Sherlock is a British television crime drama that presents a contemporary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson. Nine episodes have been produced, the first three of which were broadcast in 2010. Series two was broadcast in 2012, and a third series was broadcast in 2014. The third series has become the UK’s most watched drama series since 2001. Sherlock has been sold to over 200 territories. Sue Vertue and Elaine Cameron of Hartswood Films produced the series for the BBC and co-produced it with WGBH Boston for its Masterpiece anthology series on PBS. The series is primarily filmed in Cardiff, Wales. North Gower Street in London is used for exterior shots of Holmes and Watson’s 221B Baker Street residence.
Critical reception has been highly positive, with many reviews praising the quality of the writing, performances, and direction. Sherlock has been nominated for numerous awards including: BAFTAs, Emmys and Golden Globe, winning several awards across a variety of categories. The show received the most number of wins at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for Moffat, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for Cumberbatch, and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for Freeman. In addition, the show was also honoured with a Peabody Award in 2011.
All of the series have been released on DVD and Blu-ray, alongside tie-in editions of selected original Conan Doyle stories and original soundtrack composed by David Arnold and Michael Price. In January 2014, the show launched its official mobile app called Sherlock: The Network. On 2 July 2014, Sherlock was renewed for a fourth series. The three-episode series is scheduled to be broadcast in early 2016, following a full-length Christmas 2015 special which went into production in January 2015.
Sherlock depicts “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) solving various mysteries in London. Holmes is assisted by his flatmate and friend, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), who has returned from military service in Afghanistan with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Although Metropolitan Police Service Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and others are at first skeptical of Holmes, over time his remarkable intellect and powers of observation persuade them of his value. In part through Watson’s blog documenting their adventures, Holmes becomes a reluctant celebrity with the press reporting on his cases and eccentric personal life. Both ordinary people and the British government ask for his help.
Although the series depicts a variety of crimes and perpetrators, Holmes’ conflict with archnemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) is a recurring feature. Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), a pathologist at St. Bart’s Hospital occasionally assists Holmes in his cases. Other recurring roles include Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, Holmes and Watson’s landlady, and series co-creator Mark Gatiss as Holmes’ elder brother Mycroft.
Conception and development
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both Sherlock Holmes fans with experience of adapting or using Victorian literature for television, devised the concept of the series. Moffat had previously adapted the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the 2007 series Jekyll, while Gatiss had written the Dickensian Doctor Who episode “The Unquiet Dead“. Moffat and Gatiss, both Doctor Who writers, discussed plans for a Holmes adaptation during their numerous train journeys to Cardiff where Doctor Who production is based. While they were in Monte Carlo for an awards ceremony, producer Sue Vertue, who is married to Moffat, encouraged Moffat and Gatiss to develop the project themselves before another creative team had the same idea. Moffat and Gatiss invited Stephen Thompson to write for the series in September 2008.
Gatiss has criticized recent television adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories as “too reverential and too slow”, aiming instead to be as irreverent to the canon as the 1930s and 1940s films starring Basil Rathbone, which were mostly set in the then-modern interwar era. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock uses modern technology, such as texting, the internet, and GPS, to solve crimes. Paul McGuigan, who directed two episodes of Sherlock, says that this is in keeping with Conan Doyle’s character, pointing out that “[i]n the books he would use any device possible and he was always in the lab doing experiments. It’s just a modern-day version of it. He will use the tools that are available to him today in order to find things out.”
The update maintains some traditional elements of the stories, such as the Baker Street address and Holmes’s adversary Moriarty. Although the events of the books are transferred to the present day, some elements are incorporated into the story. For example, Martin Freeman’s Watson has returned from military service in Afghanistan. While discussing the fact that the original Watson was invalided home after serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80), Gatiss realised that “[i]t is the same war now, I thought. The same unwinnable war.”
Sherlock was announced as a single 60-minute drama production at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2008, with broadcast set for mid to late 2009. The intention was to produce a series of six 60-minute episodes should the pilot prove to be successful. The first version of the pilot—reported by The Guardian to have cost £800,000—led to rumours within the BBC and wider media that Sherlock was a potential disaster. The BBC decided not to transmit the pilot, requesting a reshoot and a total of three 90-minute episodes. The original pilot was included on the DVD of the first series. During the audio commentary, the creative team said that the BBC were “very happy” with the pilot but asked them to change the format. The pilot, observes critic Mark Lawson when it was released on DVD, was “substantially expanded and rewritten, and completely reimagined in look, pace and sound”. In July 2009, the BBC drama department announced plans for three 90-minute episodes, to be broadcast in 2010. Moffat had previously announced that if a series of Sherlock was commissioned, Gatiss would take over the duties of executive producer so that he could concentrate on producing Doctor Who.
