The Battle of the Sherlocks

The Times

October 6, 2012


Many things can complicate a friendship: an unrepaid loan, a misunderstanding — oh, and the two of you playing Sherlock Holmes in two competing series on two international TV networks. Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC Sherlock has been garlanded with praise, with a third season slated to begin filming in 2013. Meanwhile, from later this month, Cumberbatch’s friend Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes as a drug addict fresh out of rehab living in New York in Elementary, one of the most-hyped new-season dramas on the American network CBS. Lucy Liu plays a female Watson (“Joan Watson”), a “sober companion” making sure he stays clean.

Cumberbatch reportedly asked Miller to turn Elementary down. They starred together last year at the National Theatre in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, alternating the roles of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. One article quoted Cumberbatch telling Miller about playing Holmes: “I’d prefer you didn’t do it but you’ve got a kid to feed, a nice house in LA and a wife to keep in good clothes.” He was also quoted as saying: “When you get used to a certain standard of living and they waft a paycheck at you, what are you going to do? I’m a bit cynical about why they’ve chosen to do it and why they cast him.”

Cumberbatch later claimed that he was misquoted: “I never said that Jonny took the job for the paycheck, nor did I ask him not to do it. What I said is I would have preferred not to be in the situation where we will again be compared because we are friends. I know for a fact that his motivations were to do with the quality of the script and the challenges of this exceptional role.”

Miller tells me: “We discussed the role. He was very supportive. Planet Earth has got enough room for two different Sherlock Holmes.” Miller was “sceptical” of Elementary, but felt it was “wildly different” from the BBC version. “It’s essentially aimed at a different audience. The BBC show is very popular but it hasn’t been seen by most of America.” The CBS version “examines Holmes’s flaws and how damaged he is. You see him struggle. People might identify with it. We’ve made our Sherlock rougher around the edges.”

The two series haven’t just created an awkwardness between the two lead actors. Given the success of the BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s announcement of its own version — after reportedly initially approaching the BBC to do a straight adaptation — provoked widespread harrumphing over what people suspected would be an unnecessary, ill-conceived American remake. On Twitter, Sherlock’s executive producer, Sue Vertue, wrote: “Mmm interesting CBS, I’m surprised no one has thought of making a modern-day version of Sherlock before, oh hang on, we have!” Sherlock co-creator and writer Steven Moffat said he was “annoyed” : “They’ve just decided to go off and do one of their own, having been turned down by us to do an adaptation of our version . . . What if it’s awful? Then it degrades the brand. If there’s this completely unrelated rogue version of Sherlock going around and it’s bad, it can be bad for us.” There were dark whispers of legal action. The truth: CBS’s Elementary is not as barnstorming or daring as Sherlock but neither is it a copy nor a disaster. Sorry, UK.

The pilot episode has a tentative confidence. It is much like any police procedural drama with Miller playing Holmes as a nervy savant, detecting baddies or clues by instinct or flash observation; Liu is a placating foil. The mysteries are original, not versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Holmes has tattoos, clearly works out and is quite possibly on a juiceonly fast. Watson is a fan of deconstructed clothing and satchels. Alongside the crime-solving, Holmes’s troubled past of addiction is the main personal narrative. When I visited New York’s Silvercup Studios I saw a scene being shot over and over again — set in Holmes’s brownstone building, it featured Watson asking suggestively: “What happened in London?”

Carl Beverly, the co-executive producer, says the American Holmes’s drug addiction refers back to Conan Doyle’s Holmes, who had a cocaine habit that Watson admonished him for: “Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?”

Holmes’s addiction shows he “lives among mortals”, Beverly says; Elementary will ask: “Is he truly free of it or does it have its arms around him?”

Will there be a Watson-Holmes romance? “We joke about it,” Miller says. “Lucy was called ‘Mrs Holmes’ on set the other day. ‘No, that’s season five,’ she replied. The one thing we all agree on is that that can never happen. People don’t want that. Our relationship is based on companionship.” So no wedding? “No: that would be too Ramsay Street.” Watson was made a woman, Beverly says, because of the original Holmes’s “conflict” with women, which sparked an idea of making Watson female and in turn “to ask: ‘Can they have a friendship without that turning into something sexual?’ ” Conan Doyle would have applauded the ambition of the gender switch, Beverly says: “We attempt to stay true to their friendship, even if visually it looks different.” Unlike the BBC version there will be no toying with Holmes and Watson’s sexuality: “That’s not our intention. He has sex with women,” Beverly says. “Both will have love interests.”

