Martin Freeman: Sherlock series four will be the best yet – if we don’t mess it up

Ahead of the series finale, the Sherlock star reflects on one of the most challenging series yet, and how he and Amanda Abbington continued working together following their split in real life

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The frenzy of excitement that greets each series of Sherlock usually concentrates around the ingenuity and secrecy of its new plot twists. Everyone gasped when Dr Watson’s wife Mary died shockingly on New Year’s Day.

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But the truly baffling puzzle of series four is one its writers had nothing to do with. Days before the first episode aired, fans were floored by the news that Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington – the real-life couple of 15 years who play John and Mary Watson – had separated. The mystery of how the pair had kept this secret for almost a year, even while filming series four, is anything but elementary.

I meet Freeman before the news has broken, and nothing in his manner betrays the bombshell he will drop. The 45-year-old arrives looking so relaxed that, after saying hello with a friendly, collaborative air, he gestures to a take-away meal in his hand. “Sorry about this,” he grins, plonking it on the table. “But would you mind if I eat while we talk? I’m starving.”

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So he chomps away while talking about the birth of Watson and Mary’s daughter, and the shock of Mary’s death. We are coming towards the end of the interview when I happen to ask why on earth he and Abbington decided to live in Hertfordshire’s unglamorous Potters Bar.

“Well, the family home is in Potters Bar, but Amanda and I aren’t together any more. We split up in the early part of this year, so that’s it.” What? Freeman delivers the news so casually, I assume it must be common knowledge, and that somehow I have missed it. He goes on about why they chose Potters Bar (“we could have a big garden and a loft and stuff like that while still being in striking distance, still get into Soho really quickly”) while I register what he has just said. So, I clarify, he’s no longer living at the family home?

“No, we split up a while ago. I mean, we’re very friendly and it’s all lovely and cool. Yes, we’ve not been together for a while. I mean, we did the series not together.” Then his life has changed dramatically. “Hmmm, it’s a difference, definitely.”

How is he faring? “You know enough about me to know that I won’t talk about it, but I’m all right, yes. I mean, we’re honest to God doing it [separating] in about as civilised a manner as I’ve ever heard of, you know. I love Amanda’s work. I think she’s brilliant as an actor and she’s brilliant as a woman and, yes, I love her. I will always love Amanda, but, yes, we’re… you know, that’s what’s happened.”

As I begin another question, he intervenes. “I’ll save you time. I won’t talk about it, but it’s just one of those things. It happens, doesn’t it? But we’re cool.”  

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Later, after exhaustive Googling has established that their split has eluded the entire global media, I listen back to the tape and marvel at the cool way Freeman handled it. He and Abbington had always been one of the most scrupulously private couples in showbusiness, but would have known there was no way their secret could survive a new series of Sherlock. What better way to downplay the revelation than to present it as old news? Abbington has since mirrored Freeman’s approach in interviews.

A good-natured separation is difficult enough to pull off; how they kept it quiet is little short of miraculous. It’s a testament to their behaviour on set that the rest of the crew were either oblivious to their split or hold the pair in such affection that they were determined to keep their secret. 

Keeping anything a secret in the age of social media is a tall order, and it was scarcely any less impressive that Mary Watson’s death in episode one at the new year didn’t leak out either. The intensity of public fascination with every dimension of the show makes Sherlock, as Freeman readily acknowledges, the biggest show he has ever worked on.

“Nothing else I’ve done is like this. It’s huge and the impact feels even bigger than The Hobbit. People say, ‘Oh, those Hobbit fans must be full on’, but compared to Sherlock’s, they’re quite tame.”

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First broadcast in 2010, Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat’s contemporary reworking of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories has assumed the cultural significance of a treasured national institution. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock is the BBC’s single biggest-selling export, sold to more than 220 territories worldwide. Twelve million of us watched the final episode of series three back in 2014, and the arrival of a fourth series pitched its fans into ecstasies of anticipation. Sherlock fans are famously fanatical, so I wonder whether the weight of their expectations made the new series nerve-racking. 

“It’s not trepidation, exactly. But you just have to be mindful of the fact that it means a lot to people.” He had a knot in his stomach – “Slightly, yes, yes” – when he first read the script, “but I’ve got to say it was dispelled pretty quickly. I thought, if we don’t mess it up these are going to be the best [episodes] yet. I honestly do think these scripts are phenomenally good. There are a few moments in this series that I couldn’t believe. It was making me go cold reading it. I was in a café having my tea – and I was like, holy s***, we get to do this? It was chilling.” 

