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Sherlock: The Abominable Bride - Set Visit Report * 02 January 2016

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Ever wondered what it's like to 'do press' for Sherlock? Here's our look behind the scenes of The Abominable Bride. It features some mild spoilers, but the piece was written before we'd seen the episode.

Tuesday February 3 2015

It's a crisp, not-quite-Spring morning. Fresh off a train, we're stood at Bristol railway station, searching around for anyone resembling a journalist. It's not very easy. Journalists actually look like everyone else, believe it or not. We head outside, then back indoors, and finally spot a great congregation of people, moving towards us. There are some familiar faces mixed in among plenty of unfamiliar ones. Everyone heads outside, where after a short while a coach pulls up, and we all pile aboard.

This may seem like a mundane way to start an article, but what we're here in Bristol for is actually anything but. The BBC has seen fit to invite the world's media to pay a visit. Whisked across the city to The Bottle Yard Studios, fresh from hosting the production of the hit BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, we're about to take a trip back in time of sorts, in a day that is thrilling, enlightening, and altogether slightly surreal.

First of all though, we're all herded into a relatively small holding room, where representatives from the BBC hand us various sheets of paper that we have to sign to prevent us saying anything about this trip until we're told that we can do so months later. There's a bit of a delay as this isn't simply a meet and greet day for the cast and crew - filming is being done on the sets on the main soundstages at that very moment, and so the ability of the cast to come and meet us is entirely dependent on windows in their various schedules. Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue come in to tell us all what is going on, then we're all split into two groups, and shepherded into another room. In here is a circle of chairs for us all - jokes are made about putting one in the centre for the interviewee to sit on - as well as some food and drinks. 

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Martin Freeman, who we interviewed without the mustache. © Robert Viglasky

There's still a delay, but eventually we're joined by our first subject - Martin Freeman. He's casually dressed, and after an arsenal of microphones and recording devices are set up on that central chair, the interview kicks off. Martin is his usual relaxed and funny self - he admits that he is playing this version of Watson "more tightly, both physically and vocally" while finding "it's slightly frustrating as you can't get dressed on your own".  When asked on his thoughts of the Victorian period, he remarks "I don't think it's that different. There were elements of the Victorian age that were absolutely modern anyway. Given that historically it's five minutes ago that people spoke a bit more properly and wore a f***ing shirt, essentially, they're still us." He is always a hoot to listen to, but from our point of view nothing really meaty that comes to mind to ask him - this early in the year, with the Special still most of the year away, all the cast are playing with their best poker faces, and nothing will be leaked out. When asked whether there is any connection to the present day in the episode, Martin takes a deep breath and responds "There is unfortunately no way I can answer that. Sorry. And blame Sue Vertue."

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Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, on set in London a few days after our set visit. © Robert Viglasky

Our next interviewees are a slightly different kettle of fish of course, as they always are. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are always hugely entertaining to listen to, but so staggeringly knowledgeable about the creative process and the history of Holmes you always want to drop them a question that gives them a chance to really give a thorough answer. In today's case, we ask what it's like to write a purely Victorian styled episode, and Mark responds that it's lovely to finally be able to write a scene like Holmes and Watson on a stake out in the dark, "Something I've always wanted to do" - a scene they probably could do but have never attempted in the modern series. "It really is the same show," says Steven, "and yet every single detail you're looking at is different." Mark continues "everyone is asking the same questions, just the other way around now! 'What did you do about all the gadgets?'" And of course, the pair of them laugh at the slightly absurd thought that stripping away their additions to the character somehow makes producing the period version harder.

