Interview: Sherlock creators give clues to Holmes’ enduring appeal

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss say success of their hit BBC series in the US is elementary — it’s Holmes’ ‘Britishness’

The secret to the show’s success? Elementary, my dear Watson.
PBS-Hartwood Films for the BBC, Colin Hutton/AP Images

LONDON — Sherlock Holmes is one of the world’s most easily recognizable characters. But when Scottish doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Holmes story in 1887, few could have guessed that he would spawn 66 official stories — and a legacy that is still going strong 127 years later.

So beloved has the character become that countless interpretations and adaptations have been made of the quintessential detective, complete with pipe, deerstalker and unwavering rational thought. He has transcended his Victorian origins and has fought Nazis, moved to the modern world and even battled robots in the future.

On Sunday one of most popular renderings in recent history — the BBC’s “Sherlock” series — returns to U.S. screens on PBS.

The show’s executive producer, Steven Moffat, is a giant in British broadcasting — having already relaunched another icon in the form of Doctor Who. Moffat, along with the show’s co-creator Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s spymaster brother Mycroft in the series), sat down with Al Jazeera America’s Phil Ittner to talk about the significance of Sherlock, what drew them to the stories and where they want to take the world’s best known sleuth.

Q: What is it about the Sherlock Holmes character that appeals to so many?

Gatiss: I think it’s testament to Conan Doyle’s writing — that the characters were an almost immediate hit — and we’ve always regarded our version as a sort of restoration of that. By doing it in the modern day, it was a way of sort of re-presenting the original premise and having fun with it. And I think more than anything, what people have responded to is the fun of the show, which is so much what Doyle’s stories were actually like. Over years and years of accumulating various versions and Victoriana, people had slightly lost sight of the fact that they’re enormous fun! They’re quick reads, they’re jolly thrilling, blood-curdling thrilling adventures  and really, that’s what we wanted to do.

Q: Why is Holmes so adaptable?

Moffat:  He’s an icon of reason, a man who can look at anything and understand it. It feels like a superpower you could learn with a little effort. But he’s so vivid, so clear that character!  From the very beginning when he’s presented as a contemporary figure in the Strand Magazine, through all those movies where sometimes he’s a contemporary figure as in ours, more often he’s presented in his original Victorian form, but the thing you’d have to say — very simply and very obviously — it’s a brilliant piece of writing! The original is astonishing. It’s an astonishingly clear idea, not just Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. You get all the reason and the fun and the heroism of this swashbuckling brilliant detective — who’s  slightly alarming and strange — and you get him sort of….

Gatiss: ….through the eyes of an ordinary man who’s sort of us really….

Moffat: ….who represents us. And yet there’s this incredibly warm close friendship between them. That’s always been important, that’s not something that we put in. The friendship between Holmes and Doctor Watson is right at the heart of it.

Gatiss: Sherlock is the original, all detectives come from Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle himself acknowledged the influence of Edgar Allen Poe, but really, Sherlock is the one, and everything onwards is people drawing a line from Sherlock and Doctor Watson. Agatha Christie does it explicitly and makes Poirot short and round as opposed to tall and lean. He needs a Watson, so she creates Captain Hastings. Everywhere you go, this is the model. That’s why it’s imperishable I think.

Moffat: Even outside the world of detection, I think Doyle began the idea that super-intelligence comes at the price of some kind of social dysfunction, something that we’ve grasped as a narrative possibility ever since. He’s a genius, therefore he’s a bit strange. I don’t know how often that happens in real life, but it happens a lot in fiction. And all those strange, autistic, driven geniuses that you see in fiction, they are all — even the ones who are not detectives — they’re all the descendants of Sherlock Holmes.

Gatiss: And they need an audience, and I think that makes them relatable. There’s a couple of the original Doyle stories which are told by Sherlock Holmes himself, and they’re not the same. Because without the filter of Doctor Watson, he’s unbearable!

Moffat: Yes! He just boasts….

Q: Which elements from the original stories did you want to focus on?

Gatiss: Something that appealed to us when we read them as children is how alarming he is, as Steven says, and the breadth of his social faux-pas….it’s kind of fun! But equally, Doyle’s very hot on the fact that he’s extremely good and sensitive with women. He actually knows how to do it. It doesn’t actually make him one of us, but he can act it. He’s extremely good and gentle with lots of distressed ladies in the original stories. So it was about foregrounding those things. And again, the brio of it: the man who will come into a room and he doesn’t know how to say ‘Hello, good morning’ — he’ll just barge past someone and say ‘I can see by the stain on your curtains that you murdered someone last night.’

Q: What drew you to Sherlock Holmes?

Moffat: We’d always wanted to do Sherlock, and we’re both huge Sherlock Holmes fans, so it began as a fan enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes. We were working on another show at the time and we were on trains together a lot and we kept talking about how much we loved Sherlock Holmes and which films we liked best. There was a moment I remember that you were possibly working on a Sherlock Holmes project a whole back with a couple of well-known actors…

Gatiss: Oh right, yes.

Moffat: And I remember thinking ‘Oh God, I wish I was doing that, that’s so exciting.’ And we started talking about all the various films — and there are those films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that are updated to the 1940s — and we sort of haltingly admitted to each other that somehow, in some strange magic way, mad and cheaply-made though they are, they somehow caught more of Sherlock Holmes than many of the more serious adaptations. And the very obvious step — that’s updated to the 1940’s, just a different period piece, as far as we’re concerned — we sort of started to speculate: ‘Is someone going to do that again for Sherlock Holmes? Update it to the modern day?’ And of course we just started thinking: ‘It should be us! We’ll be so cross if it’s not us!’

