Mark Gatiss on writing The Hounds of Baskerville

The Sherlock co-creator discusses the joys and challenges of dramatising Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous story

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Mark Gatiss on writing The Hounds of Baskerville
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Mark Gatiss on…adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles

“It’s the most famous story for one reason: Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and said he’d never touch him again. But ten or so years later, he had an idea about a mysterious hound that came from his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, so he decided the best way to write this ‘real creeper’, as he called it, was to write it as a Sherlock Holmes story set before his death.

“The response was extraordinary – it became a huge international bestseller and instantly became the most famous story. And it’s a great story. But it’s compromised by a number of things, not least that, because Doyle was sick of Holmes, he’s absent for half the book. And no matter how much spookiness you put in, it has to have a rational explanation.”

“For Hound, I wanted to make it as scary as possible, and for it to be a proper horror story. But what didn’t feel right was making it a haunted house story. So I realised that the thing we’re most afraid of nowadays is faceless government and conspiracy theories.

“There’s a conspiracy theory about everything and they’re almost the modern equivalent of ghost stories. And the great thing is, you can have all the tropes of a ghost story. So rather than Baskerville being a big spooky house, it’s a facility like Porton Down [the secretive UK military site], with dark rumours about the ‘things’ they’re breeding there.”

“I toyed with just calling it Baskerville, but there’s something about the rhythm of the original title that I like. And there are all kind of legends about all sorts of hounds. There’s one about a headless hound and I considered doing that until I couldn’t work out how it would howl...

“But adapting the story, I did feel more of a responsibility to include things from the original than you would with The Sign of Four, say, because there are a lot of landmarks in The Hound of the Baskervilles and more people are more familiar with them.

“But you’re always looking for equivalence – what’s the modern equivalent of a pipe? Or a drug addiction? Or even a deduction in a CSI world? You have to draw a line from the original thing to the contemporary thing. Sometimes that’s straightforward, and sometimes it isn’t because technology has advanced so much.”

…other versions of the story

“The Rathbone version is great, but the Hammer one stands out for me. It was controversial because it took huge liberties with the story – which is what I have done – but they were trying to achieve an X certificate. They only managed a double-A, but there were some very clever leaps of the imagination and it was beautifully shot by cinematographer Jack Asher.”

…Arthur Conan Doyle and his writing


“His horror isn’t as obvious as drawing on gothic stereotypes, but more about that queasy atmosphere of ‘otherness’. He was very interested in the New World – he was a big fan of America – but also because of his own experiences with India and the Far East, there’s a lot of stuff about curses.

"In The Sign of Four, there’s the great Agra treasure, the Devil Foot root that appears to drive people mad in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, and there’s a very strange story called The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. But they all turn out to have rational endings, as does The Hound of the Baskervilles.

“But there’s no sense of these faraway places being intrinsically evil, or certain kinds of people being villainous. Decades later, Agatha Christie’s Jewish characters are very stereotyped, but there’s none of that in Doyle’s work. And that Bulldog Drummond notion of sinister Chinamen is absent from Doyle, too. And I think that’s because he was a knowledgeable, experienced and interested man.

‘‘He worked on a whaling ship, he was a doctor, a war correspondent, and he volunteered for the Boer War. He worked in intelligence and later on developed an interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. He had a breadth of experience and hence a generosity of spirit, so there were very few of the stereotypes that crop up elsewhere.

“There’s one weird story called The Mazarin Stone, adapted from a play he wrote, in which there’s a ridiculously stereotyped black boxer, but it’s so out of character that you notice it straight away. It’s as if he’s taken leave of his senses.”

“One of the great things about reading him again now is that you won’t trip up on his blundering sexism or racism because he was very forward thinking. His female characters are very strong and striking, and not just Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia. You can definitely detect how much he likes writing about beautiful women. They’re capable and even when they are the victim, they emerge well.”

“There are lots of people in happy marriages who turn out to have terrible secrets or to have done some awful deed in the past that must be paid for in the present. In Doyle’s stories, those are the ghosts you need to worry about.”

Sherlock continues tonight at 8:30pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 3 January 2012.

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