Famous as being a member of the comedy team The League of Gentlemen, which has won the BAFTA, Golden Rose and Royal Television Society awards, Mark Gatiss has also written Crooked House, History of Horror with Mark Gatiss and First Men in the Moon for the BBC, as well as episodes of Poirot and Doctor Who.
On his new series, Sherlock, he shares the triple-threat credits, Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer and Co-Writer, with Steven Moffat. Both have brilliantly reconceived the Sherlock Holmes franchise by placing the famous literary detective in 2010, with cell phones, computers and all the technological advancements of the 21st century. Couple that with the fact that Dr Watson has just returned from his duty in Afghanistan, and you’ll realize this is an ingenious and inspired reinvention.
Do you remember the first time you read a Sherlock Holmes novel?
Yes, and I find it still moves me to remember this. I first read the Adventures of Sherlock Holms, when I was about 8 years old. I’ve still got the purple-spined Penguin book. And there’s a beautiful introduction to it, I forget 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 thinking, ‘Oh, I am.’
That’s still my favorite of them all, I think for that reason. I just fell absolutely, madly in love at the sense of privilege with being introduced to these stories for the first time.
With the Robert Downey Jr movie and this, there seems to be a resurgence right now of interest in Holmes. Is that just coincidence, or is it something about the times we live in that we want a Sherlock Holmes?
I think it’s a coincidence. There’s usually two Robin Hoods at the same time. The light bulb was invented three times in the same afternoon. That kind of thing often happens. But I think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are imperishable characters. The reason we’re here is because of Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius, and that’s what we wanted to respect and pay homage to.
When you started conceiving this, did you know Robert Downey Jr.’s feature film was going to come out, and what were your thoughts about that?
We all piled off to see Robert Downey Jr., as a little kind of group outing. We loved the film. It’s so much fun. It’s great to have more Sherlock Holmes in the world, simple as that.
In the original, what makes Holmes so special was he was smarter than the average policeman. But in the 21st century setting, there’s so much technology to help the police out, how do you make Holmes special in that context?
We had a very early conversation on precisely that. We live in a CSI world. Conan Doyle effectively invented forensics with Sherlock Holmes, and 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.
When you were updating this, can you talk about what went into how much you used the characters and stories from the original and how much you wanted to introduce brand new aspects?
One of the great things is it’s about him as a modern man. (In the original) he was absolutely (out) of his time and a cutting-edge person. It made absolute sense that he’s (now) using text messaging instead of having huge filing systems of out-of-the-way knowledge. He’s very media savvy.
The other thing that became a bit more of an elephant in the room was what to do about the drugs. 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 version you see where Holmes is shooting up in the middle of the most exciting case of his career. He, in fact, only took drugs as a distraction from boredom. But he does have an addictive personality, he might be always on the verge of going into this very dark place.
Sherlock Holmes is not only smarter than everybody else, but he keeps telling you that he’s smarter than everyone else. Is that some of his charm?
I think it is. And it takes John Watson to arrive in his life to just say, ‘Don’t say that,’ because he doesn’t get it. He’s 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 in the original he is good he at talking to women, and he has an amazing capacity for it. He’s always into meeting servant girls. He’s very gentle with people. He knows what to do, but sometimes you suspect it’s all a brilliantly learned act.
What makes the relationship of Holmes and Watson work?
They’re so unlikely as a pairing; they’re chalk and cheese. But at the center of their relationship, it is the thrill of it. They just get on together, and have a laugh; it’s really the foundation of every relationship.
Any reaction from the die-hard fans?
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London came to a screening. You have an impression that they’re going to be incredibly fossilized in their opinions, and they absolutely adored it.
We tried to be 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.