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Sherlockology on Set: A Visit to 221B * 17 January 2014

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Please note this article contains some spoilers for all episodes in Sherlock Series Three.

August 20 2013

If there's one word that can describe Upper Boat Studios, it's 'nondescript'. Hidden away on an anonymous industrial estate outside of Cardiff, the building is compact and clad in blue panelling, looking more like a DIY superstore than any preconceptions you may hold of a film studio. What the building holds though is something more special - the interior of 221B Baker Street. Until 2012, it also held the interior of the Tardis. Upper Boat used to be one of the BBC's principal production facilities, but since the opening of the new Roath Lock facility in Cardiff Bay it's been slowly wound down. As it stands, with a few weeks left on the filming schedule when we visit, Sherlock Series Three will be the last production filmed at the studio.

We've already navigated our way from the opposite side of the country to get here, and having finally made our way past a series of road works and diversions in the final stretch we pull up outside that unassuming exterior. Security greets us cautiously, but on telling them who we are, they realise we're expected.

We're here by the invitation of Production Designer of Arwel Wyn Jones, having finally found a date that works for all of us that avoids a clash with filming on the sets at the studio. The cast and crew of Sherlock are in the process of heading to London for location filming on S3E3 His Last Vow, but Arwel is still at the studio overseeing final preparations and ongoing work on new sets still to be shot for the episode - more on that later.

Having passed through the front desk, Arwel leads us into the narrow corridors of the studio itself, finally stopping in front of a set of double doors. Going through those we're immediately greeted by huge black velvet drapes, designed to block any light from the corridor from filtering into the stage itself. And there, in front of us, are a pair of large wooden slated 'boxes'. The two sets that make up the interior of 221B.


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The front door and exterior of the hallway set of 221B. The Christmas tree never appears on the set in Series Three.

One is more recognisable than the other, mainly as it replicates the front door and ground floor frontage of North Gower Street exactly. Go straight through that door and you're greeted by a familiar staircase, with the hallway leading off to the right to an open space behind. In reality, both the stairs and that door at the back lead nowhere - if you attempt to climb them, they simply cut off after rounding the bend at their mid-point. No way into the famous flat here.

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A panoramic stitched photograph of the hallway and entrance to 221A. Mrs Hudson's umbrella is propped against the telephone table.  

The larger wooden cuboid next to the hallway set holds 221B itself. It is built about six feet off the ground to accommodate the staircase, thus matching the hallway and allowing the actors to appear to come upstairs onscreen. Arwel leads us through a door at the base that takes us up those very stairs, onto the landing and then into the flat itself. It's an immediately odd sensation, in that it isn't odd at all. Instead the strangeness we feel is because of the sheer normality of walking onto the set. We were expecting a surreal flash of recognition, but instead the experience is more like walking into a place you are intimately familiar with and already comfortable in. Well, that's our thought anyway, despite the fact the set is pitch black. Realising the problem, Arwel disappears to find the master switch that with light the flat, imploring us not to touch anything - apparently things have a habit of going missing from this set when visitors come a-calling. After a few minutes of dim gloom in this space that smells remarkably like a museum, a loud mechanical clunk reverberates around the stage, and every light on the set activates at once - and there we are, stood properly in this most famous and iconic of flats.

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Arwel returns to join us, gives us a quick walk around the flat itself, and then allows us unfettered access to walk around and photograph the sheer amount of material that occupies the set. We began by searching for long requested and unidentified items around the flat for labelling - the throw over John's chair, various cushions, the rug on the floor. All turned up blanks though, vintage items whose ultimate identifying features are long gone.   

The most striking thing is the amazing attention to detail and the things you never get to see or experience onscreen - tiny pictures arranged along the hallway walls, a collection of well-worn boots on the landing outside the flat, a single car that is permanently parked outside on the gigantic photo-stitch of Baker Street / North Gower Street, and a generally vast amount of clutter. Everything contributes to the sense that, when you're inside the set, that it is a real place and Sherlock, John and Mrs Hudson are just currently out on a case or errand. Though of course, thanks to all the artfully arranged mess, it's not exactly a place we could happily live in ourselves. All the chairs are remarkably uncomfortable, John's in particular lacking much in the way of functioning springs - although, Arwel tells us, Martin Freeman loves it and insists that it remain that way. We all sit on the long sofa, far narrower than we were expecting, for photographs shot by Arwel, one of which he tweets from his account.

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Below we'll give you a guided visual tour around the set and some of the odd and myriad objects we discovered occupying it.

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The staircase to 221B, a view we are all familiar with.

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A collection of boots outside on the landing of 221B, presumably all belonging to John.

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A panoramic stitched photograph of the other end of the flat (excuse the distortion on the window frame) showing the height of the set and the start of the lighting rig above. The mirror over the fireplace is removable, with space for a camera trap on the other side.

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Sherlock's skull friend happily placed on the mantelpiece. The bat in the vivarium is named as 'The Epauleted Bat (sic)' - a common name that does not actually exist in relation to any specific species.

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The instantly recognisable Bison skull. The headphones are defunct, a vintage pair made by Eagle.

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A familiar slipper, sat on the bottom of the fireplace. It contained no cigarettes on our visit.  

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The bookshelves inside 221B literally bend under the strain of the varying tomes they store.

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Sherlock's music stand. Always concealed beneath on additional music sheets, never visible onscreen, are pages of Galifreyan script - Arwel's sly nod to his past work on Doctor Who. Sherlock's new violin remains in its case on the floor behind the stand.

