Moffat and Gatiss on Sherlock, representation, and "box-ticking"

Image credit: Qiuying Lai

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s appearance at the Union on Friday 20 January could not be more timely, coming just days after the final episode of the fourth series of Sherlock aired last Sunday. Although it still has its truly inspired moments, I have, like many people, become increasingly disappointed with the show as it has progressed over the years. The chance to sit down with them and discuss the twists and turns the show has taken was one that I couldn't miss.

Speaking with TCS before their appearance at the Union, the conversation came around almost straight away to the issue of representation – perhaps the biggest fault that Sherlock’s viewers find with the show. Just a quick search of Google will reveal endless blog posts, articles, and tweets pointing out aspects of sexism, racism, and homophobia, particularly revolving around the absence of great female characters.

When asked how they deal with treading the line between representation and tokenism within the show, Gatiss says “I don’t see why a programme has to become the kind of grail for anyone’s expectations. I just don’t think that’s fair. The show is extremely popular, and we do our best in every way we possibly can.”

Moffat agrees, pointing out that “Sherlock’s quite a small world, actually, so we can’t do everything in that. But to take the other show... Doctor Who, I think, can do more, and should do more. And we’re working harder every year to try and get that better. But the perspective that I always look at is that I don’t think about it – and nobody should think about it – as ‘satisfying the activists’ or ‘satisfying the pressure groups’. That’s not what’s important. What you’ve got to be saying to children is that you are all welcome, and that there are loads of people like you, and you all belong out there in this space, in the future, and that’s what matters. The ticking boxes exercise is never going to work, because it ends in what you call tokenism.”

Gatiss suggests that a general problem comes with consistency in how shows are confronted about the issue.

“There’s a programme you won’t remember,” he says, “called ‘It Ain't Half Hot, Mum’, which is a sitcom set during the war, and it’s not allowed to be shown anymore because one of the lead actors is dressed as if he’s Indian, and made up to be Indian. And there was a special committee to say that that show could never be seen again. And then last week on ITV prime time, Saturday morning, they showed Carry On Up The Jungle, with Bernard Bresslaw completely blacked up, and nobody says a word. So, the trouble is that it’s not consistent. So there’ll be a very shrill pressure group saying one thing, and then this enormous mistake happens elsewhere.”

Someone in the Union audience asks them outright what they think about accusations of all the women in Sherlock either being talked down to or killed, and Steven straight away says “I don’t think it’s true.” He also says that, “if you don’t like shows where people get talked down to or murdered, don’t watch Sherlock. He’s a slightly patronising man who solves murders.”

It seems that Moffat and Gatiss find it difficult to strike the balance between entertainment and representation, and that if they had to they would always choose the former over the latter. Still, Moffat thinks "it’s great that the pressure groups exist, because those are pressure groups in a good cause. They are important, these things hugely matter. But just because not everything the pressure group wants happens, doesn’t mean the people to whom the pressure is applied don’t agree with them. It’s just that not everything is possible all the time. But I think, across the industry we’re all trying to get better. It’s not as easy as everyone assumes it is.”

The majority of the ire against Sherlock is found on social media, and both writers are wary about the anger and frustration against the show, and against themselves, with Moffat even choosing to delete his Twitter account to escape from the madness. Moffat believes, however, that it is easy to make these mistakes, and says that “most of us are guilty about saying mean things about people who aren’t in front of you.”

“Social media is a huge double-edged sword,” says Gatiss, “a terrifying mixture of things – it is frightening how easily manipulated we are.”

Of course, not everything was doom and gloom, and the two writers also shared some interesting tidbits about series four. When asked how long these storylines have been in the works for, Moffat said that "sometimes the very very best thing you do is a last-minute improv. For instance, we very much love the Molly Hooper scene in the Final Problem, and that's the last thing we wrote, because nobody liked the original scene, and everyone thought it was rubbish, apart from me and Mark, who said it was wonderful. But eventually we gave in and wrote a different scene. I think it's the best thing in it, and that was the eleventh hour."

"There's also curious things," says Gatiss, "which you don't generally first realise. In the Reichenbach Fall, Sherlock says 'how are you going to do it then, burn the heart out of me?' And Moriarty says 'well that's the problem, Sherlock. The Final Problem.' That looks now very clever, because the last episode is called The Final Problem. We only decided to call it The Final Problem last minute, we were going to call it something else! So now it's like retrospectively clever."

They also share some tips for hopeful students who want to make it in the film and TV industry: "there is no such thing as a talent for writing. It's all about working harder than other people - it's the cheat code of the universe!"

And as for season 5?

“Nobody’s against the idea,” Moffat says, “it just takes forever.”

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