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Sherlockology on Set: Two Days in London * 03 January 2014


Please note the article below does contain some spoilers for Sherlock S3E1: The Empty Hearse. It's also rather long, so we recommend a comfortable seat and possibly having a drink to hand before you dive in.

April 10 2013

It's fair to say that it's been an extremely surreal few hours.

The clock has just cleared 2pm on a fresh mid-April day, and we're stood on a small flight of steps outside a building in north London, just behind a bulging crowd of onlookers in a completely different street. Every pair of eyes is looking towards a tall man in a long coat, with a deerstalker planted on top of a mane of curly black hair. Benedict Cumberbatch has just swept into North Gower Street in a black Jaguar, emerging to a chorus of screams in his full costume as Sherlock Holmes. He is now stood on the threshold of '221B', his phone out, filming the crowd and waving. It's like a rock star has appeared in this normally sleepy spot of the capital. As is often the case in this situation - and as we found during filming on Series Two - cast members can appear out of nowhere, and suddenly there's Martin Freeman alongside him. The crowd goes wild again.

All a bit of a far cry from just two hours ago.

Earlier in the day, just a little way across the city, we are in the plush, phone-signal-blocking subterranean environment of a swanky London hotel, interviewing both Benedict and Martin, as well as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, alongside members of the national press and online media. Each roundtable interview is small and intimate, and ours has eight people clustered around a table in one of three rooms. The interviewees are rotated in in twenty minute sections. To our surprise, everyone in our room is familiar with our website and are eager to ask us questions about what we already know about the new series! Our group is joined for all three sessions by Sue Vertue, seated at the back of the room. Is she keeping an eye on us? After all, we're not professional journalists, and we've certainly never been put in a situation where we get to ask questions of newly minted superstars that we are sat right next to. Hopefully we won't say anything utterly stupid.   

Everything goes very well actually. Mark and Steven are first, entering as always with the incredibly fun banter that always defines their friendship. A roundtable interview is an interesting experience, people from different publications using openings in the conversation to ask their questions, or feeding off something already asked to turn the discussion in another direction. After a little while, we've become used to the rhythms of how it works, and we dive in ourselves.

Are you concerned that people might not warm to Sherlock this time around being that he left John in the state that he did?

Steven: "No. I think if you were worried about Sherlock being cruel you'd have left a long time ago. Sherlock's bastard-ness has been a feature of his success since the beginning of the character. He's always been a bit of a shit, but you sort of love him anyway, partly because he doesn't really mean to be, he just doesn't get that might be a bit upsetting at times."

Mark: "I think that's why we love him, and why we love all complicated characters, and actually then, whenever you see a little chink of daylight in his humanity you feel it all the more than if he was a lovely 'hail fella, well met' sort of person from the beginning."

Steven: "Is the person you liked the most in the world also the person you approve of the most in the world? Really? Really? The person you find most exciting and the most interesting is the one you approve of the most? I would think mostly that that's not true."

You said with Series Two you had a big, overriding theme for each episode - Love, Fear and Death. Are you doing anything similar with Series Three, or is it more like Series One?

Steven: "I think that was for us at the time, it was quite a convenient way of thinking, but it's the on-going ... I suppose humanisation is the right word, of Sherlock Holmes. He does grow, he doesn't stay the same, he changes quite a lot in the original stories. At the beginning he's a real monster, and later on he's a proper hero, and I think he's getting to be a proper hero as it stands. He's never going to be comforting, he's never going to be lovely, but there's another thing that Sherlock has to learn about this time, a huge development for him."

Mark: "And inevitably, having been away for however long, things have changed. Our regulars will have moved on a bit, because it's like the stages of grief, and even people who didn't care for him very much will have moved in some way. So whether he comes back to a world which he expects to be accommodating around him, whether that world measures up to that is the big question."

It's always struck me that the only word to describe it would be the 'consequences', of what he did.

