With an upcoming Christmas special, show creator Steven Moffat, producer Sue Vertue and actor Rupert Graves (“DI Lestrade”) were at Comic-Con to represent the BBC/PBS series Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as his loyal sidekick, Watson.
While in San Diego, the trio took part in a panel at NerdHQ, where they talked about whether they see themselves as more of a Sherlock or a Watson, why Moriarty is in the deepest and darkest hell of Sherlock’s mind, how the show has turned into a family affair, the process for how they decide which stories to pull from, keeping a balance of the comedy and the drama, the evolution of the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft, and what’s most surprised and delighted them about the fan response. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
Why Moriarty is the last person Sherlock saw in his mind palace:
STEVEN MOFFAT: He was dying. That’s the ultimate Satan locked in the cellar. What’s the deepest, darkest hell of Sherlock’s mind? It would have to be Moriarty, trying to drag him down to destroy him further. There was no more thought than it would have to be Moriarty. If you imagine Sherlock’s mind palace as a haunted mind palace, which it would have to be because he’s clinically insane, what’s in the basement? Well, it’s got to be Moriarty, doesn’t it?
Whether there’s a character on Sherlock that he writes exclusively:
MOFFAT: No, there isn’t a character on Sherlock where I would say, “That one’s mine.” That would be selfish. I started Molly, but we all love writing Molly. There are no restrictions. It wouldn’t be shared universe etiquette. Everyone is allowed to play with all the toys in the box. I just defined how mature the process is.
Whether they think of themselves as more of a Sherlock or a Watson:
MOFFAT: I’m more of a Watson ‘cause Sherlock is really clever. I wish I could be like Sherlock Holmes, but I’m too stupid. It’s true.
RUPERT GRAVES: I’m too stupid even to be Watson. I’m just Lestrade.
SUE VERTUE: I like to think I’m a bit Sherlocky. I like to deduce people’s lives in the supermarket.
MOFFAT: My wife is the closest to a genius sociopath among us. My wife is the best sensible thinker.
What’s been Graves’ favorite scene to shoot:
GRAVES: I don’t often get too much to say. I think my favorite scene is when Lestrade first saw that Sherlock was okay, at the underground car park. The art is to react, in the moment, so it depends very much on what Benedict [Cumberbatch] is doing, and the other people are doing. And there’s a scene [in the special] between Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson that was great. We’ve been friends for awhile, Una [Stubbs] and I, and it was great to get to act together.
Lestrade’s ideal date:
GRAVES: Mycroft is Lestrade’s ideal date. No. Maybe Molly Hooper.
How Lestrade’s relationship with Sherlock has changed, since he’s come back from the dead:
GRAVES: I don’t really know yet. We bounce back to the Victorian era [for the special]. We’ll wait for the fourth [season] to see how that changes. I think it will deepen their love.
With Benedict Cumberbatch’s parents, Martin Freeman’s partner and Moffat and Vertue’s son all having been on the show, Sherlock is a family affair:
MOFFAT: We don’t specifically do that. We don’t say, “Who wants a go-around?” I don’t particularly know why the ecology of Sherlock works that way. It’s always been a very small, close-knit, frequently related or copulating group of people. I don’t know why, but it’s a show that grew out of friendship and a marriage, so I suppose that’s the ecology of it. But we don’t specifically say, “We’ve got a new villain. Can we see photographs of your relatives?” Maybe we should. It’s been working well for us.
VERTUE: It’s a cunning device for keeping the budget down. Always the producer.
Since they’ve already done episodes based around the most well-known Sherlock Holmes stories, what are they looking to focus on next:
MOFFAT: To be honest, we decided to do “The Woman,” “The Hound” and “‘The Professor” in [Season 2] because Mark [Gatiss] and I always say, “To hell with deferred pleasure. Get on with it now.” They’re the three biggies. They’re the three that people are always going to be asking us about until we do them, so we did them. But there is a ton material that no one ever touches in Sherlock Holmes. There’s a whole bunch of other stories, ideas and villains that are in there. I’m not telling you which ones are taking our attention, at the moment, but there’s a bunch of other stuff. There are 60 stories. There’s a whole bunch of things we can do. We can make up new stories. We can combine stories. There are a ton of great ideas, great mysteries, great ideas, great gags for us to use. We won’t run out because, frankly, we make this show so incredibly slowly.
Only having to know the end of the episode before they write it, and not the entire end of the series:
MOFFAT: You can’t have a final end for a TV show while you’re still making it. You don’t know how long it’s going to go on. I’d be in real trouble, if I had one for Doctor Who, wouldn’t I? The spoilers here are all over 100 years old. Close your ears, but he ends up in Sussex Downs keeping bees. That’s where he goes. That’s what happens. I don’t know why. I’ve never figured that one out. He gets very, very bored, if criminals aren’t committing enough crimes, but then he thinks, “I know, I’ll keep bees.” What?! No disrespect, but isn’t that fucking boring?! When you’ve been solving murders, just putting on a stupid hat and wandering around some small huts that buzz a lot is enough for you? Twat! So no, we don’t know where it is, but that is ultimately where it ends.
How he keeps the writing straight for both Sherlock and Doctor Who:
MOFFAT: They’re such different things. I never think of them as the same, at all. Sherlock, in the end, is having various emotional crises while pretending to do detective work. And Doctor Who is fighting monsters. Mark and I both write both, and there are areas where those characters can think or behave in slightly similar ways. One of the very first notes, when we were making Doctor Who for the first time, was, “Make that old guy more like Sherlock Holmes. He’s Sherlock Holmes in space.” So, just because we do both shows, we can’t shy away from those aspects of the Doctor that are consciously patterned after Sherlock Holmes. We have to embrace them. In general they are quite different, but there are superficial resemblances that are not insubstantial and that we can’t run away from.