Miller, he says, is “the right leading man: a little off-centre”. Liu has “strength, intelligence and beauty”. Watson is Holmes’s “emotional muscle” whose empathy positively undercuts the brusque Holmes. It is set in New York to place “the ultimate detective” in the city that would present the most obstacles to him: the classic conflict of a Brit in America, as Beverly puts it. He reveals that Elementary will feature Moriarty, Irene Adler (from A Scandal in Bohemia) and Holmes’s father. Liu has said that, like Miller, she was sceptical of Elementary, turning down Watson “a couple of times” before becoming convinced. For her, Watson being female is less significant than her being Asian-American. “There’s something really special about taking something traditional, turning it on its head and changing the way it is received,” she tells me in a break in filming, and compares it to an earlier breakthrough role: “Charlie’s Angels was steeped in the American lore of these beautiful Caucasian women; it was a big deal for me to play an Asian-American. And Watson’s ethnicity is also a very big deal. I didn’t grow up seeing people like myself in films. Although it’s quite different now, it’s still a slow process.”

Liu is “quite enamoured” with Conan Doyle’s books and the “rich material” around Holmes and Watson’s relationship: her Watson is “clear-headed and has a soft side. People will see me play a different kind of character than they’re used to.” On the BBC adaptation: “There’s a lot of pressure on us, but that’s why you take risks and attempt something new. The same things were said when we did Charlie’s Angels, but when the movie came out, it was successful. The BBC version is incredibly entertaining and award worthy. Ours is a little more heady [meaning ‘thinky’]; we don’t have as much action.”

The Holmes franchise across all media is in rude, mega-profitable health. Robert Downey Jr has played the detective in two fast, fun movies directed by Guy Ritchie, both set in Victorian London: they have grossed more than a billion dollars between them. Jude Law, who plays Dr Watson, revealed that “a script [for a third film] is being played around with . . . we want to [do another one]. We’re a very happy team and we have a lot of fun and we also think there’s still a lot of legs in the duo.”

Last year, Anthony Horowitz, bestknown as the author of the Alex Rider novels, published The House of Silk, the first new Sherlock Holmes adventure to be officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate. The book, set in 1890s London, faithfully evokes the foggy, gas-lampy Sherlock Holmes milieu, includes familiar characters like Moriarty and Lestrade, and was well-received. Asked if he thought there could be too many Sherlocks, Horowitz said: “I don’t think so . . . I think that they can all live comfortably together.”

Unlike the producers of Elementary, he opted to avoid sketching Holmes as an addict: “I decided quite early on that I wouldn’t have drugs. Having Holmes reeling around the place under the influence of cocaine struck me as slightly tiresome.”

Beverly says: “I expect people will be sceptical of Elementary until they see it, then be comforted that for 125 years we’ve had many Sherlocks and as long as they stay true to their idea of Sherlock, people embrace them — and hopefully will embrace ours.” The BBC Sherlock didn’t influence Elementary, he says. BBC producers, who he doesn’t name, “were positive and affirmative” after seeing it. “It’s a different piece. Jonny is his own Sherlock and very different to Benedict.”

US critics received last week’s debut episode on CBS generally warmly, particularly praising Jonny Lee Miller: “a brilliant, jumpy, self-described ‘recovering addict’ fresh out of rehab” (Entertainment Weekly) and a “likeable hangdog Holmes, showing the glint of mania without the pyrotechnics that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to his performance in Sherlock” (The New York Times). Conan Doyle’s estate has seen Elementary and given “their tacit approval”. Liu hopes viewers will let the “magic” of the show supercede the brouhaha.

If nothing else reels you in, Miller, who admits he has a “filthy mouth”, says “bollocks” and other Anglo-profanities which — untranslated and unfettered on American primetime — will make any British viewer, expat or not, feel at home.