of the shower and then we shot this about 4 months later.
Steven Moffat – I remember there was never enough blood. We had to keep sending Benedict back and saying more blood!
Q – From a creative point of view when you have such brilliant characters how much of a backstory do you have for them and how do you keep that in proportion if you find yourself being over-inventive?
Sue Vertue (To Benedict) Were you given back story?
Benedict Cumberbatch – Very little. I did the typical actorly thing of trying to find out about childhood traumas as there must be some with Sherlock beyond him deducing affairs at his mothers and ruining Christmas but I think I wanted to have those sort of hooks into him. I have come up with a few but we’re keeping them very close to our chests because there’s still so much more to explore and they might become truths about who he was and how he came to be.
Mark Gatiss – It’s also true that even if you have them in your head if you just open a window into them it’s much more fun.
Benedict Cumberbatch Exactly.
Mark Gatiss – That lovely line of Steve’s last year “You can imagine the Christmas dinners.” It’s much better to imagine them than to see them..
Benedict Cumberbatch And Bertie Carvel’s character talking about Sherlock and saying “He used to come down and try to impress us all with his tricks.” You just get a window onto how isolated Sherlock was and it’s a brilliant scene and of how isolated Sherlock would be in a normal student situation.
Mark Gatiss – The flipside of this of course is someone like Mrs Hudson who is really just a phantom character and we’ve given her quite a lot haven’t we about her husband and Sherlock ensuring he was executed. We’ve never actually explored that. It’s also the foundation of this extremely real and very warm relationship between them which is not anywhere present in the books but which feels earned.
Steven Moffat – Sometimes back story can be a false lure though in terms of understanding a character you only understand what they are now. I’ve known Mark for a very long time now and I know almost nothing of his backstory and he knows nothing of mine…
Mark Gatiss – I’m going to keep it that way.
Q – I was intrigued at the decision to soften Sherlock’s drug taking to a cigarette longing.
Steven Moffat – The truth is Holmes’ drug taking has been wildly exaggerated by the movies. It’s mentioned in the first few stories and the moment Doyle, I think, realises that the stories are a hit with kids it’s almost never mentioned again and it’s just the pipe and cigarette. He was never a drug addict. He never resorted to drugs during cases as the action was what he craved so we didn’t soften it down much. I think if anything we sort of re-set it to where it was in the stories. Something in his past that he may have gotten up to once. The critical thing about his addiction, about all his addictions is that they are substitutes for adventure and when he has an adventure he doesn’t need them anymore.
Mark Gatiss – He gets the cigarettes and throws them away because he doesn’t need them anymore he’s got a brilliant case. In Scandal it’s a danger night, they’re all worried about him, he might drift backwards and we’re not really saying what it is but we know he’s had some sort of history. We also had this conversation very early on about what’s the modern equivalent and the problem is what looked exotic in 1895 he would now just look like he worked in the media. He would just look like an idiot if he was on coke all the time.
Q – Do you think you have lost something about the self destructive nature of Holmes?
Benedict Cumberbatch Not at all. I mean look at the man. He pushes himself to the edge every single opportunity he gets. It’s all about controlling danger, it’s all about taking risk, it’s all about stepping into the unknown and the fact that he’s doing that through the game rather than the gear is more exciting for a viewer. I mean do you really want to see him slamming off the walls, off his head? It would be very dull. What we celebrate in him is how utterly dangerous he is and almost criminally dangerous at any given point with the world at large and that’s more exciting.
Mark Gatiss – In the first episode last year he almost takes a pill which may kill him just to see if he’s right. He’s on the edge in that sense but it’s also worth saying that unlike a lot of other Sherlock Holmes he’s totally happy in his own skin. He doesn’t take drugs or have cigarettes or anything because he’s miserable. He’s fine. It’s the rest of the world that needs to catch up and he craves stimulus because his mind is racing out of control. He needs work otherwise he’s got nothing.
Q – I thought it was a really nice reference to The Blue Carbuncle with Sherlock’s £50 bet and I know that you tweeted a while ago that you’d like to do a Christmas special based on The Blue Carbuncle and I wondered what the possibility of that was?
Mark Gatiss – It’s worth saying, and I’ve been saying this a lot in the last few weeks as people have been asking us if we can do ten a year that we have literally just finished this show and it’s on now. So unless someone can invent some new months between March and April then I don’t honestly think we could do more than 3 every 18 months and at the moment we haven’t got any plans for a one off Christmas special. But The Blue Carbuncle is a gorgeous story and I’m sure it would form the basis of a larger one very easily. It would be lovely to do a Christmas story.
Question about the editing done by Charlie Phillips.
Mark Gatiss – We owe a huge debt to Paul (McGuigan) and Toby Haynes who directs the next one. The visual look of these episodes has made a huge impact on everybody.
Question about Martin’s apparent lack of screentime in Scandal and whether it was a conscious decision in Hounds to feature him more?
Steven Moffat – Not especially. Its just about the demands of the story and of the scene. In Scandal I couldn’t make the scene work the first time that Irene and Sherlock meet without John being there. I kept writing it and it didn’t work because it was a meeting between these two arch extraordinarily exotic creatures talking to each other and it was like watching a meeting taking place on another planet and you needed John to be in there to anchor it. At the same time at the end of that episode there is a period where John disappears for a while and that is when Sherlock is at his most vulnerable when he is realising that he’s screwed up and that Irene has tricked him and all that. And you had to take John out of those scenes because taking Sherlock’s wingman away makes him vulnerable. You think “Oh he could lose now.” So it’s really just down to the moment. And actually one of the most talked about scenes in Scandal is actually between Irene and John when the two of them meet in the middle of that episode so it’s just about the demands of the moment.
Q – Is there much time for rehearsal?
Benedict Cumberbatch We have about 2 or 3 days rehearsal at most which is pretty rare in television.
Mark Gatiss – It’s very rare in television so anything is good to have actually.
Sue Vertue – You use the rehearsals more for talking generally than for doing specific scenes.
Benedict Cumberbatch – Yeah we did my scene in Scandal and some others.
Mark Gatiss – But of course you can rehearse a scene, take for example the scene between Irene, Sherlock and Mycroft at the end of Scandal which we did rehearse and then we got to the location and had to re-block it about 3 times. We shot the bulk of it at about 5 in the morning and the whole thing had changed because of the location. So I think it’s much more important to talk your way through a scene so you know where you are with it more than saying “I’m definitely going to come in here or stand over there.”
Matthew Sweet– Well we saw love last week, fear tonight, now we only have death to look forward to…