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Can you imagine interviewing Benedict Cumberbatch while he is dressed like this? © Robert Viglasky

Next in is a certain Benedict Cumberbatch, and all of us are slightly taken aback as he is literally fresh from the set. By that we mean he is in full costume as Sherlock Holmes - it can't really be overstated how odd it is to interview someone from a proximity of around two metres away while they're in such Victorian finery. To add to it all, Benedict munches on an apple throughout the roundtable, quite relaxed and utterly conversational. He admits his first thoughts on hearing the idea of a Victorian Holmes for the next episode were "at last I can get a f***ing haircut," while also saying that despite the period setting, he doesn't feel the weight of other classic incarnations of Holmes that may have been previously avoided by the modern setting. "There will always be comparisons, you can't help that. But it's not healthy to compare." Benedict says that if the series had originally been pitched to him as period in the first place he would still have wanted to do it, but notes of both versions that "I really can't decide which is my favourite to be honest!" He also says that he has played this version of Holmes as nicer - especially to women. Might this alienate fans? "That he is nicer to women? Shock horror!" he laughs. "Again, I don't know. I'll be interested to see."

After Benedict exits, we're all left to grab a quick bite to eat before we're lead out of the room and on a winding walk around the back of the studio complex, eventually arriving at one of several trailers that are parked up near one of the studio boundary exits. Inside, after hurriedly pulled closed a pair of curtains at the far end to hide 'clearly secret things' from our prying eyes, is costume designer Sarah Arthur, who proceeds to give us a hands on look at the costumes of the special episode. Some costumes has either created from scratch for the special, while others - in particular some of Mary's outfits - are  made from authentic period vintage materials, and thus very fragile. Sarah brings our attention to Sherlock's new cloak and deerstalker, both created from material sourced to evoke the texture - if not the style - of his now iconic Belstaff Milford coat. The urge to pull the costumes apart from each other on the rails for a closer look is of course quite strong - particularly when you spot Mycroft's costumes further up the trailer, which were never glimpsed before the episode aired. We're ushered outside, quietly taking notice of the cast mug shots denoting which character's costumes are secured inside - no sign of Andrew Scott, but we're heartened to see Yasmine Akram there, returning as Janine. Another thing we have to sit on for 11 months.

We're escorted to another cabin containing an editing suite, where Mark and Steven greet us again as we're lead inside and promptly reveal we're about to watch a rough cut of a scene from the Special! This is partially the clip that was later released at San Diego Comic Con, with some differences - notably the London location footage has yet to be shot at this point in production, so Holmes and Watson's arrival is absent in this cut. It does, however go on longer than the released clip, continuing upstairs into 221B itself, to find Mary Watson resplendent in black and rather pissed off with her husband. Even at this early stage, the scene is a delight, the Victorian setting  evoked perfectly, light, funny and sharply written - and we're afforded some small glimpses of the 'new' flat itself.   

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Una Stubbs, dressed exactly how she arrived at the press roundtable. © Robert Viglasky

Our tour outside over, we're lead back to the previous interview room, where we await the eternally lovely Una Stubbs. She arrives dressed in a voluminous period purple dress - bizarrely the one we've just seen her wear in the rough cut clip a few minutes before hand. She's rather surprised that we've had chance to already see footage of the episode, as none of the actors have as yet, and she is only on her second day of filming. "It doesn't feel any different to me, apart from having to wear a corset!" she says of the special, and remarks about "how magnificent" Benedict and Martin look onset in the Victorian costumes. Una is an astute and sharp minded individual, commenting how much of Sherlock's success has come from 'boxset culture' and remains no less than utterly thrilled at the impact the show has had around the world, marvelling in particular that she's in a show that's popular in America at this stage in her career.

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Amanda Abbington, demonstrating why she arrived in her civvies. © Robert Viglasky

As Una billows out in that dress and all the assembled journalists mutually agree how lovely she is, (We might keep saying this, but it's true) we await our final member of the cast to arrive. Like her other half, Amanda Abbington is also not in costume today, and like Una, is also pleased but surprised we've already seen a clip of the special. She remarks how incredibly heavy the black dress we first see Mary in is, yet also how fragile it is due to it being made of vintage material. Amanda remarks that Mary has retained her 'sharp scrappy glint' in the special though, as well as some costumes that aren't just dresses - "one of them is a bit Hobbity actually!" - and is very open about the reaction that some had to Mary being added to the mix of the show. "She was never added to break them [Sherlock and John] up." She also says how big a thing Sherlock is in their household, and that their kids absolutely love it.    

