The popularity of BBC1’s reimagined Sherlock Holmes still comes as a shock to the drama’s co-creator Mark Gatiss – “it’s just astonishing… extraordinary” – but when the detective (finally) returns to telly screens, he won’t be quite as fans know him.
“It was thrilling for me and Steven [Moffat] because obviously the Victorian version is what we’ve grown up loving,” Gatiss told us. “We thought, we’ve got a unique opportunity here to do something different.”
The special – inspired by Rathbone and Bruce’s Sherlock film series, which also moved between time periods –was “beautiful” but “oddly difficult” to put together, says Gatiss: “We’ve spent so long successfully modernising it. We had to sort of go back to basics.
“What we initially did was to come up with modern equivalents for all the Victorian things,” Gatiss explained, “so in this we go back to the original. The texting is sending telegrams. We just reverse engineered it to how Conan Doyle did it.”
It sounds like a simple concept, but it seems it’s already confused some of the show’s followers: “The most incredible thing was when we did the press for it, three people said something along the lines of, ‘How can Sherlock Holmes possibly exist in a world without iPhones?’ I said, ‘Well, there is a slight precedent there!’
“If we’ve successfully convinced the world that he’s a modern character then our work is done!”
But fans need not worry that the shift in setting will change the characters we know and love, adds Gatiss. “It’s not suddenly going to be a different show. It’s essentially our Sherlock as if we’d always done it set in 1895. It has the same sensibility. The language is obviously slightly different but we wanted it to feel as funny and as vivid and as getable as our modern-day one. Otherwise it would be a sort of dusty period piece which is not what we are interested in.”
The fall back in time wasn’t something Gatiss and his co-creator Steven Moffat had always planned on doing (although it was a concept they’d toyed with “just for our own amusement.”) It came about because of timing, and the rare availability of their now incredibly star-studded cast.
“It’s very, very difficult to get everyone together – and what we realised was that we had an opportunity to do a special when everyone was free. It just became the time to do it. We’re at a particular point in the show which perfectly fits this idea.”
When they do manage to get Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and co together, Gatiss is very hands-on. “I’m there every day. It’s a very important thing to be there and for the actors and the rest of the crew to feel like there is a strong presence. Sue Vertue and I are there the whole time – [Doctor Who showrunner] Steven is obviously mostly very busy with ‘the other job’, as we call it.
“I love it, I really do. It’s a lovely part of the job to be there and see the scene evolve and watch different takes. It’s the best place to be. As Orson Welles said, ‘it’s the best train set a boy could have!'”
And hopefully it won’t be too long before the whole gang are back to film more episodes at 221b Baker Street. Moffat is currently filming Doctor Who, while Gatiss is starring in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre, but Sherlock isn’t far from their minds: “I’ve got my daytimes free again because we’re not rehearsing. I’m just going to get back into my writing routine, on Sherlock indeed…
“After the play, we’ll probably be gearing up for making Sherlock,” he says, although filming won’t start until “next year, I’m afraid.”
When it does, fans shouldn’t expect countless episodes. The reason for Sherlock’s long gaps and short series does come down to logistics, but it’s “accidentally become perfect for the show,” says Gatiss.
“Obviously everybody wants it more often and more of them but we are actually on the air for such a short amount of time, it makes it special, I think.”
Mark Gatiss appears in the upcoming series of Who Do You Think You Are?, starting Thursday 13th at 9:00pm on BBC1