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Sherlock Chronicles: casting Benedict Cumberbatch

BBC Books’s beautiful Sherlock Chronicles is the ultimate guide to our favourite crime drama. With the constant re-imagining and re-inventing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, it was always going to be difficult to create a brand new, original show rather than just another standard adaptation. However, Sherlock has managed it; it’s isn’t brilliant just because we love the classic Sherlock Holmes stories – it’s brilliant in its own right too.

One of the most crucial features the minds behind Sherlock needed to consider to achieve this was the casting. Sherlock Chronicles provides us with valuable behind the scenes insights into this process. In the extract below, writer Steven Moffat, producer Sue Vertue and the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch himself explain how the role of Sherlock was cast.

‘We saw exactly one person for Sherlock,’ says Steven Moffat, ‘and that was Benedict Cumberbatch. Sue and I had seen him in a film called Atonement, and she immediately cottoned onto him and said he looked perfect.

‘Mark knew him and we discussed it, and we all thought it was a great idea. Benedict then came in and did a reading for us, and at the end of that reading there wasn’t really any point in going anywhere else. There wasn’t going to be anybody else who looks the part, sounds the part and walks the part to that degree.’

‘Benedict’s mother said he couldn’t be Sherlock because he had the wrong nose,’ laughs Sue Vertue. ‘At the beginning, I’d had very basic questions for Steven and Mark – who lives where, what was John like, what does Sherlock have to look like… And they said he had to be tall, he had to be thin, and he had to have a big nose. And then we saw Benedict, and we cast him in spite of his not having a big nose! It was very odd, because nobody really knew him – he’s done some stunning work, but the public maybe didn’t quite know who he was, and he’d never really played a sex symbol. But the first show went out and he was an overnight star.’

‘For me, the classics as Sherlock Holmes are Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett,’ says Benedict Cumberbatch. ‘Brett particularly is the benchmark: he’s the blueprint for the serialisation of the stories on the small screen. So when I first heard about the project, I was a little bit dubious because I thought those were very hefty profiles to chase away. And then I heard it was an update, and I got equally worried. The minute I read the script, all of those fears completely vanished. Steven and Mark have done an incredible job of bringing Sherlock crashing into the twenty-first century. I didn’t grow up reading or knowing every single Sherlock Holmes story, but I was very aware of the character and the genre, and when I read those scripts I could see they’d been written with real reverence.

‘I tried very hard not to watch or listen to any other renditions when we started making the first series. I wanted it to be something that I took fresh from the scripts, the director and the other actors. I did revisit them afterwards, which was interesting. I’d watched Jeremy Brett when The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was first on television, and I remember being very impressed with his poise and his elegance, and this incredible, predator-like authority. He had a big physical presence, and you could see this burning intelligence but also this growing madness in his eyes. And I knew what it was about him that I wanted to bring to Sherlock: a man who’s very high functioning, and has got there by dint of effort. You do see, as the series progresses, that he actually had a normal childhood – as normal as it could have been until the point where they realised he was slightly different.

‘The Paget drawings were interesting and beautiful things in themselves, and very influential, and they became the template for that silhouette and that idea of the very aquiline profile. So we had to come up with our own version of that, despite my not having the right nose… We couldn’t have him in the deerstalker straight away. I was quite keen on slicked-back hair. We tried all sorts of different hair, especially in the pilot, but we ended up with this curly mop that sets hearts aflutter, apparently.’

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