MAD DOGS and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” sang the playwright and composer Noël Coward. The thought rings true for Benedict Cumberbatch, quirky as ever in Sherlock, which returns after a three-year hiatus with the first of three new episodes, The Six Thatchers, loosely based on the 1904 story, The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Season Four opens with Watson (Martin Freeman) and his wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) becoming parents. Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft) play up the sleuth’s drug-addled moments of brilliance, and pile on the plot twists, digging into Mary’s past, while introducing a new villain, played by Toby Jones.
Major spoilers aside, you’re advised to have boxes of tissues at hand, even as Sherlock warms up to his role as a doting uncle, and also takes to a dog for a sidekick. Benedict and Amanda speak about growing with their characters in the hit TV drama.
How does it feel to put Sherlock’s famous coat back on after being in Victorian costume?
Benedict Cumberbatch It’s lovely putting the famed coat back on again, as opposed to the starched collar and the morning suit. But at the same time, we were filming in the middle of summer, so it was quite hot every time I put on the coat! It’s part of who he is, part of his kit and his armour. How did it feel to return to the set? Amanda Abbington It was brilliant being back on set. I love Sherlock and I love being a part of it, and this series is particularly exciting and dramatic. It was great to be back with everybody, with loads of old faces and some new ones as well.
What makes working on Sherlock so special?
AA The thing about working on Sherlock that makes it special is the fact that it’s loved by people. We really feel that we’re making something that people are excited about seeing. That always gives us an added impetus to make it the best that we can. It’s also great to be back with the old gang, I’ve been in it now for two series and the special, so it is like coming home to a family. Everyone does really get on and we have a lovely time.
Were you ever worried about the fans accepting Mary?
AA I was slightly anxious about the fans accepting Mary, because she can be quite a divisive character. I mean, she shot Sherlock! She’s quite independent, she’s feisty and she doesn’t stand for any nonsense. How do we find Sherlock, John and Mary at the start of series four?
BC There are a lot of new things going on, for example, there’s a baby! Parenting responsibilities have kicked in for the super sleuths. Childcare is never easy, but it gets even more complicated when crime’s involved.
John and Mary are new parents, how does Sherlock feel about that?
BC I think Sherlock feels very protective towards them as a family, but he’s not a natural or a figure of authority when it comes to a newborn. I hope my skills and interaction with my own are a little bit more engaged than his are! He’s seemingly indifferent, which is comic at times, but it’s all underpinned with a deep love, and he’s a guardian angel, really.
How is Mary feeling about impending motherhood?
AA They know it’s a girl, so they’re excited about that. When I was pregnant, it was incredibly nerve-wracking and terrifying and exciting at the same time, and I think that’s how she will be feeling. It doesn’t get in the way of her having adventures, but it’s certainly the bump that stops her running after stuff. The impending baby is something they’re both looking forward to a lot, and Sherlock too actually, despite what he says.
How did you go about creating your version of Sherlock Holmes?
BC Sherlock isn’t just Sherlock, he was a baby, then a child, then an adolescent, then a young adult, and then the 30-year-old that you met in Series One Episode One. We know he’s got a brother called Mycroft and parents, but what the hell was his childhood really like? I wanted to know all that information early on, because you’re playing the most adapted and greatest fictional detective of all time. You need to have a back story to work off as an actor, because what are you doing other than emulating certain airs and graces and mannerisms. What I try to do is underpin all those decisions with an informed understanding of who my character is.
They say never work with children or animals. In series four, you work with both.
BC We had an interesting dog in the first episode. He was sweet, but was a bit afraid of being in the centre of town, afraid of too many people and not great on hard surfaces. We were in Borough Market, with lots of people around, on concrete and tarmac. Cut to Amanda literally pulling a bloodhound around London, who was supposed to pull her around London. That was fun. The babies have been pretty amazing. I’m a father, and I know how difficult it is to get anything in tune with a baby’s schedule. It keeps you in the moment, and it stops you being precious about your work. I love those elements that make it more difficult.
Is there an element of Mary that still pines for her life as a secret agent?
AA I think Mary lives in both camps. On the one hand, she yearns for the adventure part of her old life but there is still that excitement there with John and Sherlock. She also likes the domesticity of being with somebody who she loves and who loves her back. She’s never allowed that to happen to her before, so being with John makes her feel complete.
What impact has Mary had on John and Sherlock’s friendship?
AA The key thing that holds John and Sherlock’s friendship together is their love for each other, they are best friends. I think of my three best friends and how much I love them and how I can’t really be without them — and that’s what those two have. They have this bond that can’t be broken, and Mary doesn’t get too involved with that. In the third series, she was very keen to make sure they still had that friendship and she maintains that in this series. She wants them both to be happy, and to have their adventures together.
How much of Sherlock’s temperament is driven by the apparent inadequacies of others rather than his own desire for perfection?
BC Oddly, I think Sherlock’s temperament is more shaped by the fact that he is human and trying to be superhuman. The amount of stuff that we call polite civilisation is a huge distraction to this man who has to think on an unparalled level of complexities. It’s not really that the world is stupid, it’s just that for him to be clever he has to really drown out a lot of noise and what he permanently gets surprised by. What I think is his real weakness, is sometimes not seeing what’s right in front of him. His blind spot is the very thing that he purposely turns his head from, in order to be as good as he is as a sleuth. So it’s a complex relationship he has with the world. He needs it to be that way in order to conquer it, but at the same time, the way he engages with it often blinds him to the most obvious. That’s great from a story point of view. His stupidity is also the world’s brilliance, which is why there are things, people, and events, which overtake him.
He’s not unhuman, he is human and he is fallible. How would you describe Mary’s relationship with Sherlock?
AA Mary’s relationship with Sherlock is fiery and turbulent. They’re cut from the same cloth in terms of their need for excitement and adventure and they have a mutual respect for each other.
How do the female characters affect Sherlock’s mindset?
AA He respects Mrs Hudson, Molly and Mary. We’ve seen him grow throughout and become more open. It’s wonderful to have such interesting, flawed and strong characters. That’s great to watch and fantastic to play. Season four of Sherlock premieres on January 7 and will air every Saturday at 8 pm on AXN