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An Evening at the Lexi Cinema * 11 June 2011


…And so it was, Team Sherlockology gathered for their first official engagement: a viewing of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes [Billy Wilder, 1970] in the company of Mark Gatiss, at the Lexi Cinema, Greater London. At least, that's what was advertised. In the end, we got more than we bargained for….In a good way.

After an entertaining drive through baking sun and pouring rain around the M25 to avoid the congestion charge zone, we arrived at the spacious free car park around the back of the cinema, collected our tickets, picked our seating and admired the superb overhead lighting that reminded us tremendously of the staging for Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Two of our number then decided it was time for a brief smoking intermission outside before the set 8:30 start time.

It was at this point, outside, smoking and fiddling with her iPhone, one of the team completely missed Steven Moffat entering the premises, while the other stood in stereotypically slack jawed surprise - it was after all unexpected that he'd just casually stroll up the road and use the front entrance.

Once inside, he bounded up the short flight of steps to the left of the cinema screen, to the bar, and collected a well-deserved glass of red wine after a hard day spent scripting the first adventure in the second series of Sherlock, A Scandal in Belgravia. After which he stood nonchantly in the side aisle, studiously reading on his phone, while all the patrons already inside, the writer included, sat in hushed awe of his presence. Or maybe they just ignored him, as they didn't have the faintest idea who he was, having not spent their Saturday nights watching Doctor Who Confidential.

The film was introduced by the billed host, Mark Gatiss, appearing suitably 'Mycroftian' after the last time we saw him bearded and check shirted at the Kapow! Comic Con in mid April.

Having never seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes before, we weren't sure exactly what we were in for at first. The film carries a large element of humour, misunderstanding and farce in the first twenty minutes, with Holmes berating Watson for forcing him to walk around in a deerstalker before causing a huge misunderstanding about the pair's sexuality. The film felt as if it slightly lacked direction in those early stages, before settling down to a mystery not based upon any Conan Doyle text, but still true to the occasional brilliant absurdity of Sir Arthur's originals. And yes, if you read a synopsis of the film, it does indeed feature the duo taking on The Loch Ness Monster. We may as well get that out of the way as its important later.

After the screening, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat took their places in front of the audience for a question and answer session.

They discussed the inherent absurdity of the film, and how 'nowadays' you simply couldn't get away with such a narrative. However, Gatiss stated "We're often talking about having a 'Loch Ness Monster' moment, a big setpiece", something so outrageous the audience cannot quite believe what they are seeing. Steven Moffat recalled his first viewing of the film, being initially horrified at what he perceived to be "a comedy Sherlock Holmes film", before realising how astute the representation of the relationship between Holmes and Watson actually was. He has since seen it "between thirty and forty times!". The notion of the absurd led into talk of some of the stranger tales by Conan Doyle, particularly The Adventure of the Speckled Band - or "THERES A SNAKE IN THE SAFE!" - as brilliantly summarised, and indeed bellowed, by Steven Moffat. Probably the quote of the night.

A clear parallel between Robert Stephens' and Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretations of the character was noted, which Mark Gatiss admitted, but claimed that the character that was most directly inspired by the film was Mycroft Holmes. The fact that Sherlock Holmes' older brother would act in an antagonistic manner towards him was lifted wholesale from Christopher Lee's portrayal and used by Gatiss in his own performance. But when questioned further, Steven Moffat said that there was nothing to read into the 'Arch Enemy' tag applied to Mycroft in A Study in Pink - it was written humorously as a throwaway line by Sherlock - and of course it was designed purely to make the audience believe Gatiss was playing Moriarty!

Watson came under the microscope, with Steven Moffat noting that in his eyes "The best Watsons are always very tongue in cheek, even when played straight", with comparison to the casting of Martin Freeman in Sherlock - and of course the due round of applause and laughter for his BAFTA win in the role. It in turn led to Moffat commenting on Nigel Bruce's portrayal of the character, with Basil Rathebone as Holmes, as "a very good stupid Watson", before remarking that Rathebone's version of Holmes was dislikeable for his treatment of Watson, "treating him like a stray dog at times", and one that "he probably would like to put down" - which led to perhaps the biggest laughs of the night.

There was discussion of the US Region 1 DVD of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, featuring a good deal of deleted extended cut material. The film was originally a four hour cut, but was taken away from director Billy Wilder by the producers and refashioned into the film as it exists. Two whole mystery plotlines were excised, leaving only the one. Mark Gatiss professed a fondness for the idea of one of these two stories, The Upside down Room, where a man is found dead within a room where all the furniture is bolted to the ceiling. We won't spoil the solution Holmes deduces to this problem…

Talk turned to childhood discovery of the books. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes remains Mark Gatiss' favourite collection of stories. His original copy was published by Penguin with a purple spine, "as purple as Sherlock's dressing gown", while Steven Moffat is very pleased he read all the Sherlock Holmes stories in the correct order as a boy. Then came the revelation that Moffat and Gatiss are writing introductions for new editions of the stories. No release date or publisher was given, and we'll admit the unexpected 'announcement' by Mark Gatiss threw us for a bit of a loop.

Humour was mined from the short stories by Conan Doyle, with Steven Moffat commenting on how quickly some cases were resolved in the text, clearly as someone had walked in the room and asked Conan Doyle if he fancied going out to play Cricket. Probably. Or maybe just possibly.

Admittedly, the Q&A didn't feature any new information of Sherlock Series 2, other than filming was on-going in Cardiff during the session, with Mark Gatiss making an occasional show of clock watching at various points. It seems wherever you go though, whenever either Moffat or Gatiss mention the title of the third episode in the series, The Reichenbach Fall, it causes a common reaction from an attentive audience - an overwhelming chorus of ominous "Oooooooooooooh's".

After the Q&A was finished, we summoned the courage to grab autographs and photos with the two men who are arguably Britain's best TV writers, and to put our own question to them about the cliff-hanger of The Great Game. Steven Moffat admitted that they had no resolution in mind to the situation that Sherlock and John find themselves in when they wrote the episode, but finding that solution without making it absurd was half the fun, which gained a laugh from his colleague. An interesting comment, when compared to the film we had seen earlier.

What is hugely clear, having spent only a short time in the company of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, is the huge sense of friendship between the two men, and their mutual love and endless knowledge of the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In their own summation, the stories of Sherlock Holmes are purely "all about friendship". Although when asked if they share a Holmes and Watson dynamic between themselves when writing, Steven Moffat simply remarked that they were "Watson and Watson".