The deductive genius of the world’s most famous sleuth is, of course, a joy to behold. It always has been, whether Arthur Conan Doyle’s great creation is being portrayed by the 1920s Hollywood star John Barrymore or by its most recent incumbent, the Old Harrovian heart-throb Benedict Cumberbatch.
But in the best adaptations, the unravelling of the mysteries plays second fiddle to the evolution of the relationship between Holmes and his right-hand man, Watson. Or Sherlock and John as we must call them, since that is what they call each other.
Away from the set of 221b Baker Street, Martin Freeman, who plays John, refers to his senior partner as Lord Cumberbatch. Or Cumberlord for short. He even calls him that to his face. A mighty clue, surely, that the professional association has bled into their private transactions. Cumberbatch gives a tolerant smile, taking it as the affectionate insubordination it’s probably meant to be. Hard to be forensically certain though, in an England where class digs can hurt just as much as they did a century ago.
Just as the 35-year-old Cumberbatch seems fashioned by nature and nurture to play the young gentleman, as he memorably did last year in a Terence Rattigan revival at the National Theatre in London, so Freeman, five years older, married with two young children, looks free of any illusions about being officer material. Remember his amiable loser Tim Canterbury in The Office, or John, the modest stand-in actor in Love Actually.
The Cumberlord tag brings a thoroughly game response from the chap in question. “I was brought up in a world of privilege,” he concedes, in an accent that has taken the top edge off its expensive breeding, but is still a world away from the estuary.
“It can ostracise you from normal codes of conduct in society. Being a posh actor in England, you can’t escape class-typing, from whatever side you look at it. I realised quite early on that, although I wasn’t trying to make a career speciality of it, I was playing slightly asexual, sociopathic intellectuals.”
You might well put Sherlock Holmes in that category. As Watson says of him in The Sign of the Four, he is “an automaton, a calculating machine”. And as Holmes himself says of women: “[They] are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.”
Cumberbatch says he took to the challenge of the role “like a duck to water. It was about ferocious speed, casual disregard for other people’s feelings, and the idea of treating life as an ever-expanding series of problems and potential adventures, right through from the smallest to the largest detail of behaviour or circumstance.”
Having said that, he adds that when it comes to mental aptitude, Freeman is by far the closer of the two to Holmes, and a superior actor into the bargain. Not to mention, all you could ever want from a colleague in the way of patience and support.
If there were a hint of patronage here, Freeman would surely have seen it coming and reacted accordingly. But there isn’t, and he hangs his head modestly – apart from observing that there’s nothing wrong with being a supporting actor (his Watson in the first Holmes series won him a Bafta award). “I mean, it’s not as if the show is called John, is it?”
They agree that their own relationship has been driven by the one they portray on screen; it could hardly have been otherwise, given the time they have devoted to inhabiting those fictive lives, and given that they had never met before landing the roles. Both are so familiar with their characters that, even though they have high praise for series co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, they would feel able to say if there was a line that struck a jarring note.
While Cumberbatch, the son of professional actors, was going to Brambletye prep school in rural Sussex, Freeman was growing up in what he describes as suburban Dickensian London. He had started playing squash at the club where his father ran the bar and his mother the kitchen. As a young teenager he thought about turning professional. Then he joined a youth theatre in Teddington, and the acting took over.
“There’s more crossover in our backgrounds than we admit,” says Cumberbatch.
“I didn’t go to the oldest school in the world,” replies Freeman.
“The fact that I did does not make me an archetypal product of that school.”
“Some of my best friends went to posh schools, and they’re very aware of not wanting to be that stereotype.”
“Well, we all want to escape our circumstances, don’t we?” asks Cumberbatch. “Especially if you’re an actor. It’s the imaginative process that gets my juices going. The further away you can get from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is such great fun.”
But then, when you become as successful as Cumberbatch has, something strange happens; being yourself in the eyes of others becomes harder. His godmother’s grandson is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and everything to do with him. “One day he said, ‘Gran, what relative am I to him?’ ‘None,’ she said, ‘I’m just his godmother.’ ‘Yes, but doesn’t that mean you’re related to him?’ ‘No. He doesn’t really exist.’ ‘But I’ve seen him. Do you think he wants to meet me?’”
Many do. He would love to satisfy all their enquiries with something suitably Holmesian in its ingenuity. He shakes his head ruefully at the thought that he simply hasn’t the problem-solving capacity of the brilliant Scottish physician who invented the detective. Freeman suggests that just remaining enigmatic might be the answer. Benedict says, “Hmm,” approvingly, but wishes he could do better than that.
He has been changed by the alchemy of public pretending, no doubt about it. The process will intensify with the second series – three more cracking episodes from Moffat, the man behind Doctor Who, League of Gentlemen member Gatiss and playwright/screenwriter Steve Thompson. Content is a closely guarded secret, but watch out for unexpected twists in The Hounds of Baskerville and The Reichenbach Fall. “Everyone wants to know how we’re going to do the effing dog,” says Moffat.
Also expect a shift in the relationship between the two principals as Holmes’s feared nemesis, Moriarty, played by Andrew Scott, makes his presence felt once more.
The new series coincides with the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie of the stage hit War Horse, with Cumberbatch in one of the lead roles as Major Stewart.
The exposure is making him value his privacy in a different way. He says he was alarmed to find himself being doorstepped by paparazzi last year when he and his longstanding partner, Olivia Poulet, whom he had met at Manchester University, were separating.
“It was unnerving to think they knew where I lived…with fame you do get the most extraordinary perks and experiences, whether it’s chairing programmes or having a voice in the political field, because you happened to have a large audience who listened to you for three nights a year ago. It’s both beneficial and odd. The usual yin-yang thing. But by and large good.”
Once they had finished filming the new Sherlock series, the two actors were at work together again almost immediately in the first part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movie (due for release next December), in which Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins and Cumberbatch supplies the voice of the dragon, Smaug. Is this a good instance of escaping one’s circumstances? They swap an after-you glance, waiting for the other to reply.
Cumberbatch thinks hard, involuntarily making a Sherlock-at-work face. “As an actor, you can do weight loss, weight gain, put on silly noses, crazy accents, move like a dragon, inviting people to look at the fireworks and admire how different you’re being. But with acting like that, it’s all about look-at-me, when what you should be doing is helping the audience care about the person they’re watching.”
“I always think it’s a bit of a red herring,” says Freeman, “this business of whether you’re pretending to be something different. I mean, Ben isn’t like Sherlock [Cumberbatch nods], but you could only play that part really well if there is enough of a crossover. Same with any role, ever.
"Show me someone who’s being nothing like they are in real life and I’ll show you a rubbish performance. In every film De Niro’s in, he’s the best actor on God’s earth, but he’ll always pull the same De Niro face at some point. You’re never going to go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know who that was.’”
What these two men have been through in the past two years is the acting equivalent of an intense flat share, with the BBC fulfilling the role of Mrs Hudson, John and Sherlock’s landlady. Seeing them on the set of those timeless premises, with the flock fleur-de-lys on the wall and the Samsung flat screen on the table, they look like members of some highly idiosyncratic, timewarped sitcom.
As Steven Moffat puts it, crime being solved by Men Behaving Badly. Except they’re not. They’re behaving rather well. And acting brilliantly.
Sherlock is on BBC1 and BBC1 HD at 8:10pm on New Year's Day
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.