EXCLUSIVE: When you write two of the world’s biggest shows, you can expect a lot of fandom and subsequent fascination with every aspect of your show.
But for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, co-creators of Sherlock (and Doctor Who writers to boot), there’s also the hungry beast of the press, devouring and dissecting every individual quote you give.
In the UK for instance, media sites have entire sections devoted to such shows, spitting out stories on casting, plotlines, shooting, characters and the musings of its creatives.
But be careful what you wish for.
“It’s kind of mad and not very good journalism,”says Steven Moffat. “By extracting one sentence of a paragraph and then putting it in capital letters, you change the sense of what was said. It’s like you’re yelling one simple thing when in fact you were making quite a complicated point.
“But if you start having to moderate the way you speak about what is, I think, a complicated and interesting subject so that it cannot be strip-mined by some click-baiting hack who wants to make you look bad, then we end interesting discourse in print.”
“What’s happened in a rolling-news cycle is that if you put the words Sherlock or Doctor Who beside something, it’s assumed you are taking some sort of contrary position,” Mark Gatiss suggests.
Gatiss recalls a journalist question about whether Sherlock would mirror the death of Mary Watson from the original Sherlock Holmes story.
“I said ‘Just because Conan Doyle did it doesn’t mean we’re going to’ but it will be the same mixture of triumphs, laughs and tragedy and I actually said to the guy ‘I bet you make this into 5 separate stories.’ What went around the world was ‘Gatiss teases tragedy in Sherlock!’ I said nothing of the kind,” he insists.
“But that’s one of those quotes that simply doesn’t leave you.”
‘Moffat’ -as he is often referred to by fans- tells an even more alarming tale.
“I was once asked a fairly benign question, ‘Why do you write such complicated plotlines for Doctor Who?’ First of all I said, ‘This is a show for 8 year olds, it’s not that complicated.’ But the fact is I’m frightened of that because Doctor Who fans are not stupid. It was quoted as ‘Steven Moffat says Doctor Who fans are stupid if they don’t follow the plots’ and the headline was ‘Steven Moffat says Doctor Who fans are stupid.’ It’s straight-forward, spite-driven lies!
“A lot of people we know are stopping doing print interviews –and I will one day too- because they are sick of it happening.”
While the attention is doubtless attached to being a hit show, Gatiss points out not every successful show comes in for the same scrutiny.
“No-one has an argument about Casualty. It’s a great show and it’s been on every week for 20 years. There are conventions and a very loyal audience for police procedurals. So it is the price of success and you have to live with that.”
So does the show have itself to blame? Why is every piece of information from the BBC kept under wraps from the audience -and sometimes even the ABC and reviewers?
“It’s simply about trying to preserve the enjoyment of the audience,” Moffat explains.
“Whenever I am asked on a panel about why I ‘hold out’ or tell fibs occasionally, I say, ‘Let’s put it to a vote. Do you want to be surprised when you watch the show?’ Every hand goes up. Everybody wants to watch the show without somebody telling the punchlines before the jokes.”
“So much of technology is an extraordinary, wonderful tool for democracy and general happiness but there is an edge to it which is dangerous. There’s no solution to it because the genie is out of the bottle,” Gatiss adds.
“The notion of a bulletin is now virtually vanished because of rolling news. What used to happen is stories used to be checked and repeatedly checked.
“People used to say ‘Here is the news,’ not ‘We’re getting reports….speculation, speculation, speculation…’
“And it’s not just news it’s across it all. It is a culture that feeds off the constant shark-like desire for fresh blood. It’s totally understandable because they want people to click on (things) but it means there is no mystery. There is a savage desire for more and more knowledge, more and more product when really –without being old-fashioned about it- the best thing you can do is make your show quietly, diligently for months and months and then show it to people.”
While Moffat has scaled back his use of Twitter, thankfully both remain deeply-invested in audience feedback in conversation at panels and conventions.
“I would rather be wheeled out onto the stage and talk shit for hours than almost anything else,” Gatiss insists. “I really enjoy the interaction, but the thing I dread is making a speech. I’ve had several times where I’ve made a personal appearance and the interviewer goes through everything that everyone in the audience knows backwards, but leaves 5 minutes for the interesting questions. And I want to say ‘No let’s just do the interesting questions!’
“It’s only taxing in that we get asked the same questions. Otherwise it’s fun.”
Moffat agrees the fan Q&A section of panels are the best part of their appearances, but is mindful it is also a heavily biased group.
“It’s not part of the process of making the show. It’s not a form of research. It’s just an interesting conversation,” he cautions.
“If you want audience research, get it done properly. We can get audience research, but a fan gathering is fascinating, vibrant, creative, enjoyable –but the world’s worst focus group because it’s not a sampling of the audience.”
The one-off Sherlock special The Abominable Bride will screen in Australia on Stan same day as the UK, with a limited cinema release. Excitingly, it also sees Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Victorian London. Don’t look for explanations as to why.
“We never bothered to explain what he was doing in modern-day London so why would we explain what he’s doing in (Victorian) London?” Moffat smiles.
“It’s fiction, you’re allowed!”
“It’s a special in every sense, a side-step. We had room to do a special. We’re doing a series next year but we didn’t have time (this year), because of everyone’s commitments,” adds Gatiss.
“It does sort of combine two icons. Our version has become massively famous and the original is iconic, so somehow mapping one onto the eye is quite ‘eye-twisting,’” Moffat suggests.
A fourth series will begin shooting in the UK in April which will ensure Benedict Cumberbatch fans are kept happy. The series has catapulted him to international stardom and turned Conan Doyle’s leading man into a bonafide sex symbol.
“Benedict has made Sherlock this uber-sex symbol. You could try as hard as you like and cast someone devastatingly-handsome but if there’s no chemistry it wouldn’t work,” says Gatiss.
“The brilliance of our leads is obvious, and the whole package worked at the right time.”
“He was not received, least of all by himself as a sex symbol, but somehow he just put on the coat, gloves and scarf and there it was,” adds Moffat.
Mark Gatiss has a further theory to the success of their star.
“There is an old-fashioned (Pride & Prejudice) Darcy-ness to it. He’s not approachable, he doesn’t appear to be interested, he looks ironic, he has bad habits … and it’s like that line in Angel Heart, ‘You know what they say. It’s always a bad ass that makes a girl’s heart beat faster.’”
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride screens Saturday January 2 on Stan and in limited cinema release.