Steven: "At the same time you've got to keep moving forward, we can't just clear up the aftermath of the last twenty minutes of the last episode. There's new stuff going on. In Sherlock Holmes' mind, he would return to find everybody having just stood silently waiting for him and not moved on at all, and that's not how the world is."

They both finish off their session with an exclusive - the title of episode two of Series Three, yet to be uttered to the press: 'The Sign of Three.' Everyone around the table goes 'Oooooh.' We ask whether we're allowed to tweet it. "Yeah, but not yet though" comes the laughing reply from Sue at the back of the room.

Martin is next, impeccably dressed and bringing a coffee in with him. He is a delight to interview, funny and acerbic in discussion. ("I wasn't thinking, playing those scenes by the grave, 'this is gonna slay people!'") He lets drop an initial 'spoiler' - after asking Sue's permission - that Series Three takes place two years after The Reichenbach Fall. Or rather, it's a spoiler at the time - remember this is mid-April, when almost nothing is known about the new episodes. And we're under embargo, so can say exactly nothing about it for months.

For series Three, all the scripts are being produced in order for the first time, so is there any benefit you can foresee?

"I don't know yet, but I remember Ben and I were saying before 'cor, it'd be good if we got these in order', and we have, so I think it probably will be helpful. Again, I hope that you can't see a huge disadvantage in the previous ones because I think they're pretty good shows, but from our point of view it really helps. If you're playing a scene in episode three and you haven't done [episode] one yet, or you haven't done [episode] two yet, well, I'm going to take a punt and think he would pick up the bottle like that, but then something happens in episode two that makes you go 'oh no, of course he'd have used the other hand and poured it over himself.'"

Thank goodness for pick-ups! 

[Laughter] "Yeah, yeah! And we try to minimise pick-ups, don't we Sue? ("Definitely!" from the back of the room) So yeah, I think shooting it chronologically, please God, will be helpful."

Have you read the canon, and if so did you find that helped with your portrayal of Watson?

"I've read a lot of it. I haven't read all of it and I certainly don't know it backwards like Steven and Mark, but I do know quite a lot of it, and I know quite a lot of it quite well. I don't know if it really helps with my portrayal as Watson, because I'm a big believer in 'if I'm doing this Sherlock, this is the John I'm playing.' I think it's really interesting, because I do think that the stories are brilliant, really entertaining, really interesting, and they can give you tiny snippets of stuff, but I'm doing Mark and Steven's one. It's why I didn't feel like I wasn't at a real serious disadvantage not having read The Lord of the Rings as I was growing up, to play Bilbo. Obviously I've read The Hobbit, but I'm doing the screenplay, I'm not doing the novel. Watson has obviously got very identifiable traits from Conan Doyle to our one, but it's not exactly the same, and I have to sort of concentrate on my one. I don't think any more deference or respect could be given to Conan Doyle than what we give him at every possible turn, but at the same time you can be too deferential. In a way it's not actually that helpful, me knowing every single facet of what Watson is in Conan Doyle - and I do know a lot of them - isn't necessarily helpful to the scene I've been given today which bears no resemblance maybe to any of them. It helps me because I think they're massively entertaining."

Benedict is up last, entering in jovial spirits and dressed in a white t-shirt and shorts - a slightly odd sight, seeing as he is sporting Sherlock's hair. We've always been interested in how actors approach this most famous of characters, and it's something we've rarely heard Benedict speak on - it's our single question of him in his session.

What's your relationship like with Sherlock Holmes? Jeremy Brett famously said he wouldn't cross the street to meet him.

"I think if I crossed the street to meet him he'd quickly cross the street to avoid me. I'd get very short thrift from him."

Do you actually like him as a person?