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Dotted around the flat are several huge piles of Guns and Ammo magazine that Arwel has collected - all are meant to belong to Sherlock, despite John's military past.

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A view into the kitchen from behind John's chair.

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A collected selection of blood spatter analysis charts, hanging from the side of the cupboard opposite Sherlock's table in the centre of the kitchen.

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Take away menus stuck to the fridge door.

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The kitchen sink. We were so impressed with the attention to detail of the set, we assumed the contents of the mugs were also there for effect. When we raised it with Arwel, he came over in surprise and said that he would be having words with his set team not to leave washing up on the set to fester- whatever WAS in those mugs, it had been there for sometime…

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Rear view of the side table back into the lounge, Arwel talking to us as we all take the famous chairs.

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Sherlock's table in the kitchen, laden with documents, blood slides, and a few spare cigarettes.

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One of our favourite things in the entire flat - an ice cream tub of keys that Sherlock has appropriated, carefully labelling them should he ever need access to the doors that they unlock again.

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Sherlock's bedroom was, for want of a better word, in a state of undress during our visit. The unseen famous mocked up photograph of Sherlock and Mycroft as children was absent. His sword was however still on the wall, the plaque dating his first place win at the 'Camford' (AKA Oxbridge) sports society to 1996.

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The exterior of the 221B flat set, the huge photostitch of 'Baker Street' visible to the right. In the dead centre of the image is a new set under construction for future filming. Arwel teased us with the fact that the set 'was something Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss had wanted to do for ages', but we couldn't guess what it actually was - only after watching S3E3 His Last Vow did we realise it was the long, tall and narrow hallway intended to be inside the facade of real-life location Leinster Gardens, where Sherlock, Mary and John have their dramatic confrontation. 

There is of course plenty of other stuff we didn't take a photograph of. Though you never get a chance to enter the bathroom that sits in the middle of the corridor between Sherlock's bedroom and the lounge, Arwel gives us a quick look inside - it contains the iron bathtub from Irene Adler's flat in A Scandal in Belgravia. The production team bought the hugely heavy piece off of the owner of the location that doubled as the interior of Irene's place and it now resides inside 221B.

Arwel leads down us off the set and back onto the stage itself, past that teasing corridor set under construction and to a series of trestle tables laden with props that have been taken off the set. Most of them are from Sherlock's bedroom, with pictures of Edgar Allen Poe sitting alongside knick-naks and even an additional Skull friend, recognisable as the version from the original pilot all the way back from 2009. Nothing is thrown away it seems. From there, we exit the stage and head through onto an adjoining one, home to numerous other sets that Arwel tells us, with a wink, not to look too closely at. Photography isn't allowed from now on.

Upper Boat is a bustling hive of activity from here on, and Arwel leads us past one huge circular barrel of a set that is currently being built, currently existing only as wooden ribs, that you'll recognise onscreen as the padded cell depths of Sherlock's mind palace, where a drooling avatar of Jim Moriarty is chained. Arwel does quickly reveal to us the interior of Mycroft's new office as it appears in S3E1 The Empty Hearse. It lacks any set dressing, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II missing from the back wall, and so is just a stark faux concrete box, grating on the ceiling filtering light through to give the impression that Mycroft is secretly working below the streets of London itself.

Arwel continues to lead us on, past John and Mary's empty bedroom set and huge sections of a dismantled tube car and underground tunnel that the production team built from scratch for the conclusion of The Empty Hearse, until we reach our final destination on our visit - the prop store. This is a vast treasure trove of props and material from every episode of Sherlock, all contained within one huge room. There is too much to take in, but we take notice of created road signs and the signage of the Baskerville Research Facility, and the nearly complete contents of Irene's flat, both furniture and smaller decoration. A large box sits in the middle of the path through the huge array of props marked 'John Watson's wedding cake'. Arwel shows us the sections of a huge advertising board the production has created and used for filming days before - it's visible in the scenes where John and Mary arrive at the drugs den at the start of S3E3 His Last Vow. Arwel explains it's meant as a small subliminal image in the same vein as I.O.U, hinting at the nature of the villain of the episode. Charles Augustus Magnussen's unofficial mantra is 'knowledge is power', the torn sections of removed adverts on the board spelling that message out subtly yet quite explicitly if you spot it.   

Board

There are several smaller rooms attached to this warehouse-like stage. One contains the wardrobe department, but is locked up for the day. Another contains boxes filled with smaller and more delicate items such as Mrs Hudson's tea sets, the stunt version of Irene's precious Vertu phone, and numerous props that appeared as vital clues throughout the series' lifetime. A larger room next door to that contains vast quantities of bottles from the wedding stacked high, alongside bunches of lilies that form the table decorations. Arwel pulls down a box from one of the shelves. It contains the traditional wedding favours that John and Mary set at the table for their guests on the big day, small boxes fashioned from metallic silver and lilac card, tied with a ribbon and finished with a silk white Cally Lilly. He gifts each of us one of the boxes as a memento of this experience, purple for the ladies, silver for the gents.  

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Out visit has ended there, and Arwel leads us back out, past all the sets still being hammered and sawed into life, for a farewell into the sunshine of this summer day. Tomorrow he'll be back in London for filming on the series, and we'll be back to our normal day jobs again. For a couple of hours though we lost ourselves in the world of Sherlock properly, an incredible privilege that we'll likely never forget, the interior of the soon to be closed Upper Boat Studios holding a great deal of treasure and some incredible sights within the most anonymous looking of shells.

 

 

 
 
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