Conan Doyle warrants re-reading after Sherlock. You might find yourself surprised to notice what you never would otherwise—and more than a little entertained: yes, the series’ creators take great liberties with the canon (”...we take our story and jump off in all directions with it, we don’t necessarily stick to it,” says Steven), but almost everything that happens onscreen—even the ostensibly modern moments—can be bread-crumbed, however improbable the proposition, back to the original stories. The resulting Dada of Sherlock is great fun indeed—and a two-way win: it will add a curious dimension to the series and enliven the stories.
Asked whether he had read anything like Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, forensic psychology materials, or crime analysis in preparation to playing Sherlock, Cumberbatch explains: “I did read a lot but I’ve mainly read the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m not being flippant, I know exactly what you mean, those levels of calculation and darkness to him—but it’s all there in the original, it’s what Conan Doyle read, it’s more Conan Doyle source that I was interested in. And how that formulates into something that then obviously is gonna be playable and translatable into the 21st century, very well fed by an enormously brilliant script by Mark and Steven… and the other Stephen [Thompson]. So I didn’t need to research the type. The type was very clear to see—for me. I don’t know if that says more about me than my lack of research…”
Everyone, of course, wants to know how Sherlock became the Sherlock we know; presumably, the clarity of our perception of him would grow depending on that knowledge. Presumably. Moffat seems to be the ideal candidate for questioning, especially considering the breadcrumb trail of nods to the past that dot the series. But when the audience inevitably goes fishing for clues and does ask Moffat about his version of Sherlock’s back story, he is almost indignant:
“I don’t think that’s how you create a character. I don’t think that’s how you know a character. I don’t think you know a character by creating a backstory for him. Never mind not knowing the backstory for Sherlock Holmes, I’m not absolutely sure I know the backstory for Mark Gatiss. He’s one of my best friends, and you look at each other and do you really know the backstory? So, we sometimes speculate, because we’re interested, what his parents were like, what they did, but you know what, we’re not… it’s sacred turf. You don’t mess that up, you don’t bring that into the show, it’s not right. There are some things we don’t know about Sherlock Holmes, just as there are some things we don’t know about our friends and we don’t ever know them. And that’s right and proper. I think if we went and did that, in a way the audience wouldn’t believe us. They’d say, oh you just made that up, as if we didn’t make the rest of it up.”
Somewhat sheepishly but still determinedly, Cumberbatch half-agrees: “As an actor, that’s one of the first things I asked him, and that’s a terrifying response to get, isn’t it, if anyone has ever done any acting. You want to hook something of an understanding of how you’ve grown to be this exceptional, eccentric talent; and for me, it was important. It was important at least to know it, but like he says, all the best back stories are there but not talked about. So I have an idea of who he was when he was growing up, I have an idea of how he became what he is as we see him now. We don’t necessarily have to show it ever, but it’s there, and it does inform the choices I make as an actor playing this character. And I say… yeah, I know Mark’s back story. I got to know it, I got to know it. But I agree with what Steven says, the need to explain everything would make it so much more boring. But I think it’s kind of important to have a little bit of a framework to hang your choices on as an actor.” A clearer explanation surfaces in a different interview a day later: “I don’t think he’s damaged at all. I think it’s all self-inflicted. I think what this is about is humanizing him, making you realize there’s actually an adolescent that is being repressed from childhood purposely in order try and become the ultimate, calculating deduction machine. And he can’t actually do that.” He can’t do that, yet to a certain extent, and with a certain amount of damage, it’s done, and here comes an itch to argue with Cumberbatch: could an inherently undamaged person ever inflict such a damaging decision upon himself?
When asked who they’d like to have tea with, out of the characters they played and wrote, respectively, Cumberbatch and Moffat pick Sherlock—and they are genuinely curious about how it would go. “I think it’d be great. I think he’d dismiss me in a heartbeat though, he’s far too impatient and far too clever, I wouldn’t last a second, but it would be fun to be in his presence,” laughs Cumberbatch. Moffat, imagining the cuppa with, adds: “I’d opt for Sherlock Holmes, to be honest. Just to see how long you could last. It’d be like… “Go and make your deductions, Sherlock!”.. and then he’d deck you.”
Giggles aside, there is no exhaustive blueprint of Sherlock committed to paper by the show’s creators. As unknowable as any human, he does exist - even if it’s only in the noosphere. Moffat and Gatiss raise him, guide him, Cumberbatch lends him a body and certain traits of his own, but neither of them knows—not fully—who he is. He is not just an idea, not there only to illustrate a point. His existence is virtual, yet he is capable of very real—and perhaps unpredictable—humanistic impact.