"I do, I think there's a lot more humanity to him than people presume. I think, without making him wishy-washy, because he's is quite awesomely rude and ferocious in his intent, he is at the same time somebody who has a care, and if that care is for a friendship that is symbiotic, that is to do with something that he gets from it, then yes, maybe there's no such thing as altruism. He kind of wears it all on his sleeve. I think I'd be fascinated, I'd be like John, my jaw would be on the floor, I'd want to learn from him. I'd be wanting to be around him to improve myself, to try and see the world as he sees it. It would be a delight, the myriad, pop-up book explosion of potential adventures. That's the thrilling thing. I think that's very much the thing that keeps John adrenalized and hooked on that adrenaline rush. I think I'd be the same, I really do. If, IF he gave me the time of day, which is unlikely, unless he could use me in a scenario to pretend to be something like an actor pretending to be him!"        

Everything has just taken an hour, though of course it feels like it has been far longer than that. The room we're in is to be transformed for a lunch setting for the actors and crew, so after double checking with Sue that it's safe to post the unexpectedly revealed title for The Sign of Three we're back upstairs, hunting around the hotel lobby for a spot of phone signal to send out a Tweet. With that done, we head to the nearest Tube to wind our way across the capital to North Gower Street.


It's clear on approach from Euston station that things are very different from the filming of Series Two. Huge crowds are filling North Gower Street, with security patrolling the line to keep people on the pavements. The road is not closed to traffic so safety is evidently a concern, and eventually a truck arrives carrying a large number of orange safety barriers. This is all new territory for the filming of Sherlock, and a far cry from the near impunity of movement we enjoyed on this very street in 2011. The crew who are already here are looking around with a slight sense of bemusement, and we spot production designer Arwel Jones shooting pictures on his phone of the great sea of humanity stood on the street opposite him. We decide to take up position on a small flight of steps on the adjoining street, looking diagonally over the heads of the crowd towards Speedy's Café and the front door of number 187 - or 221B, as it currently says.

When the cast do arrive, the waiting fans utterly let rip. Paparazzi photographers plant short step ladders at the back of the crowd, which they then climb and begin firing off shots on SLRs with gigantic telephoto lenses. Benedict and Martin play to the crowd for a few minutes, before beginning preparation for the afternoon's filming. A large camera boom arm on a dolly track has been readied. It goes through various tests, the base of the dolly pushing forwards as the boom raises and lowers one of the Arri Alexa cameras. A complicated shot, and clearly something of importance to justify such a set up - as it turns out, this is to be the final appearance of a deerstalkered Sherlock and John in the episode, coming out of the door to greet the waiting media after preventing a massive tragedy in London. The crowd of extras in the scene is ironically dwarfed by the on looking fans. Several rehearsals of the pair coming out the door take place, but as they go on it becomes clear there's a problem.

Despite all the no parking warnings placed around North Gower Street, there's a car sat directly opposite the front door of 221B. Its position means that the boom carrying the camera can't swing out to capture the shot as desired. Production stops, and a wait begins as the removal of the vehicle is organised. Eventually, about an hour later, the car is bodily secured and lifted into the back of a tow truck, and rehearsals start over. This time the camera arm makes the move as required, and takes can finally be shot. Sherlock and John greet the media, and eventually the camera swoops up in the air, pointing down the street towards the bustle of London. Cut. The actors disappear, and everyone begins to dismantle the complex system of weights and wheels that have made the shot possible.   


As the light begins to fade, a new setup is ready. John Watson walks to the front door of 221B, and pauses in front of it. A passer-by deliberately bumps into him, distracting John from a second assailant who jabs him with a needle. There are gasps from the crowd, resulting in some laughter from the crew, followed by a request for quiet on the actual take. On the next rehearsal, as soon as John is injected he begins to fight back against his attackers, but thanks to the fast acting drug it's clearly hopeless. Things continue to evolve as the takes roll past, with a crash matt coming into play on the ground. Director Jeremy Lovering eventually follows closely behind the steadicam as it moves with John, finally coming close in with the actors and tracking down with Martin Freeman as he slowly sinks to the pavement.

