BEHIND THE SCREEN
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.
THE MYTHOLOGY AND SUBTERFUGE OF Sherlock
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.
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.