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Mark Gatiss on The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Writer-producer Mark Gatiss talks to Ian Haydn Smith about his admiration for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a film that had a great influence on his TV series, Sherlock.

Mark Gatiss was speaking at a screening of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes shown courtesy of BFI Screen Epiphanies in partnership with American Express®.

Transcript

Vic Armstrong

I'm a stunt man, a stunt coordinator, action unit director and main unit action director. I've been very lucky to have worked on sort of three iconic series, if you like to call them series, from Bond to Superman to Indiana Jones.

Whenever you, I imagine, set off on a career, whether you're an accountant or a pianist or a cabinet maker, I think once you've established the line you're going down, you then research and look at ideas and look at the future, and you look at the past, which everything is based on some foundation. It's much easier to follow and imitate than it is to be the innovator.

Buster Keaton was the king of them all. When you think about it, he wasn't copying anybody. He was just doing his own thing.

All the stunts were motivated by the film, and he took them and he built them up, but they weren't built out of proportion for what was in the film. But they were all stunning, and they were all memorable.

[Clip of One Week]

I look at it and I think he did it for real. A lot of it is undercranking. Undercranking is when you run the camera at a lower speed, it automatically speeds up the action. You've got three moving vehicles, a camera car, the two vehicles and him and getting the distance right. And if anybody overdoes it, you're in trouble. But I think they did it for real, yeah.

[Clip of Seven Chances]

I've seen people do similar things in the past. We did that on Her Majesty's Secret Service, where a skier hit a tree, but we had a real tree. He just skied into it in those days and crashed down through the branch into the snow. They beat him up pretty good.

On Rambo, they did a similar thing when he jumps off the cliff, Rambo First Blood, and hits the tree, and I think the tree fell.

[Clip of First Blood]

But to add onto that, the Buster Keaton one, he rode the tree to the ground because you couldn't trust a tree to fall and you'd be on top of it and not go underneath it and twist on you. So there had to be some mechanical calculation. Maybe they did in those days rotoscope, frame by frame paint out the cable that was on the top of tree that lowered it with a massive crane, but that's the other thing, the scale of it all. It's a huge tree.

[Clip of Seven Chances]

Because he knew what he was going to do. Other people didn't. But you can bet your bottom dollar he wasn't doing that for the first time on film. He knew exactly what his body was going to do. He'd calculated, you know, if he's doing a fall, where there's a slope there, so you can do much harder onto a slope, because, again, you slow down slower. He was a specialist and a bit like a magician. He knew exactly what had to be dialed into that particular job.

He's obviously an athletic person that could fall and somersault and roll and everything else. His ability would stop him from getting serious injuries, but it stretches you out. There's no question about it.

[Clip of Three Ages]

He took a terrible whack on that building when he hit it. I don't care who you are, it's going to hurt. He's lucky he's still got all of his teeth and everything else and hadn’t broken his fingers. I suppose actually nowadays you'd get parkour people that can do that, but they defeat reality as far as I'm concerned. They're just magicians. I've worked with a lot on Spiderman, and they're just... you look at it and say, "Well, I don't believe what I've just looked at." And I'm sure, if you think about it, Buster Keaton did have a bit of parkour in him.

[Clip of Steamboat Bill Jr.]

It's calculated obviously, very calculated, but even so it's extremely dangerous, and there's no margin of error there. When you look at the size of that window that he goes through, it's hardly anything. When you look at it square on the floor, it's minute. But when you think of it, if that's how big it is on the floor, that's how big it is when it's going over him, because of the angle. He's there. The angle just shortens right up, because it's going past him at that angle. That distance becomes that distance. It's just amazing. It would be hinged, and it would be calculated and he's going to stand there. But I don't care who you are in the world, you'd still have to go like that [looks up] to make sure you're actually on your mark and everything else, and they say "3, 2, 1 action." It's amazing.

I wish I could have done that, but I don't think I ever could. It's watching Muhammad Ali, watching Lester Piggott, watching Georgie Best. You'd love to be able to do it, and you can do some of the things they did, but they're in a stratosphere of their own, not only a league, they're in a different world. And I think he was.

Interviewer

First of all, why did you pick this film?

Mark Gatiss

You told me to – no.

[audience laughs]

Mark Gatiss

This is, by a long way, my favourite Sherlock Holmes film, and really although it's difficult to say what's your definitive favourite film, it's probably my favourite film. I think it sort of does everything I want a film to do. If this was on on a bank holiday Monday, I would be very pleased. It has that kind of wintery afternoon feel. I saw it when I was very young, and it profoundly affected me. I think it's both a brilliant, respectful, homage to Conan Doyle and yet an incredibly irreverent take on it. It's Billy Wilder who was one of the most sophisticated and brilliant filmmakers we've ever had, and it's Sherlock Holmes.