The cold is beginning to creep in as 7pm approaches, so we decide to head home. After dark has fallen and we've left, we miss Amanda Abbington filming alongside Benedict, shooting the moment Sherlock appropriates a passing motorcycle for a critical rescue mission. It's been slightly bizarre seeing both sides of the entire operation in a single day, the quiet publicity and the noise of production. It was often remarked by Benedict that the filming of Series Two took on the sense of street theatre at times. For the filming in North Gower Street, it now seems even bigger, a premiere come early.

April 14 2013

Four days later though, it's a complete change. We're back at St Bart's Hospital, a quiet spot in London that is usually only regularly used as the end of the line for various bus routes. Today though, it's playing host to the second day of filming on The Solution.

A small crowd of onlookers is gathered at one end of the ambulance station that sits centrally in the road, and at the opposite end, mostly out of their sight, is the crew, clustered around a video village. Mark Gatiss stands back from the covered monitors. Benedict is here, stood by the red doors of the squat building, having some fake blood applied to his forehead. On the pavement by St Bart's itself is a man dressed in a Belstaff coat and sporting a mop of black hair. This man is not Benedict, so is presumably a stunt double. Almost as soon as we've taken up position on a quiet corner several feet away from the crew, a rehearsal takes place.

The double is laid upon the ground, in the spot where Sherlock fell. Benedict sprints from the cover of the ambulance station, pursued by extras and a steadicam operator. As two men grab the doppelganger under the armpits - now clearly not a stuntman - and drag him away through the adjacent gate in the wall of St Bart's, Benedict takes the just vacated spot on the pavement, and the extras crowd in around him.


And breathe.

Oh. My. God.

We've seemingly just seen a very large part of the solution to how Sherlock survived The Fall, live before our eyes.

And we can't tell anyone.

Benedict walks back to the ambulance station, his head bowed in thought. The next time he runs, it's a take. Everything repeats perfectly. For luck, another take is called after that. For the next shot, Benedict remains on the ground, but an array of towels are hastily strung by a perimeter of crew so any view of what is going on amongst that mass of extras is hidden. In hindsight, this is a critical moment involving a rubber ball, but at the time it's impossible to tell what is occurring - only that whatever it is, it's important.

Spoilers and paparazzi have clearly been a concern, but today things feel more relaxed despite the ferocious bursts of activity from the crew. It is the hottest day of the year thus far, tapping out at 20c, but a strong breeze whips the air occasionally. It's also completely different from the day before, when torrential rain lashed the city. Following the towel moment (no, not the one from Series Two), we spot Steven Moffat, busy working the crowd of onlookers, and Sue Vertue, and walk over to say hello. "It was a miserable day yesterday," she says, "but did you see the crane? It was brilliant!"

Yes, the previous day Benedict spent a good length of time suspended in the air from a huge crane. The filthy weather meant between takes he was handed a golfing umbrella to take cover under, while hanging on a long cord above the pavement. Cue plenty of online jokes involving a Mary Poppins style secret to Sherlock's survival. Since yesterday was so wet however, it means liberal amounts of water have to be applied to the street between takes to maintain continuity. At one point, one of the hoses being used to wet down the environment suddenly springs multiple spraying leaks. Not a problem thanks to the warm weather, but unfortunately the length of punctured hose lies right next to one of the Arri Alexa cameras, leading to swift action. Potential technological disaster is averted in mere seconds, attesting to the clockwork precision of the crew.

The scale of what's being filmed here can't be underestimated either, and as the day goes on it's clear that more questions will be raised than first impressions might have suggested. After an hours break for lunch and a silence broken only by the turning buses - some of which feature the looming face of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins on their sides, to the amusement of the crowd - Mark Gatiss appears dressed in full costume as Mycroft, umbrella in hand. He hangs around behind the assembled fans at first, happily having pictures taken with those who approach. The onlookers have now been slightly moved from their initial position, further around on the opposite side of the ambulance station, as takes are shot of a taxi driving past black clad helpers in Sherlock's scheme. Nearby, that seemingly all important rubbish truck has been moved and parked out of shot - a cursory glance in the back reveals the rubbish bags are stuffed with soft padding and pillows.

