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Sherlockology on Set: A day on location in Cardiff * 10 January 2014


Please note the article below does contain some spoilers for Sherlock S3E1: The Empty Hearse.

March 27 2013

Cardiff. A small block of flats in a residential street. It's a bitterly cold day and the threat of snow is imminent, but thankfully most of today's filming on The Empty Hearse is taking place indoors - a selection of scenes where Sherlock Holmes and Molly Hooper visit a train loving client named Howard. We're sat in the green room, located in the living room of the flat opposite the one filming is taking place in. It's a space for the crew to watch what is being filmed, video monitors set up displaying everything that's being captured on camera in the scenes shooting next door, and at the moment it's just us in the room.

The full script of The Empty Hearse is laying on the table next us.

Obviously, the temptation to have a peek and finally have the answer as to how Sherlock survived The Fall is really rather strong. Potentially, almost everyone on set at this point in the day knows how he did it apart from us, and for five very long minutes we find ourselves alone in the room with the vitally important document.

We resist the urge to look.

Yes we want to know, but with all the cast and crew working so hard, our conscience makes it clear that the solution deserves to be discovered while watching it on screen in the final cut. The experience of today has been exciting enough.

Set -dressing

We've been on set since 11am, having entered the building through the back door, and headed up the stairs to the top flat. It was dressed the day before by production designer Arwel Jones and his team, and it's immediately evident the level of work and attention to detail that goes into creating a set that will feature in only a few minutes of screen time is utterly staggering.

"This is really accurate. We've known people whose houses look exactly like this," John Polley from Metro Models tells us as we take it all in. John has provided the Abbey Road tube layout for the scene, which even features small figures of The Beatles crossing the road. There is a half built layout in a second room that will not even make an appearance on screen, Hornby models in display cases, railwayana break lamps on dressers and stacks of Model Railway Journal magazines scattered everywhere for authenticity.

Tubemap -wallpaper

Arwel arrives shortly after us and gives us a guided tour around the flat, pointing out the tube map wallpaper in the bedroom that was custom made by the art department. His team have completely redecorated and redressed the flat, combining vintage wallpaper with modern props such as touch screen monitors, and Arwel is particularly proud of the cogs and wheels installation by the window. The other large layout in the room has been provided by Hornby Railways, a nice touch as the company was born in what would have been the lifetime of Sherlock Holmes, and certainly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

At 1pm it's time for 'breakfast', and although the production base is some distance away filming won't commence for an hour, so we have time to walk there and back. While eating we are handed the call sheet for the day and eagerly flick through the script pages of dialogue between Sherlock, Molly and new character Howard, and then it's back to the set. All the crew have now arrived, and the finishing touches are made just as Benedict Cumberbatch arrives in full Sherlock wardrobe and makeup, greeting everyone with a warm hello as they file past him on their duties.

Sue Vertue, the episode and series producer, has sent us her apologies that she will not be attending filming today as she has family commitments, but in her stead is Beryl Vertue, Sherlock executive producer, who guides us through the proceedings for the day while we make ourselves comfortable in the green room.

Louise -tweet

Next to arrive is Louise Brealey. "Did you see my tweet?" she asks us excitedly, "It's got more retweets than anything else I've ever tweeted!" We wish her happy birthday and after she has changed into her costume in the bedroom next door, we run through her costume with her. We're very taken with Molly's new scarf and ask where it is from. "Charity shop," she answers - as it turns out, most of what Molly is wearing is from a charity shop, apart from the trousers, which are Louise's own and a rather brightly coloured Topshop jumper.

As the filming begins, the make-up and costume crew all squeeze onto the far sofa in front of the monitors, scripts on their laps. They explain they are watching to ensure continuity in the scene between takes. We do not miss the opportunity to get some advanced information on Sherlock's costume and particularly his new scarf. "Benedict was given three to choose from," we're told, although no one can recall the brand of the one he chose, so it will remain a mystery for now. While watching the screens, Beryl is the only one to have headphones so she can hear what is being said. She hands us a spare pair that normally belong to Sue, so we can listen to the dialogue too. It is remarkable, having read the script, to then hear how the actors interpret the words written on the page by Mark Gatiss in their performances.

Time is precious and there's none to lose. The crew is on a tight schedule with several scenes to get through, but there's some amusement when one of the model locos derails in the middle of a shot, having unexpected collided with a hat placed on the layout. "That was dramatic," jokes Hornby brand manager Simon Kohler, as he returns to the green room having averting the potential catastrophe.


It's started to snow outside by the time Mark Gatiss arrives. He's wearing casual clothes as none of the scenes shooting today involve his character, Mycroft Holmes. Setlock has also tracked down the filming location, and a small crowd of fans has gathered outside the front of the flats in the cold. One scene is to be shot outside, which sees Sherlock walk away down the street in the 'real' snow, so their patience is eventually rewarded, especially when afterwards Benedict goes over to thank them for their dedication and support on this freezing day.

Melrose -court

'Lunchtime' is around 6pm and Mark, a few other members of the crew and ourselves pile into a minibus to return to the production base, while Benedict and Louise are taken there by his driver. While we're queuing for food, Mark queues beside us. We've met him several times but never in a more private setting like this, so with a knowing, friendly glint in his eye, he extends a hand, simply stating "Hi, I'm Mark" by way of ice-breaker introduction. He seems particularly taken with the fact they've managed to find a London underground layout for the scene, and having read the day's script, it is obvious to us the tube will play a big part in the case during the episode.

On set once again, it's back to business. Next up is Sherlock on the staircase between the flats, making a deduction. After some discussion with director Jeremy Lovering, Benedict acts out Sherlock mentally running through the London tube map in his mind palace - quite an incredible sight to watch without all the graphics floating around on screen. It really brings home the fact that if this character were real, people would undoubtedly see him as quite a remarkable individual, if not a little eccentric. They run through several different shots, with a projection of the tube map angled onto Benedict's face and against the wall. "We haven't the budget for fancy computer graphics this series," Mark comments to us; tongue firmly set in his cheek.

Arwels -tube -projection
Image © Steve Lawes, via Twitter

It's been a long day, and our respect for the crew who work these hours for months on end is high. We've taken a trip outside with David Fynn, the actor who plays Howard, to get some fresh air and a coffee to wake ourselves up. On the trip back inside, we squeeze past Benedict who is still standing on the stairs between takes, causing us to gush our apologies. "That's quite alright," he assures us, and it's quite a contrast to the sharp retort we would no doubt have received from Sherlock, which for all visual intents and purposes he is right now.



By 11pm Benedict is still being filmed, and the scene where David's character is on Skype with Sherlock and John later on the episode is still to be shot. Having been there for twelve hours we decide to call it a night, even though the crew will be working still for some time yet. This was a more intimate, nuts and bolts chance to see how filming works over the period of a whole day for the crew as a whole, and so it was a fascinating experience to see the process and speak with individual members of the production team to really understand what they do. Sherlock is a series we only get a chance to see three times maybe every two years, but it's clear that the crew work to produce it under extremely tight deadlines, and as a result it's evident we were subject to a huge privilege as they were all so welcoming and accommodating to us while they worked with unflinching dedication to get through the long hours that the shooting schedule demands.

For more information on Metromodels' Abbey Road layout, or if you even fancy hiring it, head to their website.

Hornby Hobbies are running a competition to win two of the screen used locomotives used in The Empty Hearse here.