Gracefully. Why is it now that the idea of a reinventing Sherlock Holmes is suddenly so alluring? Asked this question in an interview, Cumberbatch is unsure of an answer. Perhaps because there isn’t one. The three recent incarnations of Sherlock Holmes exist for very different reasons; the Downey Jr./Law franchise is largely an entertaining exercise in production design; the BBC series has taken not because it’s Holmes, but because of the way it’s done—while brilliantly written and providing immense entertainment value, it is also a perfect mythological trap, an extremely ambiguous and gripping story of human heart’s progress. The third, currently in production at CBS, is as yet mostly veiled in mystery, but in its origin it is a reaction to BBC’s effort.
In fact, for a moment there BBC’s success turned the idea of a modern-day Sherlock into a toy that starts a punch-up in a kindergarten. Mass culture punch-up it was: CBS approached BBC to request a permission to do a remake; porting Sherlock from old England to the England of now is good and well, but he might’ve turned out a little too precious for the American market. Niche! BBC refused, causing CBS to break down in tears, yank at the toy and run, followed by BBC’s threats to tell the big brother, sorry, to take the matter to court. The outcome is at the very least curious: CBS’s Elementary, now in production, is propelled not just by the forces of the writers’ imagination, but also by the legal necessity to sidestep anything that’s been already done in the BBC version. In furious attempts to stick it to the British colleagues, CBS have cast Lucy Liu as John - pardon, Joan! - Watson and Jonny Lee Miller, ex-Jordan from Dexter, as Sherlock Holmes. Needless to say, the American Holmes lives and works in New York. Lee Miller and Cumberbatch alternated in the roles of the Doctor and the Creature in Danny Boyle’s recent National Theatre production of Frankenstein. The jab of “who created whom” seems somewhat too obvious.
Feelings, then? Rebecca Eaton throws down a rather predictable gauntlet: “So, Sue, has anybody talked about the television series they’re making… the American television series? What’s the state of that?” There is some eye-rolling: “Oh thanks, Rebecca.”> Apparently, Sue Vertue was misquoted in the press a while ago as saying she was consulting on Elementary. Her answer: “I’m noooooot. No, we’ve heard nothing more about it. I know they’ve made the pilot. It’s nothing to do with us at all.” Eaton won’t let go: “And we don’t necessarily wish it the best, right? Right?”
Cumberbatch isn’t worried either: “Oh no, you know, Jonny is a friend, and as we already know with the Downey Jr. movie franchise, there’s room enough for two, so why not three? It’s fine, it will be different, and I don’t think it’s going to take away the love for ours, and there’s no reason to be churlish or bitter about them or about what they’re trying to do.”
When asked whether he is intimidated by writing a modern Holmes, Moffat blissfully offers, “It would be a waste of a golden opportunity to go around feeling intimidated. And if we made a complete mess of it, at least there would be loads of other versions of Sherlock lying around. They’re like spares. No, it’s just best fun.” Cumberbatch ought to be scared because there are so many actors already playing Sherlock, but feels that “It’s a treat and a privilege to be asked to play that character so you can’t be intimidated by him, you just gotta grab it by the horns and have fun.” Both proceed to break into a laugh remembering the fright of the series’ first airing. It smashed records in the UK, and they don’t know yet that episode one of the second season will gather over three million happy viewers in the US.
The voice that, even recorded, seems dense enough to touch, is even deeper at the distance of a yard. Reach out and your hand will push against the soft, warm, woolly humming; a tiny iron barb wrapped deep will leave a scratch.
Cumberbatch is tired. It’s a dark corner; a candle, a bowl of candied nuts, a sheaf of Sherlock posters on the table. He beams turquoise at every single person in the endless autograph line: “Come on up. Don’t be shy, hurry up. What’s your name? Okay, spell? Where are you from?” He’d said a million of thanks in the last hour and heard more. Thanks for thanks. Thanks for hurried confessions and for each naive, child-like, sincere offering—a drawing, a book, a pin (“I am Sherlocked” goes onto his white shirt, right over the heart). He holds hands, gives hugs, strokes shoulders. Signs old volumes of Conan Doyle, hats, teapots. Long strand of hair is falling, again and again, across his eyes. Laughing wrinkles laugh. He steals a cookie, a sip of water, breathes out: “I’m tired. I’m completely exhausted”, and immediately lights up again, to return the warmth and gratitude that can’t reach Sherlock onscreen.
Good night, Benedict Cumberbatch. See you, Sherlock.
Season 2 finale is on PBS on Sunday, May 20th at 9 pm.
Watch the Q&A online at PBS.