OK, I’ll be honest. I’ve never done this before. I’ve written Radio Times articles before. God knows, I’ve probably popped up fairly recently claiming that it’s the Christmassiest Christmas special since the birth scene in the manger. And, as it happens, I’ve spoken to Benedict many, many times. But I’ve never interviewed anyone before.
So bear with me. Be merciful. The trouble is, you see, Benedict is very clever. And he gets interviewed a lot, so can probably spot a Scottish fake. And Sherlock Holmes lives in his head these days, so he might not always be kind...
The tape is running (there isn’t actually any tape but I haven’t updated my personal vocabulary in 30 years) and I’m flailing. I can’t help noticing, though, that he’s wearing a coat. As starts go, it doesn’t get more predictable than this!
Steven: Looking at you in your Sherlock clothes, they’re so iconic now. How does it feel to be inside that? Does that feel weird?
Benedict: Sometimes when I put it on, it feels like fancy dress. Obviously when in character, you don’t contemplate that. I’ve got a resistance to repeating success, so an element of me wanted to develop the hair, the coat, and there’s no reason why we can’t. There might be a reason that we have to, because the Belstaff coat is no longer in existence. [The manufacturer, Belstaff, has discontinued it.] But yes, it’s become iconic. Actually, I’m disparaging of the coat. I call it the carpet, especially when you write Christmas scenes for us to film in August. I’m resigned to the fact that it completely works. It was a brilliant combination of Ray [Holman, costume designer] on the pilot and Sarah [Arthur, costume designer] on the series, and you, and myself.
SM: I was the least involved.
BC: But when you saw it, you knew it worked.
SM: I went into a sulk when I saw the other coat they made for series three. Remember, we tried to make another one work that was supposed to be similar and I just sulked.
BC: It wasn’t good.
SM: It was a fine coat but it just wasn’t the coat.
[Fine, ice broken. Now I’m getting confident. Going to try a question that’s a bit less coat-centric, one he won’t see coming...]
SM: There’s a genuine character question I have for you about Sherlock, because my fellow writer Mark Gatiss and I have pondered this...
BC: Is Sherlock vain?
SM: Yes, how much effort is he putting into this?
BC: Is he footballer vain? No. Is he movie star vain? Possibly. But it’s not really about the image he wants to project in order to make people fancy him; it’s about what he wants to use of himself to control a situation. His look is part of his armour. I don’t think it’s vanity.
[See, clever. I nodded during all of that, like I’d thought of it myself. I’ll pass it on to Mark so he can already have thought of it, too. Then we’ll both look like clued-up showrunners, instead of a couple of middle- aged men who play with action figures when no one’s looking.
OK, back to work. Because now I’m going for the jugular! Being a PROPER interviewer! One thing Benedict HATES talking about is his sex-symbol status. But by sliding sideways into the subject, using all my journalistic skills, I’m pretty sure I can surprise him...]
SM: So it’s not vanity. He sort of knows he looks good, though. This leads me to my next question.
BC: If you’re tying this thing with me now becoming a sex symbol...
SM: No, no, I’m not. God, no. Would never do that. Leave that stuff to the tabloids, that’s what I say.
[Benedict is now waiting patiently for what I was actually going to ask him. Mind blank. And he’s eyeing me narrowly. No wonder Moriarty shot himself. Have you ever tried to make your phone ring with an urgent call just by staring at it? Doesn’t work!]
SM: ...No, what I was going to say is that I remember in the first year, and to some extent the second, Mark and I would be telling you about Sherlock Holmes and you’d be making some suggestions and some would work and some would not. I’m now finding your ad-libs and the bits that you add completely perfect.
BC: Thanks, boss! [Boss! That’s SO going in.]
SM: Series one, two and three – it’s fair to say during that time you’ve boomed as an actor. It’s been phenomenal and you haven’t stopped working, you’ve played all these different parts from Julian Assange to Star Trek. The first time we didn’t know Sherlock was going to be a hit. How did it feel coming back for series two?
