Article from tomorrow’s The Times:
Benedict Cumberbatch tells Damian Whitworth why he’s happy that Sherlock Holmes is returning to Victoriana
There have been suggestions that Benedict Cumberbatch has of late lost all his mirth. First, after one of his nightly post-Hamlet appeals to help Syrian refugees, he called on the audience to “f*** the politicians”. Then he enhanced the impression that he was taking himself a touch too seriously by calling for a meeting with the home secretary about the refugee crisis.
And now, as we discuss the Sherlock Christmas special, The Abominable Bride, he objects to the use of “bromance” to describe the relationship between his Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Dr John Watson.
We are sitting in a shabby room, heated by a small electric fire, in the Bottle Yard Studios, a former factory in Bristol where the set has been built for The Abominable Bride. For the one-off special the creators have abandoned the modern-day setting in which Cumberbatch made his name as Sherlock and taken the world’s most famous detective back to the Victorian era in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced him.
Cumberbatch is on a break from filming and arrives in Victorian waistcoat and starched collar, his hair slicked back. “What a handsome man,” mutters another (male) journalist as he enters the room. While Freeman — who had been in a few minutes earlier, huddled in an enormous parka — was so low-key that you’d walk past him in the street, Cumberbatch glows like a full moon on a cloudless night.
Of course, we all want to know if Sherlock and John are still the same back in the 19th century. “Is there still the bromance?” I ask.
“You just really want to write the word bromance,” says Cumberbatch to a little peal of sycophantic laughter from some of the journalists gathered around him. The word bromance may be overused in connection with Sherlock, but the nuances of the relationship are a subject of endless fascination to Sherlockologists. I try to keep it light: “There can’t be an article without it in there,” I joke. “There can,” says Cumberbatch. “You can be the first. Strive for change in the press.”
This is starting to feel like it could be hard work, but fortunately Cumberbatch warms up. The essence of the modern-day Sherlock has been maintained in this new departure, he says, so we can expect a rollicking pace, crackling wit and the sparky Holmes-Watson relationship. “It’s a companionship that has evolved in our version, so we are not regressing to ‘Wow!’ or ‘Golly, Holmes!’ or some sort of Nigel Bruce-esque kind of adoration. [It is] more complex than that, which is great.”
This Victorian version will not be a pastiche. “We don’t want to make it into a sketch. We don’t want to make it into something ridiculous or comic,” Cumberbatch says. “We want to be true to the original; at the same time we want to be true to our version. So it’s a very delicate balancing act.”
How did he react when the show’s creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, told him that Holmes was going home to 1895? “I was thrilled. I went, ‘At last I can have a f***in’ haircut. [Instead of] that ridiculous bouncy lot of curls on my head.’ And then I went, ‘You are mad. What?’ I genuinely didn’t understand how they were going to get away with it. And then the more detailed pitch came and I went, ‘OK, this is going to be great fun.’ And it really is. It is so nice to play him in his era. Some of the weight is taken off you and [you are]not trying to establish this man in the 21st century. When he is in full Victorian swing it’s a really lovely feeling.”
Playing Holmes in the modern era can sometimes feel like heavy lifting, says Cumberbatch. He is “a man clearly slightly out of his time. To put him back in the era that he’s written in is a joy. It feels easier to a degree. Things that I try to impose a little bit on the modern version, like his physicality, stature, a lot of that is done by the body of the clothing and collars, the deerstalker and cape and all those sort of things. That’s an absolute delight and yet it doesn’t feel like cliché because you are functioning in them rather than quoting them.”
Victorian Sherlock smokes two types of pipe and instead of the Belstaff coat worn by the modern incarnation, he has an inverness cape that echoes the coat, and is worn with matching deerstalker. No doubt they’ll be producing cheap knock-offs in China within hours of transmission.
Gatiss gave Cumberbatch the Belstaff coat after recording the first series and he wore it for a bit before the show was aired. He was not famous then and there was no reason to be concerned about having his picture taken in it. But he worried. “What if someone did accidentally [take a picture] and then says, ‘Seen walking around Hampstead Heath in his f***ing costume.’ Seal my reputation as being a dick.”
Gatiss describes this Victorian Sherlock as “The Adventure of Having Your Cake and Eating It. It is still our show. It is essentially Sherlock as if we have always done it, period. So it hasn’t suddenly become very dusty and slow.”
