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Holmes and Watson

Since he was first introduced to the world in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has captured the imaginations of readers and viewers with his wit and wisdom and logic, solving the most mysterious crimes plaguing London. In the past year, there has been somewhat of a Holmes revival, as Robert Downey Jr. played the detective in the fast-paced and humorous Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes.

Now PBS is jumping on the bandwagon, airing three episodes of their popular Masterpiece Mystery series dedicated to Holmes. The show will star Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement) as Holmes and Martin Freeman (The Office UK version) as his loyal friend, Dr. Watson. With a bit of sleuthing ourselves, Dish caught up with Cumberbatch and co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffat to discuss Holmes, Watson, and all things ”elementary” for reviving the classic super-sleuth.

Like most British youths, this role is hardly Cumberbatch’s first encounter with Doyle’s famous detective, he says, recalling his childhood readings of the novels left him “Hungry for more, it’s just very addictive reading, and it’s an utterly absorbing world in character. It’s thrilling as a child to read those books. You get drawn into a London which suddenly becomes alive like a pop-up book.”

The 34-year -old actor acknowledges he is only the latest in a string of actors to don the character’s deerstalker cap. “It is the most played literary fictional character. I follow in the footsteps of about 230-odd people, in many different languages, and different ages, different times as well. And while that is daunting I think, for any actor to play an iconic character there’s a huge pressure that’s associated with delivering something that everyone knows culturally, especially in our country.”

Holmes and Watson

Despite the series’ rich on-screen legacy, Cumberbatch concedes “I didn’t watch a lot of interpretations before filming specifically.” However, he was familiar with the most famous portrayals. “I had over time seen Jeremy Brett, seen Basil Rathbone – yeah, they’re my ultimate late-Victorian Holmeses.”

Storied history notwithstanding, the newest Sherlock is very excited about the series’ reinvention of the Victorian genius for the modern age. “There is an element of blank canvas because of this brilliant reinvention and reinvigoration of him being a 21st century hero.” But long-time fans need not worry, he assures us. “It maintains the integrity of Conan Doyle’s original, much to the enjoyment, I hope, of die-hard fans of the books, and hopefully to new people.”

Co-creator Mark Gatiss also spoke about the process of pulling Holmes and Dr. Watson into the era of Twitter and text messaging. He points out “Holmes was absolutely ahead of his time and a cutting-edge person embracing all kinds of technology of the 1930s, always sending off telegrams… you just think:, ‘Well, he’s operating now, and here are the modern versions of that. So it made absolute sense that he’s completely across technology, that he’s using text messaging instead of having huge filing systems… He’s very media savvy.”

Fellow co-creator Steven Moffat agreed, and hinted that the new Sherlock might have a data-plan. “You know, the fact that Sherlock always preferred to send telegrams, even once the telephone got invented, meant that he was born for texting.” As for “my dear Watson?” The good doctor might find a place on WebMD if this whole “detective” thing doesn’t work out; he has joined the ranks of the bloggers. In what he describes as a “lightbulb” moment, Moffat and Gatiss decided to swap out Dr. Watson’s signature memoirs for HTML, “Of course, it’s a blog… that kind of thing is just fun when you realize they’re perfect, the number of perfect equivalencies”

However, the inspector will be leaving some of his less kosher habits behind. While it’s understood that Holmes used narcotics and smoked a pipe, Gatiss and Moffat weren’t keen on depicting this. “It’s the 21st century. Only stupid people take cocaine,” Gatiss commented. “Sherlock Holmes is not stupid, and it’s also been massively blown out of proportion. The amount of versions you see where Holmes is shooting up in the middle of the most exciting case of his career. Whereas he, in fact, only took drugs as a distraction from boredom. But at the same time, we wanted to play and leave a little gray area that he might be somehow, because he has an addictive personality, he might always be on the verge of going into a very dark place.”

Sherlock Holmes

Gatiss also discusses the character flaws of Holmes—his social ineptness—as well as his ability to charm the socks off of women—a trait that Cumberbatch portrays well. “[Holmes] is very bad in social situations like a lot of high-functioning people in that way; his social skills are terrible…But also stuff that’s in the original is about how good he is at talking to women…He knows what to do, but sometimes you suspect it’s all kind of an act…It’s a brilliantly learned thing. So we’ve got a bit in the show when he’s trying to get some corpses wheeled out of examination, and he flirts outrageously with Molly Hopper, the morgue attendant, and compliments her on her hair. She turns away a little, all aflutter, and Ben’s face just drops. It’s really quite chilling. Because he’s just flipped the switch, gone into charming mode.” 

This flipping of the switch is something that Cumberbatch understands he needs to be well versed at doing if he’s going to do the role justice. Holmes, to him, isn’t big into wearing literal costumes, and he doesn’t in this series, “just noses and funny hairdos, and glasses and have a limp or do strange accents. What he does do, though, is mercurially slip out of temperament and character to assuage or persuade somebody that they are able to have compassion for one standing in front of him…So there’s a cruelty. There’s an intention to it all. It is part of what makes him pretty special.” / Issue 113 - September 8495
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