Tea with 'Sherlock'

Investigating the Investigators

by Natalia Kutsepova

20 May 2012

BBC's Sherlock has crossed the pond for the second time to find a lively, if not exactly raging, fanbase waiting. Why is it now that the idea of a reinventing Sherlock Holmes is suddenly so alluring?


BBC’s Sherlock has crossed the pond for the second time to find a lively, if not exactly raging, fanbase waiting. Ten thousand applications for the two hundred seats offered by PBS to the fans? Impressive. A polite, manageable line at the doors of the screening’s undisclosed (really?) location squeals in unison and delight but stays in place as Benedict Cumberbatch—truth be told, the main attraction of the series and the evening—walks through the door. Also present today will be the venerable Steven Moffat, Sherlock‘s creator and the current Tardis chief, and his wife, producer Sue Vertue, the woman who got the series off the ground. The American host is Rebecca Eaton, PBS Masterpiece’s producer in charge of Sherlock. There will be food and drink, an excerpt from “A Scandal in Belgravia”, questions, answers, coffee and autographs.

Unseen, Cumberbatch, Moffat and Vertue watch the audience as “A Scandal in Belgravia” begins to roll. “We were standing behind the screen at the beginning, I wonder if you knew it, but it was a cheeky way of just seeing what the reaction would be,” explains Cumberbatch later. Out of 400 present, there are, we estimate, three people who held out and haven’t already devoured a hasty download of series two. The response is none the worse for that: all applause, laughter and everything on the scale between happy screaming and appreciative purring. Forty minutes later, the lights are on and the guests submit themselves to questions. But first, Eaton produces a happy and extremely welcome announcement: “[PBS] Masterpiece will be co-producing with BBC Wales and with Hartswood Films the next series of Sherlock that will go into production early in 2013 and will be on the air here sometime in 2013. That’s official.” What follows is a scatter of seemingly unlikely topics: Machiavelli, imaginary tea with Martin Crieff the crazy pilot, visits to the morgue (“I recommend it,” deadpans Cumberbatch), a bed in a field, Frankenstein, a black whip with a red heart at the end of it. A great deal of warmth is in the air: hardly anyone in the room is out of any of these quirky loops.

Steven Moffat, the beloved founding father of the show (along with Mark Gatiss, sadly absent at the event), has long been dubbed “the biggest troll ever” for his ability to mercilessly subvert the nuttiest and cleverest of expectations, produce unthinkable plot twists and dizzying cliffhangers, thus bestowing much sweet frustration onto unsuspecting audiences. How short of a genius? Nearly naught, we think. Both hilarious and a sage, he drills his dark eyes deep into whatever he is looking at, controls people with a slight movement of one eyebrow, and speaks an unintended comedy further spiked by the remnants of his Scottish accent. With Vertue, they form a perfect tandem, providing sparkles of challenge and tiny jabs to each other, to the delight of the onlookers. It’s curious, too, to track the dynamics between the two and Cumberbatch. They adore him—a bright child quite worthy of adults’ pride but in need of guidance and perhaps an occasional light slap on the hand. For reasons other than censoring, the 90-minute episodes of Sherlock have to be cut down to 82 minutes. There aren’t any politically correct American scissors: Moffat and Vertue are in charge of the cutting. But Cumberbatch is still very unhappy: “I hate it. I do, I do! I genuinely want you to have the full feast. It’s not fair, you’re as loyal as any other fan in any other part of the world but it’s a politically dangerous thing for me to be sat on this stage saying it, I feel two producers leaning in to tell me to stop.” Rebecca points out that PBS aren’t the ones making the edits. Moffat is rolling his eyes: “Yeah. Just not approved with Benedict, apparently.” Snap!

Cumberbatch radiates warmth, talks fast and is visibly tired. Unlike Sherlock’s iconic stencil of a face, his is softer, lower in contrast, even considering the dark Star Trek hair. Unlike Sherlock’s, his heart is visible on his sleeve, not stuffed into a tin box and shoved under a bed till better (or worse) times. Can we compare them? “How much are you like your character?” is always somewhat of an insult to an actor, easily translated into “how well can you do your job”? Of course Cumberbatch is like every character he plays, or he wouldn’t be considered what he is—an exquisite actor of sizable, and expanding, range. Of course there is an awful lot of him that’s not at all like Sherlock, yet he inhabits the consulting detective with such effervescence, and in ways so strikingly distinct from his other roles, that one does suspect an alchemy of personal affinity. Obviously, it would have little to do with uncovering Benedict as a closet sociopath or endowing him with Sherlock’s motivations, but Sherlock was never written in abstract—there were no other candidates for the part, and as the series progressed, the writing was being adjusted to highlight Cumberbatch’s strengths; in this way, he did have to do with the emergence of Sherlock as we know him. They share a body that can be still, even languid, yet is prone to sudden bursts of uncannily fast movement. They share a swift tongue, even though Sherlock’s machine-gun deductions are difficult for Benedict: “...everyone’s very patient when we’re getting through the trauma of doing it.” They definitely share an inquiring, agile mind that is capable of self-observation; admittedly, in Sherlock’s case the analysis is a little bit skewed, and straightening it out is the point of his character’s development.

