Martin Freeman is a clotheshorse. I don’t mean you should put him in front of your gran’s fire and watch steam come off him (although you could if you wanted to). No, he’s looking as trim and dapper as the Sherlock team have come to expect as we take a little time out from the Radio Times photoshoot to discuss his return to the role of Dr John Watson.
By common consent he’s brilliant in the part, and won a Bafta for his performance in the first series. With two new episodes in the can, he’s just returned from New Zealand doing two months of final work on The Hobbit before we all reconvene for episode three. He’s understandably tired: “I always am around this time in the series. I think the schedules on this show are quite brutal – The Hobbit is a doddle, actually, comparatively. So yeah, I’m quite tired, but I have to say I’m enjoying it. I have to say I’m enjoying it,” he laughs. “It’s contractual!”
When Steven Moffat and I came up with the idea of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, it was crucial to us that the series be regarded as a co-lead. It’s called Sherlock, but the great detective’s enduring friendship with his Boswell is the beating heart that has kept the stories so popular for more than 120 years. Although Benedict Cumberbatch was our first and only choice for Sherlock Holmes, finding his Watson was a slightly more involved process.
“I was sent the script,” remembers Martin. “When I was told there was going to be an updated Sherlock Holmes, I thought, ‘That could be risky, but it’s going to be Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, so OK – show it to me!’ So I went in for it. But it’s probably fair to say I wasn’t in the best frame of mind...”
Martin’s wallet had been stolen on the way there. “Had it really? I’d forgotten that. I’ll admit maybe I was a bit stressed. But a week later my agent rang and said, ‘Listen, this Sherlock thing, they’re sort of under the impression you weren’t that into it.’ And I said ‘Oh... I am really interested. Please call them and let them know that I am interested. I wasn’t being blasé about it at all. I just wasn’t on my best day. So I came in again, read with Benedict and it instantly worked, it seemed to me. I always liked Ben’s work. I thought he was a fantastic actor and there was something about our rhythms, similarities and differences that meant that it just happened.”
After that second meeting, Steven, producer Sue Vertue and I knew we had the show. But having secured the part, did Martin come with any preconceived ideas of Dr Watson? “I’d never read any Arthur Conan Doyle then – though obviously I knew who he was. Basil Rathbone was my man, because in the late 70s and 80s his films would be on BBC2 at six o’clock, so for people of my age, and even people of your advanced age, Mark, he seemed to be the one.”
Nigel Bruce’s delightfully buffoonish Watson casts a very long shadow, of course. How does Martin feel about that? “He’s just so great in those films! They both are. But I knew that wasn’t where we were going to be heading.”
I sometimes think, though, that in striving to get as far away as possible from Nigel Bruce, the result can be just a dull Watson. What Martin shares with Bruce (and with Colin Blakely in Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – the influence on our Sherlock) is that he’s an immensely gifted straight actor who’s also funny. Very funny.
“As an actor, you know there are things you get asked to do that you do quite well, with less effort. Although there’s an inherent light-heartedness to Sherlock, I slightly err towards not doing the comedy.” Martin is especially good at interrogating a script, and dispensing with superfluous lines that he can achieve with a sardonic glance. His initial reaction to Sherlock’s return in the new series is a masterclass in understated emotion.
“Sometimes,” he laughs, “I realise even when I think I’m being dead straight, I look back and still think I’m mugging! But what I love about our John Watson is that even though there is humour in him, it’s a straight part, and it’s a straight programme. No one is a buffoon in it, and what I really like about it is that it’s writing for grown-ups, where you’re not having to cheat the audience. I’m purely trying to play this part the way I approach everything, which is to be truthful. I was trying to make Watson a feasible soldier, a feasible doctor. I wanted to give him a strength and a vulnerability.”
We’ve seen Dr Watson go from psychologically damaged war hero to Baker Street adventurer. So how does Martin think John has changed over the three series? “Well, just as in the writing, you don’t want to keep doing the same thing. I can’t still be going, ‘How do you do it, Sherlock?’ John can’t be as flabbergasted 600 times a day as he was at the beginning. So even though he thinks Sherlock’s cleverness is astonishing, we have to find different ways of showing that.
“With this new series, he’s also fallen in love. He thought his best friend was dead. There’s definitely a sort of light that goes out when you lose somebody you love, but now his life has moved on. He’s in a real grown-up relationship, which he needed to be. So I think that we join John in a way a bit sadder because he lost a friend, a very good friend, but in a way more content, actually.”
But can John Watson the ex-soldier ever really leave the battlefield? “He misses Afghanistan and the camaraderie of war service. We explored that a lot right at the beginning of the series. So he’s come back to peacetime London and the nearest thing he can get to that old rush is being with Sherlock and fighting crimes day in day out. Between us we have all made John a sort of adrenaline junkie. I think it’s so common.
“Please God, I’ll never be in a war zone, but everything I sort of know about people who come back is that it’s a hard transition to make. I mean, even if you’ve not been in a war, even if you’ve just been in the Forces, you come back and probably have more fights in civilian life.”
Martin’s real-life partner, the wonderful actress Amanda Abbington joins the Sherlock team as Mary Morstan. Fans of Doyle’s stories will know what a significant part Mary plays in John’s life and it’s no spoiler to say she’s about to become Mrs Watson! So with new love and Sherlock back in his life, where would Martin like to see John Watson go in the future?
“I’d just like him to keep being 3D, you know, in what is a very heightened world. And I like John’s independence. I enjoy the times where he gets to be separate. But I also know the thing is predicated on what happens between John and Sherlock. It was amazing how quickly the show took off and became a sort of staple bedrock of telly. I remember after it went out, everyone was saying, ‘I love that Sherlock Holmes.’ The loudest, friendliest and most enthusiastic part of our fanbase seems to be teenage girls between college and university age, but that surprised me, actually. The people I’d been hanging around with who loved it were older than that. It’s an extremely broad audience and that’s really satisfying. What more could you want?”
Foreign filming? “Yes, abroad! I’d definitely love that, as Rupert Graves said in episode one when we were standing in two inches of freezing water on the coldest January since records began. We were just fantasising about where future episodes could be. Murder in a Palace? The Adventure of the Dry Room? The Sunshine Killings?”
Sherlock continues on Sunday at 8:30pm on BBC1.