Gatiss: I think it was obvious heresy, because the received opinion is that everyone is fond of them, but those films are outrageous — but they’re not! They’re actually closer in spirit to Doyle than most other versions. That, plus Billy Wilder’s film ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’ which we’ve also always loved, and it plays so fast and loose — exactly the way Doyle would have done. The sort of light bulb moment was when in the midst of a new Afghan War — Doctor Watson in the first story is invalided home from war service in Afghanistan — it was so straightforward a parallel! And then we left about three years of talking on trains and doing nothing about it! 

Moffat: I mentioned it to my wife who is a TV producer, who immediately leapt at it. Which was interesting in itself, because Sue is in no way a Sherlock Holmes fan, but she was instantly riveted by that idea. There are many ideas we’ll be talking about in the day and she pays no attention, but instantly fascinated by the idea of a modern Sherlock Holmes, as everybody seemed to be at that time. When we pitched it to the BBC they were instantly interested. It was the easiest pitch ever. We just said: ‘Sherlock Holmes in the modern day’ and they said ‘yep’.

Q: Is there a limitation to what you can do with Holmes?

Moffat: There are sixty original stories, so you can go for a while…

Gatiss: As with the Basil Rathbone films, we pick and choose bits and pieces. Most of it is actually completely new, so there’s not a drying-up of the source. But also, in the third season we’re slightly broadening out the world a bit and being slightly more heretical than we probably would have been at the beginning. But then that’s good, it feels like this is our version and we’re doing that now. There’s a long way to go, and everyone is very keen to carry on, despite becoming superstars, which is an accidental by-product of our show!

Q: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to the character Holmes and Watson?

Moffat: Our sense of responsibility is hard-wired into us by our love of the originals. We don’t have to think about how to feel responsible. We sort of know what is right for Sherlock Holmes — or we think we do —and what is wrong . At the same time you have to be pushing the edges of that all the time. There is no point in doing the heretical version, the updated version, there’s no point in confronting with the modern world if you’re just going to do it the same.

Gatiss: They’d become safe again

Moffat: Yes, exactly. This is a sort of the alternative universe of Sherlock Holmes. Where instead of it happening then he’s happened now. So, there’s just what’s right. There’s no limit, there’s just what’s right. It’s like Sherlock Holmes happened all over again and how did it work out this time?

Q: Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such a global phenomenon?

Gatiss: It does go right back to the fact that they are definitive. They’re originals. And I think over the years of so many different films, etc. They’re incredibly identifiable icons. They’re so get-able. So I think that translates…we’ve seen most versions in some form or another. There’s an amazing Indian version of Hound of the Baskervilles where the hound is a sort of god, a terrifying god. It’s all still sort of there. There’s a version where Sherlock is a dog.

Moffat: There’s a version…while Basil Rathbone was helping Britain fight the Nazis in the Second World War on the other side of that war there were propaganda films made by the Nazis in which Sherlock Holmes was helping them! So everyone’s take…it’s British-ness, its English-ness, whatever you want to call that…is its selling point. When we see something from another country, we want it to be…if  I watch an American show I want it to be really American! I don’t want it to be halfway American. I want a proper American show. So if you’ve got a British character you want him to be properly British.

Gatiss: I think what we’ve done though which has definitely been successful is that you can look across the world and you’ll show someone a deerstalker and they know that’s Sherlock Holmes; the pipe and ‘elementary, my dear Watson,' people know the sort of boiled down version wherever you go. What’s lovely is to be able to present it and smuggle in lots of references to the original story. Which people who know them well will get. But also what’s hugely happened to us is people have gone back to Conan Doyle through the series. And then they go, ‘Oh, I see. You’ve used that. Oh, that’s clever, that’s nice. And that’s very thrilling. And we get lots of wonderful letters from people who’ve completely rediscovered it or discovered it for the first time. Especially children. And I think they probably see Benedict (Cumberbatch) and Martin (Freeman) in those stories, even though they’re Victorian. That’s fantastic.

Moffat: Yeah. Absolutely.

Q: Do you write with the Show’s fans in mind?

Moffat: We know very little about how the specifics of how the fans respond to Sherlock. So nothing they’re seeing is in response to them. The thing is, a lot of the things…if we’re talking about Sherlock’s celebrity within the show are us…

Gatiss:  It’s inbuilt.

Moffat: It’s in the original. In the original Doyle stories. Sherlock Holmes is a celebrity.

Gatiss: And a growing celebrity

Moffat: Yea. He gets more and more famous through the stories.

Gatiss: And he comments on the stories. It’s an amazing in-joke. Immediately. That he criticizes the stories he’s telling. He picks up The Strand magazine and says, ‘I can’t congratulate you on this. This is rubbish.' And it’s the story you’ve just read! (laughs) And, you know, we are very aware there’s a huge fanbase and it’s fantastically creative. But we’re not…we’re writing it for ourselves as we always have. We’re just having fun with it. And there are a couple of references in the new series to some of the wilder reaches of that. But it is in no way an exclusive thing. It’s not trying to write it for fans. Except for us, because we’re the fans.

Moffat: It’s an interesting conjecture that whole thing…about is this just for the fans? It’s got some of the highest ratings in the country. There must be an awful lot of them.

Gatiss: Well, in that case it is for the fans. And then that’s the audience.

Moffat: Yeah.

Gatiss: Curious things happen. Somebody said, they put in a reference to the squash ball which is a popular theory. It’s the solution!  And it’s in the end of episode six, the Reichenbach Fall, because that’s how he did. And it’s somehow become interpreted as us going, ‘that’s a popular theory, we’ll pop that in.' You can’t win really.

BOTH: laughing.

The third season of ‘Sherlock’ premiers in the USA on Sunday, 19 January 2014.

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