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Finding The Lighter Side Of Sherlock Holmes

Emmy-winning writer Steven Moffat talks about reimagining one of the world’s most iconic characters for a modern, and less stuffy, era.

Finding The Lighter Side Of Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes [Photo: courtesy of BBC, PBS, Hartswood Films]

It should have been an impossible task, or at least one that veered dangerously towards clichéd retread: taking one of the most iconic and reincarnated characters in literary history and contemporizing him in a way that felt both daring and faithful. And yet that’s precisely what writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done with Sherlock, the updated version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved sleuth on PBS’s Masterpiece.

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Since debuting in 2010, the show–which trades in magnifying glasses and journals for text messaging and blogs–has been lavished with critical acclaim. Much to viewers’ delight, Moffat and Gattis effortlessly pepper their complex plots with wry wit and rapid-fire dialogue, serving to peel away the somber gravitas that has historically surrounded Sherlock.

Even so, the show had been perennially snubbed at the Emmys–at least until this year, when it all but stole the show (Breaking Bad took care of that), waltzing away with three statuettes; one for star Benedict Cumberbatch; one for Martin Freeman, who plays Sherlock’s sidekick Dr. John Watson; and one for Moffat, for Outstanding Writing for a Mini-Series, Movie or Dramatic Special.

It was Moffat’s first Emmy win, but hardly his first award. The Scottish scribe, who started his career as an English teacher, has been garnering buzz and kudos ever since he wrote Press Gang in his mid-twenties. The show, about a high school newspaper, came about Moffat says, by way of a “bizarre set of events.” When his father, who was a school headmaster, was approached by a TV series that featured different schools every week, he mentioned to a producer that his son had a great idea for a TV show.

“A few years later,” Moffat recalls, “that producer’s girlfriend got in touch and asked if she could buy and develop the idea into a TV series.” His father agreed–on the condition that she let his son take a shot at writing the script.

Moffat went on to create the ‘90s sit-coms Joking Apart–based on a divorce he was going through–and Chalk, but his real breakthrough came with Coupling, in 2000. A racy antidote to Friends, the show was an enormous hit and Britain and was transported–with less success–to the U.S. and Greece.

In 2005, Moffat switched genres when an opportunity arose to write an episode of the BBC’s revived Dr. Who series (he eventually became the showrunner). A devoted fan of the original–which he credits with prompting him to get into television in the first place–Moffat says he “leapt at the chance because I loved the show so much.” Besides establishing Moffat as a brilliant drama writer, Dr. Who served as the springboard for Sherlock.

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Moffat recently spoke with Fast Company about how the series came to be and creating the modern, less-stuffy Sherlock.

Fast Company: How did the idea to tackle Sherlock Holmes come up?

Steven MoffatPhoto: courtesy of BBC

Steven Moffat: When I was working on Dr. Who, Russell Davies was running it. I was writing occasional episodes for him. I often used to get on the train with Mark Gatiss who was also working on Dr. Who, because we were very old friends. We realized we couldn’t talk about Dr. Who on the train because it was such a big show; everyone started listening. So we started talking about the other things that we were passionate about, or jointly passionate about, and one of them is Sherlock Holmes–the original Sherlock Holmes stories. And we sort of admitted to each other that the version of Sherlock Holmes that we enjoyed the best were the old, outdated ones with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce fighting the Nazis and all that nonsense.

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We felt there was something more compelling about those, precisely because they were less reverent. He actually caught more of the irreverent nature of the original. And we said some day somebody’s going to do that again. One day someone is going to update Sherlock Holmes again and we’ll be really cross because we didn’t do it. And we kept talking about that and I mentioned the conversation to my wife Sue, who’s a very prominent TV producer. And she said, ‘Well, why don’t you two do it?’ So she got us in a room to talk about it and we pitched it to her, bizarrely enough in Monte Carlo over lunch. And we said, ‘This is what Sherlock Holmes is, this is what we’d do with it.’ And she loved it. So we very quickly after that got a pilot and then a series. It happened very smoothly.

Adaptation can be challenging, or at least involves a lot of creative decisions–what to remain faithful to, what to update. What was that process like for you and Mark?

When you realize just how neatly the Victorian version of Sherlock Holmes and the Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes mapped onto our modern world, you realize this is a must-do. Even coming home from the war in Afghanistan is in the original story. We obsess about sending texts, but they sent telegrams back then. This whole idea of keeping a journal has revived in the form of the blog. There are so many things where the Victorian Sherlock Holmes and the modern Sherlock Holmes fit together perfectly.

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Did you go back and re-read the original stories or watch those old movies? Or did you want to distance yourself from the original source material?

We didn’t really need to re-read it; we already knew it all pretty well. I mean, occasionally I’ll need to check up on something or need to find some new ideas. But the reason for doing this is we were already massive enthusiasts of the original stories and aware that there was a lot of material in the original stories that nobody had touched and that we could exploit. Most of our better ideas come from the actual original stories. We got a lot of credit for introducing Sherlock Holmes flogging a corpse. That was introduced in the original story. A lot of it comes from knowledge of the original.

You’ve had a varied writing career, from your earlier sitcom work to the more dramatic series you’re working on now. Does one feel more natural than the other?

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I’ve never thought about switching genres at all. It never feels any different. So that didn’t bother me. I haven’t written a comedy for years, unless Dr. Who and Sherlock count, and sometimes I think they probably do. But it doesn’t feel different–you’re just writing entertaining telly.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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