Thursday, 8 May 2014

Oh Hey Steven Moffat

A while ago I attended a sell-out event by the Royal Television Society. The focus of the evening was one of British TV's biggest and brightest dramas - Sherlock. Joining us in the room were its writers/creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, producer Sue Virtue, BBC controller Ben Stephenson and actress Amanda Abbington. 

They were going to tell us exactly how they made such a huge, brilliant hit!

Yup! We pretty much peed our TV-nerd pants. Lucky for you, I out-nerded everyone there by taking meticulous notes and am hereby going to impart with the Moffat wisdom...

It was, undoubtedly, one of the geekiest evenings of my life (topped only, maybe, by the living-room Oscars re-enactment of 2010) and very inspiring. Before you label me as another annoying "fangirl" I must specify it was not my love for the show (although great) that made the event so exciting, but instead the chance to get a glimpse into Moffat's brain, from a professional point of view. So I may copy him and one day make cracking telly that nerds will re-imagine in creative (& sometimes disturbing) ways and plaster all over Tumblr.

Anyway! Let's get started...

Moffat and Gatiss had wanted to bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective back to our screens for a while, having both been huge fans whilst growing up. Self-confessed Sherlock nerds, they decided a modern retelling would really be heretical but would work if they stayed faithful to the original stories as much as possible.

I was hoping for some good advice on how to get a drama commissioned - the answer turns out to be this: become Steven Moffat. 

The BBC threw him some money and ta-da! a pilot was made. Moffat and Gatiss hoped the show might win some obscure, pretentious drama award in Poland or somewhere, but would be quite a niche thing in the UK, with a small but loving audience. So they took risks with the pilot, playing with technology, words on screen and a more filmic approach to the crime genre. They were quite surprised when the series launched and became "a mild success". 

We only bloody loved it! 

Apparently, episodes were only originally meant to be 60mins each but they decided to extend them to 90, in order to take each story from a simple crime mystery, to a more complex adventure. They wanted to be as ambitious as possible and not be restrained by time - kudos, chaps.   

Ben Stephenson cracked me up when asked why Sherlock launched in the summer (most big dramas will kick off in the autumn, when TV ratings are highest). 
"Not everyone is middle-class and able to go abroad - the rest of us need good TV to watch in the summer too!" - Stephenson.
This gamble paid off - would so many people have seen Sherlock if it had begun in October and had to fight with X Factor and Strictly?

When it came to casting, they'd had their eye on the then virtually unknown Benedict Cumberbatch and hadn't looked at getting a bigger name to attract viewers.
"Great shows are not about great stars - great shows make great stars!" - Moffat.
Unashamedly name-dropping now, but I once took a phone message at work from a very nice man who turned out to be Benedict Cumberbatch, and I later met him at a party. He has no idea who I am, of course, but I'm a big fan (or do they call them Cumber-bitches?).

The chemistry between Benedict and Martin Freeman was apparently instantaneous.

Unfortunately, the critics' enthusiasm for the show was not and it received bad press in its previews. But clearly these journalists know nothing because, as we know, the show proved to be hugely popular.

Moffat and Gatiss were excited to take the show forward and continue to humanise Sherlock (but never completely). The BBC was worried about delivering to the now high expectations for series 2 but fans were not disappointed.

What I came away with from this event was that if you are really passionate about a project and give it everything - not for rewards or for acclaim but just because you love the story that much - it will show on screen and others will be infected by your enthusiasm. I really wanted to ask Moffat what his next project was likely to be and, meaning no disrespect, when he might present us with a completely original story and concept. With Doctor Who and Sherlock he has done a fantastic job at revitalising pre-loved characters and bringing their stories into the modern day - I'd be very eager to see what wonders he could produce from his own brain!

Anyway, if you're working or wanting to work in TV then you definitely need to subscribe to the RTS events page. They have lots on offer every month; this was my 2nd event through them and tickets are always very reasonable, at about £12. It's definitely worth going!