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The 'new' 221B set - image © Arwel Jones, via Twitter.

With Amanda gone, and a potential interview with Rupert Graves not occurring, we're off onto the final stages of our day at the studio, heading  upstairs to see production designer Arwel Jones. Arwel and his team are in a fully outfitted office, the hub of his side of the production. Whiteboards on the walls display the full daily schedule for the production, and cluttering his desk are numerous props for this unique episode - John's walking cane, pipes for both Watson and Holmes, a Victorian Policeman's lantern (complete with LED bulb instead of a candle), and numerous mock ups of newspapers. We ask where most of it has come from - "charity shops, and an awful lot of hires, as it's prohibitively expensive to buy this stuff." Arwel shows us recce photos, drawings and Photoshop images of what he will doing to North Gower Street in the weekend ahead - a complete transformation of the road and frontage of Speedy's Cafe into a remarkable looking Victorian scene. He also discusses the creation of the modern 221B, which is a cumulative design from numerous classic versions of the space, and in turn as a result "there are echoes of the modern stuff in the new set."

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The study in scarlet - image © Arwel Jones, via Twitter.

Which is where our day comes to a close, after another walk outside to a huge soundstage - a tour of the period 221B, built from scratch but matching the floor plan of the modern set. We're again greeted by Mark and Steven, and have to file in as two groups due to the space constraints. The pair of them are clearly delighted with what Arwel has created for them.  There are critical differences in this version of 221B, not least the absence of a kitchen. Instead, it's now purely Holmes' working and study space, filled with books and scientific paraphernalia. The walls are also strikingly different - instead of the aquamarine we're used to, they're blood red. Mark and Steven explain this is one of Arwel's little jokes, as the room is now 'a study in scarlet'. The main lounge is similarly, wonderfully surreal, as all those familiar little hallmarks of the room have been adapted, twisted and re-imagined while still evoking the modern era version. Most obvious is the animal skull on the wall - no longer a bison, it's a stag head, with an antique hearing trumpet taking the place of the headphones. The smiley face is also gone, replaced instead with the original canon bullet hole rendition of 'VR'. That iconic Mr Blue Skull painting is now a magic eye painting, still depicting a skull but in an intriguing new way, and the skull that usually adorns the mantelpiece has relocated to the study in scarlet, now safely living on Holmes' work table underneath a bell jar. The chairs are new, but located in exactly the same spots in front of the fireplace. Outside the windows, a huge photo real screen depicting the now Victorian Baker Street hangs from the ceiling to the floor, exactly as it does in the modern incarnation of the set.  And, in common with the modern 221B, there is the sheer treasure trove of room-filling clutter that is crammed into the space. It's altogether staggeringly atmospheric, dust floating the air and catching the light, and leaving us all standing as surreal invaders in this perfect period setting.

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Our notebook scribble of the cliff set from February 2015 [above], and the actual thing that we saw [below] Image © Danny Hargreaves, via Twitter.

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We file outside as the other group is lead inside to have their own tour, and we're left to  ponder what else shares the soundstage - a separate set that leads to rampant speculation among the journalists. It is a huge cliff face, nearly as high as the stage roof at probably 30 to 40 feet, with a pool of water at the bottom. A harness and counterweight hang from the ceiling. If you know your canon, it's pretty easy to hazard a guess at what this could be. It's uncommented on to us by the crew, just left as a cruel, wonderful final teaser. The other tour of 221B completed, we're all lead back to the car park, jump back on the coaches, and are whisked back to Bristol railway station for our return journey. It's been a compact day, but one filled with something that lies between a dizzying deluge of information and a truly massive tease of what awaits us as viewers nearly a year later.

The door of what the special is was cracked open just a little, and we were allowed a small, supervised peak inside with the customary glee you expect of Steven Moffat , Mark Gatiss, and the entire Sherlock production team.