With these important inserts filmed, it's at this point that things begin to get strange.


A ripple goes through the crowd as various onlookers notice an unexpected yet extremely familiar figure approach from the Smithfield side of St Bart's. To squeals, Andrew Scott quietly slips around the crowd, in the costume we last saw Jim Moriarty wearing atop St Bart's in The Reichenbach Fall. Then he is handed a Belstaff coat, just like Sherlock's, which he puts on. The crowd is shifted around again to accommodate the cameras, and after greeting Mark, Steven and Sue, Mark and Andrew disappear inside the huge arched gateway just slightly around the corner from the spot Sherlock hit the pavement. We've moved around and found a prime spot which looks directly down through the archway, and rather amusingly one of the attending paparazzi has realised this too. In the end, he resorts to crawling around on his hands and knees right in front of us to attempt to take photographs.


Mycroft and Moriarty walk up through the archway. Mycroft removes a red pocket handkerchief from his suit lapel and hands it to Moriarty. The pair shake hands and part ways, but as they do the wind catches Mark's suit and blows it over his arm, requiring another take. The paparazzi's knees are obviously hurting, as he is up and out the way as soon as the first take is done. On the second attempt, the wind behaves itself, and something extra and unexpected happens - as Mycroft and Moriarty nod their farewells and go in opposite directions, a pair of men appear from the gate at speed, dragging the body of the Sherlock double from earlier, who they then dump on the pavement in the usual spot.

We're beginning to get suspicious.


Though we were never sure until the final product was in front of our eyes, in the end this short scene was revealed to be fake. Mycroft and Moriarty are never seen together in the final episode - Mycroft is never even seen at St Bart's - and by Mark's eventual confession at the BFI press screening in December 2013, the entire moment was designed to lead onlookers (and the press of course) astray. The fact that the rubbish truck was genuinely filled with soft materials that would handily assist a crash landing attests to that, a level of attention to detail required because the crew were fully aware that someone would look at the vehicle onset on the day, as we did. It helped that elements were being shot out of sequence too, everything carefully designed to leave people unsure. We were fairly convinced that the switching of Sherlock with the double for example was a genuine, critical moment in the solution, but other elements being shot seemed out of place and unusual. After we had left for the day, it just got even stranger when illusionist Derren Brown appeared and hypnotised John, changing the time on his watch as he is unconscious - a moment that seems ludicrous, but in the end is indeed part of the final episode.

This all speaks to the methodology of the filming of the explanation to one of the most anticipated cliff-hangers of recent times. Having to shoot such a sequence in public is a challenging situation, and the genius way to do it was to capture everything needed while also ensuring people remain uncertain of what they are watching on the day. Misdirection and theatricality was the key to it, and ultimately by embracing the very fact the filming would be watched as it occurred meant that the eager sense of speculation that surrounded the scene only ended up being fed even more. It was a sly and simple sleight of hand by all involved, and a great testament to the care and skill with which Sherlock is produced.


At the end of May 2013 we return to North Gower Street to observe further filming, this time on The Sign of Three under Colm McCarthy's direction, as well as a pick-up for The Empty Hearse, needed due to the parked car that required removing and thus delayed the shooting schedule. Perhaps ironically considering our question to Martin Freeman on April 10, it's a John moment. Moustache in place, he arrives at 221B as two youngsters push a Guy - complete with balloon face just drawn on by Mark Gatiss - along in a pram while asking for money. It's a much more sedate day than before, nothing like the near insanity of those two days in April when we flitted across the line that separates journalists and fans. Sherlock has clearly grown in the period since Series Two aired, to a degree that surprises us and most likely the people who produce the series. In a few hours in one week in April, we got a true and privileged cross-section of just how much the series is loved and anticipated, and how important it is for those making it to ensure the act of sitting down and watching an episode for the first time remains an Experience that very much features a capital E.

In the end, even if you think you may know what is coming, with Sherlock surprise is always the name of the game.


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