Cast and characters
Moffat and Vertue became interested in casting Cumberbatch as the title character after watching his performance in the 2007 film Atonement. The actor was cast after reading the script for the creative team. “Cumberbatch”, says The Guardian, “has a reputation for playing odd, brilliant men very well, and his Holmes is cold, techie, slightly Aspergerish“. Cumberbatch said, “There’s a great charge you get from playing him, because of the volume of words in your head and the speed of thought—you really have to make your connections incredibly fast. He is one step ahead of the audience and of anyone around him with normal intellect. They can’t quite fathom where his leaps are taking him.” Piers Wenger, Head of Drama at BBC Wales, described the series’ rendering of Sherlock as “a dynamic superhero in a modern world, an arrogant, genius sleuth driven by a desire to prove himself cleverer than the perpetrator and the police—everyone in fact”. Addressing changing social attitudes and broadcasting regulations, Cumberbatch’s Holmes replaced the pipe with multiple nicotine patches. The writers believed that Sherlock should not talk like “a completely modern person”, says Moffat, but were initially intent that “he never sounded like he’s giving a lecture”. Moffat turned the character “more Victorian” in the second series, capitalising more on Cumberbatch’s “beautiful voice” to make it sound like “he’s giving a lecture”.
In an interview with The Observer, co-creator Mark Gatiss says that they experienced more difficulty finding the right actor to play Dr. John Watson than they had for the title character. Producer Sue Vertue said, “Benedict was the only person we actually saw for [the part of] Sherlock… Once Benedict was there it was really just making sure we got the chemistry for John [Watson]—and I think you get it as soon as they come into the room, you can see that they work together”. Several actors auditioned for the part of Watson, and Martin Freeman eventually took the role. Steven Moffat said that Matt Smith was the first to audition unsuccessfully. He was rejected for being too “barmy”, as the producers required someone “straighter” for Watson. Shortly after, Moffat cast Smith as the Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who.
The writers said that Freeman’s casting developed the way in which Cumberbatch played Holmes. The theme of friendship appealed to both Gatiss and Moffat. Gatiss asserted the importance of achieving the correct tone for the character. “Watson is not an idiot, although it’s true that Conan Doyle always took the piss out of him,” said Gatiss. “But only an idiot would surround himself with idiots.” Moffat said that Freeman is “the sort of opposite of Benedict in everything except the amount of talent… Martin finds a sort of poetry in the ordinary man. I love the fastidious realism of everything he does.” Freeman describes his character as a “moral compass” for Sherlock, who does not always consider the morality and ethics of his actions.
Rupert Graves was cast as DI Greg Lestrade. The writers referred to the character as “Inspector Lestrade” during development until Gatiss realised that in contemporary England the character would have the title “Detective Inspector”. Moffat and Gatiss pointed out that Lestrade does not appear often in the stories and is quite inconsistently portrayed in them. They decided to go with the version that appeared in “The Six Napoleons“: a man who is frustrated by Holmes but admires him, and whom Holmes considers as the best person at Scotland Yard. Several candidates took a comedic tack in their auditions, but the creative team preferred the gravitas that Graves brought to the role. His first name is revealed to be Greg in “The Hounds of Baskerville”.
Andrew Scott made his first appearance as Jim Moriarty in “The Great Game”. Moffat said, “We knew what we wanted to do with Moriarty from the very beginning. Moriarty is usually a rather dull, rather posh villain so we thought someone who was genuinely properly frightening. Someone who’s an absolute psycho.” Moffat and Gatiss were originally not going to put a confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes into these three episodes, but realised that they “just had to do a confrontation scene. We had to do a version of the scene in ‘The Final Problem‘ in which the two archenemies meet each other.”
The remainder of the regular cast includes Una Stubbs (who has known Cumberbatch since he was four years old, as she had worked with his mother Wanda Ventham) as Mrs Hudson and co-creator Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes. Vinette Robinson, Jonathan Aris and Louise Brealey play the recurring roles of Sergeant Sally Donovan, Philip Anderson and Molly Hooper, respectively.
Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s real-life partner, plays Mary Morstan, Watson’s girlfriend and eventual wife. In Series 3, Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton, Cumberbatch’s real-life parents, are introduced as Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents.