Making this Lestrade stand out over other portrayals:
GRAVES: Well, I approached the part very simply. I just wanted to be the kind of copper you could believe was a copper, and act as a sounding board for Sherlock. So, I just approached it really soberly, as a credible policeman.
MOFFAT: In terms of writing the part, Lestrade, in the original, varies quite a lot, from being a complete idiot who’s rather aggressive, to being a rather fine man that Sherlock Holmes called “the best of Scotland Yard.” He has sufficient confidence in his own ability that he doesn’t mind admitting someone else is better. That makes him a better man than Sherlock Holmes, who can’t bear to admit that is brother is smarter than him. So, the idea is that Sherlock Holmes is dismissive of a man who genuinely likes him and admires him because he just assumes that Lestrade is jealous or angry, and he’s not, at all. He’s a complete ally, and he’s a fine, clever copper. With the pilot, people complained that the police were too stupid, so we told Rupert to just clever the fuck up a bit and to just say, “You bastard!” We tried to make sure that he was actually wise. Lestrade absolutely gets it. He gets what Sherlock Holmes can be on a good day, and what he might be on a bad day. That’s quite a key character.
Keeping a balance of comedy with the drama:
MOFFAT: For both Mark and I, our background is in comedy. If your background is in comedy, there’s a tendency, when a scene is not doing anything else, to make it funny. If people are just talking about plot, you stick some gags in, so that they don’t fall asleep. The most neglected aspect of Doyle’s work is that the stories are funny. There are lots of jokes in there. The interaction between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is genuinely humorous, and laugh-out-loud at times. There’s a lot of humor in Sherlock Holmes. When people miss that, they miss a whole area. And Mark and I are comedy tarts.
VERTUE: I think because you come from comedy, the comedy goes in quite effortless. Sometimes trying to jam a funny bit into a drama is hard. You do it very well.
MOFFAT: It’s great if you’re a comedy writer doing drama because you get such compliments for the jokes. People say, “You had four jokes,” and I’m like, “Yes, I’m such a genius!” It’s really bloody useful, in the dull bits of drama, to get your comedy trousers on. There aren’t actually trousers, but I am contemplating it.
That viewers can likely expect more growth in the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft:
MOFFAT: We haven’t written the next [season] yet, but I’m pretty much assuming that you will see more of that. That’s something that was quite late on. “Scandal in Belgravia” was the first time we really saw Mycroft in the caring role. He’s a chilly old reptile, but he actually cares for his brother. I found that a very useful device, and so did Mark. There is genuine care there, and that is sort of not in the original. It comes slightly from the Billy Wilder version. It just evolved, really, and I assume it will continue to do so.
How having the seasons so far apart affects the production:
VERTUE: The set looks a bit dirty when we bring it all back out again, but we can’t do anything because the scripts don’t get there any sooner. Even if you’ve got a two-year gap, you still have to wait for the scripts.
MOFFAT: I may not have mentioned it, darling, but when you’re not looking, I make Doctor Who. And I’m learning to drive.
VERTUE: It’s lovely when we all get back and do our read-throughs.
MOFFAT: Every time we turn up and make the show, it actually does feel like we’re doing a reunion show. We’re like, “We’re back again! I never thought I’d see you again!” We all fall into each other’s arms sobbing, which is ridiculous.
Deciding how much of the secondary characters to write into the show:
MOFFAT: It’s just as it arises in the story. Logically, it wouldn’t always be the same inspector that Sherlock Holmes is dealing with. But then, we did an episode without Rupert [Graves] and it just felt wrong. It didn’t feel right, at all. So, Mark and I put our heads together and head this idea that, whenever Sherlock Holmes collides with the police, the word goes out to Lestrade to go there and start the police from punching him. And Molly was never intended to be a continuing character. She was literally intended for that one scene, that was to establish Sherlock not even noticing that this girl was in love with him. He wasn’t even being cruel to her. He just didn’t notice. But, she was so great and it instantly put Sherlock Holmes in the modern world. That was so much more complicated and powerful that we ended up using her a lot. The one thing we said we’d never do was introduce a new character, but we did and we’ve now forgotten that she’s not in the original material.
What’s most surprised and delighted them you about the fan response to the show:
MOFFAT: I never was aware before that loads and loads and loads of women are really into Sherlock Holmes. It’s not something, when you’re younger, that you mention to women. You don’t say, “I, too, like Sherlock Holmes. Let’s go out.” That wouldn’t have been something that worked And you don’t say, “I’m a Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who fan.” That didn’t work. Trust me. I was a virgin until I was 42. The thing that most delights me is always the creative response, and the fact that people make their own art and make up their own stories. That is the way to learn how to do the job. It really, really is. I like the extraordinary creative response to it. They’re not just passively consuming, but saying, ‘I’m going to have a go at it and try to do it.’ That’s the first step to doing it for real.
GRAVES: I’ve never been to any of these comic cons before, but the passion and the creativity is astonishing. It’s a lovely symbiotic relationship. That’s great.
VERTUE: It’s the self-policing that everybody does, as well. People turn up for the shooting, but if you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to because people put it all under one particular hashtag.