If, like me, you’ve been hooked on the BBC’s ratings winner, Sherlock, you can’t have failed to notice the treasure trove that is 221b Baker Street. We’ve heard a lot recently from the writers and actors, but I was curious about one of the many unsung heroes who contribute to the show’s success – production designer Arwel Wyn Jones.
I didn’t need Holmes’s observational skills or even a magnifying glass to track Arwel down – just a telephone and a helpful publicist. While on a recce for a forthcoming project, he explained how elements of the Sherlock set came together and gave me the lowdown on some key objects.
When the set dressers started work on Sherlock, Arwel stresses their guiding principle was Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s ethos that the series is “an adventure viewers get to go along with, so we wanted [221b Baker Street] basically to feel like [Sherlock and John’s] den, like a place you’d want to be and share with them and spend time in.”
In keeping with Gatiss and Moffat’s modern-day take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective, there was a conscious decision to make 221b feel like a modern London flat – with layers of wallpaper and decoration referencing elements of the last 30 or 40 years. Contemporary equivalents to some of the objects mentioned in the books were also actively sought.
Arwel and his team scour the internet, antiques shops and second-hand bookshops to source the items they need. Sherlock’s chair, for example, would cost you thousands if you bought a new one, but eBay came up trumps with a second-hand one that was all the more perfect for looking and feeling a little bit worn.
If an item’s brand new but needs to appear older and dustier, there are ways to fool the audience – and, it seems, even Sherlock Holmes! Arwel laughs about one of Benedict Cumberbatch’s lines in The Reichenbach Fall: “You can put back anything but dust.”
The production designer begs to differ: “Actually you can, because we do. I have a small crop duster that was originally designed for doing window gardens. It blows a little, gentle cloud of dust that settles down.”
Similarly, not all of the many books in 221b are the sort of titles you’d expect John or Sherlock to own – Arwel admits you might find a few volumes of Readers’ Digest abridged novels nestling on those shelves.
But it’s a work in progress: “There are quite a lot of things we’ve layered in since the pilot. I stuck in some Edgar Allan Poe. There’s been a few books that Mark had requested for Sherlock’s bedroom – we had a full series of crime novels – a few books that Benedict himself requested and, if there’s something specific in the storyline, like the Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner book was referenced, that was added.”
Before filming starts, Arwel always likes to spend time alone on a completed set just to satisfy himself that he and his team have achieved the right atmosphere. His verdict on 221b Baker Street? “It’s kind of a cool place.”
Certainly Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have said that the setup makes them feel at home – so what of the guest stars who step over the threshold? Do those actors get that sense of entering another – slightly unsettling – world? “Most of them are really excited when they walk in. I don’t know how that transfers to how they’re meant to react in there. But when they arrive – it’s like kids in toy shops!”
Get Arwel’s insights into some key Sherlock objects – find out about one of his more bizarre expenses claims and discover how it’s not just the writers who were seeding clues throughout The Reichenbach Fall…