The 90-minute special is about having fun, chips in Moffat. “Fun for us and fun for the audience. Benedict and Martin are the Holmes and Watson of their age. They own those roles. Wouldn’t it be awful if you never saw them do it properly? Wouldn’t you like to see them in the deerstalker and bowler hat?”
Freeman says he doesn’t feel as though he is playing a completely different character, although “it does tighten you up slightly physically and vocally, I think, so there is slightly less overly casual modern speak”. Once Watson is back in the Victorian era he is a little more in awe of Holmes than in the modern version. “The original Watson was much more outwardly generous in his thinking that his friend is a genius. Modern Watson definitely thinks his friend is a genius but also an enormous pain in the arse.”
The Victorian Watson comes with a magnificent Victorian mustache. Freeman also had a ’tache in series 3 of the modern Sherlock. “I’ve got to try and rein that in, not let Steven and Mark think this is an ongoing thing now and end up as Robinson Crusoe.”
The Abominable Bride is based on a passing reference to a case made in Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. The producers tell us that the story begins with a man seeing his wife in her wedding dress shortly after she killed herself and the trailers suggest a gothic adventure with clattering hansom cabs and spooky locations. No preview tapes have been made available.
On set, the actors and production team give little away, although we are allowed to venture into Holmes’s bachelor flat, which is set up exactly like his slightly squalid pad from the first three Sherlock series but filled with Victorian furniture and paraphernalia. A table is jumbled with scientific experiments, a skull, microscope and typewriter. The bison skull on the wall is still there, but instead of headphones it has an ear trumpet.
Una Stubbs will be there as Holmes’s landlady, Mrs Hudson. The Victorian Mrs H is a little rattier than the modern one, says Stubbs, who adds that Sherlock is the biggest success that she has been involved in during her long career. “I have been lucky to be in some series that have been a success — nothing like this. I am stopped in the street by groups of Russians, Chinese. It is quite extraordinary.” She recalls walking along the street the day after the first Sherlock aired. “I could hear, ‘How do you say it? Benedict Cumber . . ?’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s a success.’ ”
In the subsequent five years, Stubbs has watched Cumberbatch being catapulted to global stardom. “Can you believe how it’s changed? Really incredible. From being this young actor and suddenly this superstar. But it sits well on his shoulders.”
After three Hobbit films Freeman is a similarly big name worldwide. “I was dreading in a way that they would change but they haven’t,” says Stubbs. “You just don’t know if they’d be big-headed because it is a phenomenon, how they have both been drawn up and given all these wonderful opportunities. Well, they’ve earned them,” she adds quickly.
For Freeman, Sherlock is an opportunity to work with his partner, Amanda Abbington, who plays Mrs Watson. These days he is away from Abbington and their two children a lot. “There is no way round it. Well there is — I could stop acting. It would mean not taking interesting opportunities. And even though it’s second in importance to my family, it’s a close second because I was doing it before I met Amanda and before I became a dad. I am very, very passionate about my job but I have to really want to do something to go away.” Work and family life mean that he and Cumberbatch tend to see each other only on Sherlock shoots. “We don’t hang out an awful lot.”
Most of the time he is grateful for the constant flow of work. “I am thinking mainly ‘Thank God’ but with moments of ‘I wish it would ease up.’ You want to have your cake and eat it in life. We are reasonably selfish creatures, I guess. I try not to look at the diary, that way I end up in trouble. Amanda says, ‘Please look at your schedule.’ I say, ‘Yes,’ but it’s boring. I just go where I’m pointed. I can’t think of things too far into the future, my brain does tend to shut down.”
Freeman’s future, he says, will continue to include Sherlock. A new series of three dramas will be filmed next year and is expected to be broadcast in 2017. “I have always believed in doing things as long as one wants to do them and as soon as you don’t want to do something you should stop.” He will work on Sherlock “as long as we are free and enjoying it. I know it’s a good show. The truth is, though, it has got more and more difficult to factor in.”
Gatiss says: “We have accidentally cast the two biggest stars in the country.” Moffatt says: “Everybody else pays them more than we do’
Cumberbatch says he is “pretty determined” to keep playing Sherlock in the modern day and maybe even as a Victorian sleuth in more specials. “I’m still enjoying it and we’ll see how the next series goes. I would love to keep ageing with him. Martin and I started this relatively young compared to a lot of Holmes and Watsons, so why not?”
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, BBC One, New Year’s Day, 9pm