Sherlock series 3 preview: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on the return of Sherlock

The stars of the hit BBC1 detective drama tell Paul Jones about the "big moment" when they meet again, a "surprising and delightful" solution to The Fall, John's romance and Sherlock's relationship with Irene Adler

#SherlockLives, the Twitter hashtag tells us. As does that last-minute graveside appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective, and the approach (finally!) of a new third series. But as far as John Watson is concerned, his best friend is dead and two years after Sherlock’s plunge from the roof of St Bart’s hospital, Martin Freeman’s character has created a new life for himself.


“John’s circumstances have changed,” says Freeman. “He has had to try and move on, and he’s had to try and face the fact – as he sees it – that his friend is gone. So after a period of mourning he’s trying to move on, and to have a normal and a reasonably steady and stable life.”

Part of that moving on involves a new romance. It seems serial dater John may finally have met The One, and Freeman must surely approve of his choice – Mary Morstan is played by his real-life partner of 13 years, Amanda Abbington.

“Mark [Gatiss, Sherlock co-creator] and Sue [Vertue, the show’s producer] had worked with Amanda before, so they contacted her,” says Freeman. “They both knew she was good, so yeah, that was a nice little coincidence…”

The prospect of spending all day at the office with the woman you go home to at night might not appeal to every man but Freeman was happy with the decision, not least because he knew he could rely on Abbington professionally as well as personally.

“I am [pleased], because I know Amanda’s really good and I know she’s a good team player, so it’s great for me,” he says during a round-table interview back in April. Both he and his co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock himself, had, as usual, been briefed to reveal as little as possible about the new series – and especially about the big question fans have been wrestling with since the end of series two: how did he survive The Fall?

“However much people say ‘Oh go on, tell us’, they wouldn’t thank you for it once the show goes out,” observes Freeman. “If it’s something that you really care about – and god knows I really care about this show – it’s just more fun to keep stuff secret.”

But while they’re never going to tell us how it was done (and we wouldn’t want to know anyway) it’s clear there was no winged suit as Cumberbatch once joked, no bouncy castle, and he and Freeman are both confident that most viewers who have spent time analysing the events of the series-two finale will be there or thereabouts with their theories.

“There will be people going ‘That’s sort of what I thought’” says Freeman. “There were so many hundreds of theories, some of them definitely will cross over into what Mark and [co-creator] Steven [Moffat] have decided it is.”

“I was as curious as the nation was to figure it out,” says Cumberbatch. “I had my own idea and it wasn’t far off… but then, you know, I took a special interest since I was the one jumping off the roof.”

While the broad strokes of the solution may not have escaped viewers – after all, as Mark Gatiss noted, “there’s only so many ways you can fall off a roof and survive” – but Cumberbatch says the elegant combination of details still make it “surprising and delightful”.

Whatever those exact details, somehow Sherlock will return – “the show’s not called John yet,” jokes Freeman, “I’m aiming by series five”. But when the detective finally does stage his resurrection – “with all the theatricality that comes so naturally to him” we’re told – what form will it take?

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original story, Holmes bumps into Dr Watson while disguised as a stooped, elderly book seller and only reveals himself once he has finagled his way safely inside 221B Baker Street.

But Gatiss says his version will not involve a traditional disguise-and-reveal: “Sherlock actually has a line in [series one finale] The Great Game which is ‘The art of disguise is knowing how to hide in plain sight’ and that was because, right from the start, I thought modern day Sherlock Holmes would not put putty noses on, he would basically be standing behind you now and you wouldn’t know he was there.”

One way or another, though, Sherlock will finally have to reveal himself (apart from anything else, London is being threatened by an imminent terrorist attack and needs him back). So what might be John’s reaction when he does? The literary Dr Watson keels over at the sight of his friend’s face, and is then simply overjoyed to see him, but Gatiss has strongly suggested that John is likely to be less understanding – “I always found it a little unlikely that Dr Watson’s only reaction was to faint… as opposed to possibly a stream of terrible swear words” – and knowing the pair’s history, a smack in the mouth is not out of the question either.

Before filming began, Freeman told that, should it be required of him, he’d step into the breach and plant one on his co-star again. But when we talk a few months later he won’t reveal whether we’re in for a barney, a tear-jerker or what –  although he does promise “It will be a big moment.”

“I think that will be a moment that people are looking forward to… It’s a very big moment in Conan Doyle, but it might not be exactly the same as Conan Doyle. But it’s definitely marked, it’s a marked moment.”

There is, of course, another potential reunion many Sherlock fans are hoping to see at some point. The detective has not (as far as we know) had anything so mundane as a ‘love interest’ but his intellectual grappling with whip-smart dominatrix Irene Adler (“The Woman” of the original Sherlock Holmes stories) was a highlight of series two, and Sherlock even popped up to save her life in a brief Indiana Jones-style moment at the end of the episode.

Lara Pulver, who plays the well and truly Sherlocked Adler, has been as coy as her character is brazen about a possible return, but surely the terminally aloof detective himself is immune to such thoughts? Isn’t he…?

“Well, there’s a drawer in Baker Street with her phone in it, the Vertu phone, and it’s there isn’t it?” says Cumberbatch suggestively. “I mean he has a token of her, he’s kept something of her.

“But if you look at the way I played that, after the moment of fond reminiscing of our night in Islamabad – and whatever may or may not have happened after I rescued her from death – I stop smiling, put it away and it’s in a drawer, it’s gone from my immediate environment, it’s something that’s compartmentalised, it’s parked.”

So those two years away weren’t spent…? Cumberbatch cuts off the question with a speed and impatience that feels eerily familiar.

“I don’t think we were off having a holiday, no.”

And Sherlock is back in the room.