Cumberbatch is the only physical reality that this Sherlock Holmes will ever possess, and the air in the room full of grown-up people is slightly dizzy with dream-like, childish bliss of actually, goodness me, seeing him. Understandably, having invested their hearts in Sherlock’s image, the fans worry about his flesh-and-blood vessel. The uncontrolled explosion of demand for the actor, the sun and the fun of LA, Hollywood blockbuster mentality, Star Trek‘s top secret villain—what if they claim Cumberbatch and whisk him, body and soul, irretrievably away? What if there is no more wiry, tinkle-and-sparkle, razorblade-sharp Holmes? In fact, back home the Daily Mail and co are already in convulsions about Cumberbatch’s shameful American sell-out. But as the Q&A session begins, it’s evident that neither of them—not Cumberbatch, and not Sherlock - has gone anywhere. Up two suit sizes, face a little worse for wear due to aggressive makeup, but where we feared to find a muscular anti-hero kissed hard by the Hollywood sunshine, there is a pale-skinned, delicate, self-reflecting man. He is sweet, very sweet, and with a tight metal spring inside. The kind that Sherlock has, too.


Witty and dazzling as it may be, BBC’s Sherlock isn’t simply a clever unlocking of Conan Doyle’s seemingly rigid original. The ferrying of Sherlock Holmes through time and quickening his Victorian soul is a resounding success on the front of sheer entertainment, but also a subtle, and often subversive, commentary on the salient issues of the current moment. Take your pick. Modern technology and its influence on people’s lives? Check. The painful process of acceptance of homosexuality as variant of norm? Oh yes. The state of political affairs? Even that. Many do perceive - and reject - Cumberbatch’s Holmes as too theatrical, too much of a walking firework display, not a hermetically sealed mystery in the shape of a sleuthing man, and thus hopelessly “out of character” in regard to Conan Doyle’s detective. But the psycho-physical setup of the new Sherlock is, too, a reflection of the state we’re in. The speed with which tragedy yo-yos into farce and back: instant. Transparency of emotion: all but indecent. Patience: zero.

But all of that is only a mirror in which we see ourselves, facepalm (in Internet speak) and laugh; the series’ creators’ strategy, in fact, goes deeper and touches upon more fundamental issues. A society—our society—where “being nice” and “doing good” are so well defined, where emotion is sacred, is injected with a hero whose heart is seemingly deaf to these notions. So, how on earth is good done by someone who isn’t—nor, by all accounts, intending to be—good? Oh yes, and we are, of course, inexorably in love with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, so excruciatingly adorable and so tantalizingly unavailable that most of us would happily ditch our moral beacons to have more of him—a bit of a subversive lesson in itself. Even without realizing any of this, our thought patterns are broken, and the process of self-observation and the questioning of our own motives have begun. No small achievement for a short TV series; no wonder it’s gone iconic as soon as the first episode’s end titles rolled.

But here comes the most important kind of compelling magic of Sherlock: as the series progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the ciphers of the plot, in all their witty, sparkly brilliance, are secondary to the cipher of the main character. The sleuthing stories are transport; Sherlock Holmes is the one being solved. He seems fairly obvious in the beginning - a brilliant mind, “a high-functioning sociopath”, his fancy tickled by detective work and his underfed, infantile ego touchingly visible. But enter John Watson, the limping military angel, the unlocker, and Sherlock’s hermetic heart is warmed and unsealed, allowing the contradictions in him to bloom openly—and all the more violently for that. We, in turn, are given to the torment of guessing, of choosing sides, of merging the impossible opposites within him, to turning him this way and that, to trying him on. Who is he? The answer—even as we assail, without success, the creators of the show for the original meaning—is to be found nowhere but within ourselves, and that truly pushes Sherlock up through the clouds of entertainment and into the stratosphere of real art.

What can be deduced, though, is the properties of Sherlock’s character that make him so irresistible, and at times a train wreck impossible to take one’s eyes off. He is Janus, a two-faced deity of beginnings and transitions, a dissonant violin, a contradiction pleading to be resolved. A genius, yet an idiot. A loved one—and a child. Damaged and brilliant, a blushing virgin and an ultimate calculating - also self-calculating - machine. Lacking in normalcy of feelings yet clearly very emotional. We almost want to ask - good or bad? Angel or demon? Either way, his contradictory, unstable and essentially mythical nature, apart from being the perfect vehicle for the story, makes him relevant to our own internal quandaries—we, after all, would never wish for answers to questions that have nothing to do with ourselves.

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//Mixed media