Sherlock – Bloody Brilliant, A Chat With Mark Gatiss

Sherlock, as in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, finishes it seconded limited series this Sunday, May 20 on PBS with “The Reichenbach Fall.” I say limited since this season is only 3 stories or episodes. Those Brits don’t give us much but what they do is brilliant. Brilliantly written, directed and acted. Benedict Cumberbatch is Holmes while Martin Freeman is Dr. Watson. Finally an intelligent Watson who can keep up with Sherlock or at least throw back a good line or two in self-defense. He doesn’t write stories for a monthly magazine, this Watson blogs and has made his friend and flat mate an international internet sensation.

In this last episode Sherlock meets his nemeses, Moriarty, in one of the most sinister cliff-hangers ever written. When Sir Author Conan Doyle wrote of Sherlock’s death at Reichenbach Falls (“The Adventure of the Final Problem”) he was determined to kill off his character and the world had to wait 8 years before Doyle decided to bring him back.

We’ll probably only have to wait a couple of years for the next adventures since the episodes won’t even start filming until early 2013. The British get theirs as a Christmas present and we get ours 2 years from now. Typical British reserve, quality over quantity, plus the two leads are incredibly busy.

Cumberbatch will be in J.J. Abrams’ still untitled Star Trek sequel as the lead villain (rumors say it’s Khan Noonien Singh). Next is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again where he will be the voices of The Necromancer and the dragon Smaug playing against his Sherlock partner Freeman (Bilbo Baggins). Not bad genre credits for the two of them.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are co-creators of Sherlock. Moffat is now off being Executive Producer of next season’s Doctor Who. Gatiss is in a couple of episodes of the British version of Being Human, but before that he wrote another Sherlock episode “The Hounds of Baskerville” and plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother.

And now a word from Mark Gatiss, co-creator, executive producer, writer and Sherlock’s much put up older brother Mycroft, who according to Sherlock is the British government.

What has been the reaction from fans of Sherlock? They can be very protective about their hero.

MARK GATISS: We had the blessing… The Sherlock Holmes Society of London came to a screening and you have an impression that they’re going to be incredibly fossilized in their opinions, and they absolutely adored it, because we tried to be very, very true to the original characters, and there’s so much in there for real die-hard fans to like. But for us, it’s about getting back to the characters as written, rather than about the trappings of Victoriana.

In the original incarnation, what makes Holmes so special is that he’s just smarter than the average policeman, and he finds the minutia that allows him to solve the crimes. In the 21st century setting, there’s so much technology, and there’s so many aids to crime invention that maybe back then would have only existed in Holmes’s mind. How do you make him special in this context?

GATISS: But we had a very early conversation on precisely that. We live in a “CSI” world. Conan Doyle effectively invented forensics with Sherlock Holmes, and, in fact, for many years, the books were prescribed reading for police forces around the world. So how could he be special? What we worked out really is that obviously the police do go around now doing fingerprints and footprint castings and all those sorts of things, but Sherlock Holmes is still the cleverest man in the room, and that’s key to it. He’s the only one who can make that sort of leap. So it’s a big thing because it has implications for Watson and for Inspector Lestrade. Lestrade is not an idiot. He’s the best detective Sherlock Holmes knows, but he’s not Sherlock Holmes. And so it’s just the specialness of Sherlock that makes the difference.

In the show he still lives at 221B Baker Street. When you’re updating this, can you talk about what went into how much you think back to characters and stories from the original and how much you needed to change or wanted to introduce what was brand new?

GATISS: He was absolutely of his time and a cutting-edge person, embracing all kinds of technology of the 1930s, 20th century, always sending off telegrams or firing page boys off with little messages and having this network of homeless people as his eyes and ears. And there are some things that there’s no worry about at all. You just think, “Well, he’s operating now, and here are these versions of that.” So it made absolute sense that he’s completely across technology that he’s using text messaging instead of having huge filing systems of out-of-the-way knowledge. He’s very media savvy.

Other things that became a bit more of an elephant in the room, what do we do about the drugs, the pipe, things like that, and some of them were just straightforward. Well, you know, it’s the 21st century. Only stupid people take cocaine. Sherlock Holmes is not stupid, and it’s also been massively blown out of proportion. The amount of versions you see where Holmes is shooting up in the middle of the most exciting case of his career. Whereas, in fact, he only took drugs as a distraction from boredom. But at the same time, we wanted to play and leave a little gray area that he might be somehow, because he has an addictive personality, he might be always on the verge of going into this very dark place.

There are other characters like House and Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and the beauty of them, just like Sherlock Holmes, they’re not only smarter than everybody else, but they keep telling you that they’re smarter than everyone else. Is that kind of some of the charm of Sherlock, that he’s so open about it?

GATISS: I think it is. And it takes John Watson to arrive in his life to just say, “Don’t say that.” Because Holmes doesn’t get it. He’s very, very bad in social situations like a lot of high-functioning people in that way; his social skills are terrible. And he doesn’t necessarily get a lot better, but he certainly starts to realize, “Maybe I could rein that in a bit.” But also stuff that’s in the original is about how good he is at talking to women, and he has an amazing capacity for it, when he’s always into meeting servant girls and things. He’s very gentle with people. He knows what to do, but sometimes you suspect it’s all kind of an act. It’s an act. It’s a brilliantly learned thing. So we’ve got a bit in the show when he’s trying to get some corpses wheeled out for examination, and he flirts outrageously with Molly Hooper, the morgue attendant, and compliments her on her hair. She turns away a little, all aflutter, and Ben’s face just drops. It’s really quite chilling because he’s just flipped the switch, gone into charming mode, and I think that’s part of Sherlock Holmes’s appeal.

Since you’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes can you remember what you felt like as you turned each page as the story unfolded for you that first time?

GATISS: I find it still moves me to remember this. I first read the “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” the first volume when I was about 8, and I’ve still got the book, the purple-spine Penguin, and there’s a beautiful introduction to it, and I’ve forgotten who wrote it, but he says at the end, “I wish I was reading these stories for the first time.” And I remember sitting on my bed just thinking, “Oh, I am.” And that’s still my favorite of them all, I think that for reason. I just fell absolutely, madly in love at the sense of privilege with being introduced to these stories for the first time. But it’s all bloody brilliant.

Sherlock – “The Reichenbach Fall” airs on most PBS stations Sunday, May 20 at 9:00 PM – but check your local listing – just in case.