Guest appearances included Phil Davis as Jefferson Hope, Paul Chequer as DI Dimmock, Zoe Telford as Sarah, Gemma Chan as Soo Lin Yao, John Sessions as Kenny Prince, Haydn Gwynne as Miss Wenceslas, Deborah Moore as one of Moriarty’s victims and Peter Davison as the voice-over in the planetarium. Series two’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” featured Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, while “The Hounds of Baskerville” featured Russell Tovey as Henry Knight. In the final episode of series 2, the role of Rufus Bruhl was played by Edward Holtom, while Katherine Parkinson played journalist Kitty Riley. The first episode of series 3 featured Derren Brown.
Production design and filming
The show was produced by Hartswood Films for BBC Wales, while BBC Worldwide also provided co-production funding. Production was also co-produced by PBS, a network of public-service broadcasters in the United States, for WGBH-TV‘s Masterpiece Mystery! strand. Filming of the pilot episode, written by Moffat and directed by Coky Giedroyc, commenced in January 2009. The following January (2010), the first set of three episodes entered production. Paul McGuigan directed the first and third episodes and Euros Lyn directed the second. The three episodes were filmed in reverse order of their broadcast.
Gatiss says that they wanted to “fetishise modern London in the way that the period versions fetishise Victorian London”. Production was based at Hartswood Films’ Cardiff production unit, Hartswood Films West, which was opened in late 2009 to take advantage of the BBC’s planned Cardiff Bay “drama village”. Production of the first two series was based at Upper Boat Studios, where Doctor Who had been produced. Cardiff was more economical than in London, with some good matches for parts of London. Some architecture could not be faked, so location shooting in the English capital was necessary. The location shots for 221B Baker Street were filmed at 187 North Gower Street – Baker Street was impractical because of heavy traffic, and the number of things labelled “Sherlock Holmes”, which would need to be disguised. Executive producer Beryl Vertue explains how it was important to design the entirety of Sherlock’s flat as a contemporary set, yet still convey his eccentricity. He would not, she says, live somewhere “too suburban” or “too modern”.
Costumes for the pilot were designed by BAFTA Cymru award-winning costume designer Ray Holman. Cumberbatch wore a £1,000 Belstaff coat in the series. Sarah Arthur, the series’ costume designer, explained how she achieved the detective’s look. “Holmes wouldn’t have any interest in fashion so I went for classic suits with a modern twist: narrow-leg trousers and a two-button, slim-cut jacket. I also went for slim-cut shirts and a sweeping coat for all the action scenes—it looks great against the London skyline.”
The writers say that they did not want to force modernity onto the story. There were some creative challenges, such as the decision to include the sign “221B” on Holmes’ front door. Gatiss and Moffat reflect that in the modern world the door would only display the number of the house, and there would be doorbells for each flat. The full house number is so iconic that they felt unable to change it. The writers also decided that the lead characters would address each other by their first names, rather than the traditional Holmes and Watson. This was also reflected in the title of the series. Director Paul McGuigan came up with the idea of putting text messages on the screen instead of having cut-away shots of a hand holding the phone.
The producers found it difficult to coordinate the schedules of the principal players and Moffat and Gatiss for a second series. Cumberbatch and Freeman both worked on the 2012 film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Moffat continued as Doctor Who ’s head writer. In response to the time pressure, The Guardian asserted, the series “features reworkings of three of Conan Doyle’s most recognised tales”. Gatiss says that there had been an argument for producing these tales over three years, but Moffat explained that they rejected “deferred pleasure”. The relationship between Holmes and Watson developed during the second series, with Watson being less amazed by Sherlock’s deductive abilities; Watson acted as the primary detective in the second episode, “The Hounds of Baskerville“. The cast and production team were more confident during the second series’ production following the positive audience and critical reaction to the first series.
The theme and incidental music were composed by David Arnold and Michael Price. Arnold explains that he and Price worked with the producers to “come up with a central theme and character” for the series, then found what was “going to be the defining sound of this show”. Pieces were often constructed using synthesizers, but the tracks used for the show were recorded using real musicians, Arnold says, to bring the music “to life”. Similarly, Price comments that the musicians can adapt their performance of a score by responding to footage from the show.
Three series, each consisting of three episodes, have been produced. The first series was initially broadcast in July and August 2010 on the BBC, later premiering on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States in October 2010. A second series of three episodes was first broadcast in the UK in January 2012, and then in the U.S. during May 2012. The third series premiered in the UK on 1 January 2014 and in the US on 19 January 2014. The series has been sold to over 200 territories.