In series four, Sherlock has to accommodate the arrival of Watson’s baby daughter, but Freeman is quick to reassure viewers: “It’s only going to be a bit of parenting. It’s not like Miriam Stoppard has taken over as exec producer. Obviously you have John and Mary being parents, but if you start making a show where the main thrust of it isn’t Sherlock chasing baddies and being brilliant, then that gets too far away from what the show should be.”

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Cumberbatch was always assumed to be the star, but I wonder if that’s how Freeman sees it. 

“To be fair, I think it’s a two-hander. I mean, obviously I would say that, and I’m under no illusion about the title of the show. The show’s not called John. So yes, primarily, of course Sherlock is the primary character, but Steven and Mark’s incarnation of it is us. It is us, you know.” He’d not met Cumberbatch before making Sherlock, but had always admired his work. Nowadays, although filming schedules mean their paths seldom cross, “We do have a bit of contact. We’re not always hanging out because I’m not always hanging out with anybody.”

Both actors are equally indebted, if that is the word, to the show for transforming them into unlikely sex symbols. “Yes, yes, I guess so, yes,” he laughs. “The Office did as well, a bit. I think a lot of people fancied that character [Tim Canterbury] because they kind of wanted to look after him.” The attraction to Watson, however, tends to be altogether lustier. “Even though he’s not butch, and I’m not very butch, both of his professions – soldier, doctor – are quite butch, or they’re quite manly. A man who can save people’s lives and shoot a taxi-driver through a window is pretty impressive, you know.” Pretty hot, I agree. “Exactly! And even the most third-wave feminist still wants a bit of that. Believe me, I’ve heard them. As much as I don’t think they should, they do.”

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With Mackenzie Crook in The Office

His own parents divorced when he was just one. The youngest of five, born in Aldershot, Surrey, he lived mostly with his naval officer father until the age of ten, when his father died of a heart attack.

A “classic underachiever” at secondary school, he flunked all but three of his GCSEs, although the family home was full of books and he’d been reading George Orwell from the age of 11. He was a promising junior squash player, but quit at 14, and the following year joined a local youth theatre group. After studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he landed the usual beginner’s roles – The Bill, Casualty – before being cast as Tim in The Office.

Such was the buzz around Ricky Gervais’s The Office 12 years ago that, for a brief period, every member of its then little-known cast was tipped as Hollywood’s next big thing. There were certainly more eye-catching contenders for stardom than the short one who played low-key Tim to such subtle perfection that people tended to forget he was acting. But from the offices of Wernham Hogg paper merchants in Slough, Martin Freeman hasn’t looked back. He’s played Richard III, a shy porn-film body double in romcom Love Actually, an insurance salesman in series one of the TV adaptation of Fargo, as well of course as Bilbo Baggins in the blockbusting Hobbit trilogy. He’s at that happy point in his career when he can “almost” stop worrying about when the phone will next ring.

In his youth he used to sell left-wing newspaper Militant, and in 2015 appeared in a Labour Party election broadcast and came out as a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. When I ask if he’s still a fan of Labour’s leader, he pulls a conflicted expression. “It’s not an easy one that. I don’t know, man, I don’t know. The thing is, for me as a Labour supporter, he said a lot of things that I’ve been waiting for a Labour leader to say for years and years and years. But you also have to look at practicality, you know, so I’m observing that with interest. But this is one of those things where I will not pontificate. What do I know?”

Not long ago he expressed reservations about celebrities preaching political postures from a position of over-entitled ignorance, so I ask if these days he worries about looking like a member of the liberal metropolitan elite. “Yes.” Is he one? He pauses to think.

“Yes, probably. If there’s a metropolitan elite to be hated, I probably am part of it somewhere, yes. I live in north London. I’m an actor. I voted Labour and I’m not on the dole, so yes. But that’s another reason why I think I’m mindful, I suppose, of having a competition with the world about who’s more left-wing, me or you, because I’m like, yes I can be, but I can afford to be. That’s the truth of it.”

He is rich enough not to worry about money, but points out that he was never much of a big spender, his only extravagances being clothes and vinyl. If he doesn’t worry about work any more, I ask him, what does he worry about?

“I worry about existential things, what it is to be alive. I mean,” he grins, “not that I’m part of the metropolitan elite philosophy group. But really it’s about, am I a good person? I’m going to die one day, what about that person I love, have I treated them well? It’s that stuff.”

What Freeman never worries about is how much longer Sherlock can last. It is the perennial obsession of anxious fans, but when I say so he just rolls his eyes with a heavy sigh.

“Truly, I don’t know how long it will go on. But these days we always want everything yesterday, we’re never sated, we want what’s next, what’s next, what’s next. And I think, ‘Wow, there’s hours of telly you haven’t watched yet’, you know? So let’s just enjoy them.”  

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The final episode of Sherlock series four is on Sunday 15 January at 9pm on BBC1