BC: It felt awkward, actually, coming back the first time. Not because it was strange but in a way because it had been such a success. I think we both felt slightly that we were outside of it, looking in. I was looking at Martin Freeman and thinking: “God, I saw you on the telly in something rather good during the summer.” It took a little bit of time to get the rhythm and pacing back, partly because of what had happened in the meantime. This time round it seems to have held in my mind, it seems to be something I can press pause with and then press play again.
SM: You and Martin have become so huge. Mark and I were joking that if we pitched this show now and said we wanted you both in it, people would laugh at us. We did wonder if you’d both come back to Sherlock. It all might seem a bit small.
BC: No. It’s not like coming back to a series. It’s a very special thing. It’s unique. It doesn’t feel like you’re constraining yourselves to a format in the normal television way. You always delight us. The pressure is always on because we’re your first TV audience, we’re the people sitting down with a drink at 9pm on a Sunday getting ready for it to start. That’s Martin and me when we first read the scripts. We’re the first people to get that hit. You’ve not disappointed us on any single occasion. It will keep going. [SO keeping all that in. Wonder if it would work on a T-shirt.] And the guests we have this year are extraordinary.
SM: Sherlock’s going a bit Scandi. [Lars Mikkelsen from The Killing and Borgen will play villain Charles Augustus Magnussen.] And now we’ve got Amanda [Abbington, Freeman’s real-life partner] as Mary Morstan. John’s new... erm, best friend.
BC: Amanda is not a guest star. She’s very much part of the family, but what an amazing ally and friend and fellow actor to have on board. She’s a joy to work with and be with.
SM: Sherlock is a bit different when he’s with Mary –why is that?
BC: I think he is. He still exists in his own limelight and he’s not smothered by that relationship. But she’s an incredibly strong female character. She’s very involved and that’s brilliant. I love the dynamic. Amanda is just astonishingly subtle and has sublime good taste as an actress. She’s really special.
SM: I’ve got my own views on this but I want to ask what you think – how different is Sherlock when he comes back?
BC: I think he’s regressed, which is a shame in a way as it would have been lovely to have evolved him into somebody who was perversely different for a little bit. I think without Watson the stabilisers have come off the bike a little bit, or they’ve been put back on, I don’t quite know. He’s not in tune with London, he’s not in tune with his natural habitat and he’s nowhere near in tune with what it is to be a human being in society.
Although he’s been through a s**tload, as we discover. In his own way it’s cost him. It’s all about how Watson responds to this man coming back. Spare a thought for Sherlock. He’s had his challenges and had to confront them on his own. He’s coming back to, not a changed London, but his London is very changed. An empty flat, an engaged best friend, and not knowing how to engage with that is heartbreaking. It should be. It should be funny, but it should also be upsetting, hopefully. I hope to God it’s not too cute and that I got it right. I’m more nervous about that than anything else, about the gradations of him introducing himself back to Watson.
SM: So he comes back in the first episode to a slightly different world...
BC: It’s important for me to state this. Everyone keeps on banging on about the expectations of how he survived his fall at the end of series two. I’m much more worried about how I reintroduce myself to the world.
SM: So! Big final question. If it was up to you – and in many ways it is – what would you do next in Sherlock? Where would you like to see it go?
BC: I wouldn’t presume. You and Mark are so clever and handsome that you’re bound to have all the best ideas, and I certainly hope you’re not going to make your own answer to this question just to make yourself look good.
[Perish the thought! Though, of course, I did. Because Benedict came out with a lot of clever and cool ideas, and if Mark and I are going to take the credit for them, there’s not a lot of point attributing them to our star in a Radio Times interview.
Anyway, he kept going for quite a while. After a bit, I popped out for a drink. Then dinner and a short holiday – I don’t think he noticed. I probably should pop back there some time and see if he’s still going.
Between you and me, when it comes to Sherlock, I think Benedict will be going for quite a while yet. Unless we kill him in episode three, of course.]