It's a funny thing, I actually introduced this film about three or four years ago at a book festival and I spent the whole time talking about how wonderfully melancholy it was. Then it started, and I thought, I've forgotten, it's incredibly funny, which it is. Principally, I think, because it's, along with the Basil Rathbone films, it's the great influence on our TV series because it's precisely as reverent as Conan Doyle was himself, ie not very. But at its absolute essence, Wilder and Izzy Diamond who co-wrote the screenplay, they love Sherlock Holmes.

Wilder, I knew grew up with the, I know, right? I didn't know. He grew up with the stories as a boy in Austria and just was devoted to them. I know he wanted to make a musical version, all kinds of things, and eventually it became this curious huge film. One of the last of those sort of late ‘60s films. It was going to be a Roadshow picture because it lost an hour, as you may know. There's missing portions, but that's sort of part of its legend somehow, isn't it? It's sort of, the whole film is about loss and the fact there's actually a missing hour is kind of perfect. It's just, I just adore it. To answer your question.

Interviewer

No you actually, you didn't answer my question.

You just answered every single one on the list. Stay with Billy Wilder a moment. I'm just curious about that trend of directors, particularly from Europe and certainly many Austrian and German directors who've gone over to Hollywood going back to the silent era right through to directors such as Wim Wenders who have their own take on a particular kind of Americana. I'm just wondering how much you feel Billy Wilder's take as an outsider has over taking Sherlock Holmes which by this time had become pretty staid, both in television and film, and rejuvenating it.

Mark Gatiss

I think the most sort of familiar thing about Wilder was that he was very cynical and that his films are always, we were just talking about Ace in the Hole or Sunset Boulevard, incredibly cynical films, sometimes a slightly nasty tinge to them in a way but I think somehow his, maybe it's his childhood nostalgia for Sherlock Holmes and then his take on Britain. The Britain that it represented, the sort of  "old empire" is a lot more gentle. No, maybe not gentle, sort of affectionate really.

It's a very touching film and maybe that was to do with him by 1970 becoming a much, slightly mellower... I don't know. I think it's very interesting that there is, it's an outsider's view. Like James Ivory who made the most English films there's ever been, as an American. You know people often said about Henry James as a writer, his stories are actually almost more English than we are, so I think it's an outsider's view, definitely. But what you get in the end, whatever their original ambition is a very nuanced and funny portrait of something he loved. But in a very particular Billy Wilder way he wanted to do something with it, I think that's the key to it. He didn't just want to do a straight adaptation. So as you'll see, each part of it certainly resonates from the original, and one of, the main story is sort of based on The Bruce-Partington Plans, but only very tangentially. But it's him and Izzy Diamond sort of taking it and running with it, I think.

Interviewer

And you mentioned a moment ago about this being a sort of a last gasp of a particular kind of Hollywood. This was made in 1970, so in '68 you had Bonnie and Clyde, the following year Easy Rider, and what's interesting about this, it's not so much narratively I feel that there's a sense of a classical Hollywood director at work but the sort of wistful palette...

Mark Gatiss

Mmm.

Interviewer

That's implied for the film. It has a very unique look.

Mark Gatiss

Yeah, I think it does. As I say, you know you can over-examine these things, which is, of course, why we're here.

And that's part of the joy of it, especially if you know a film very well, you can find a fellow enthusiast. I remember meeting Jonathan Coe who is one of this film's great supporters who wrote a wonderful article about his lifelong association with this film. From seeing the paperback when he was on holiday, aged eight, to finally finding the LaserDisc with the missing bits. It's wonderful, like a sort of archeological expedition, and when you meet someone who knows the film you love like that it's wonderful to examine that. But I'm sorry, I've totally lost my thread. Something I often do.

Interviewer

I'm saying that the look of the film is very classical Hollywood.

Mark Gatiss

Yes, yes, and you can sort of look at, there are certain bits, there's a bit in the Diogenes Club where with cigar ash, and I've read a whole thing about how this sort of represents this, the fag end of Empire and the fag end of Victoriana and the whole thing is about everything crumbling around Sherlock Holmes which is a version or... I don't know. It's a funny joke, probably. I think that's probably what it is. But it's definitely got a, its heart is melancholy and I think that's what Wilder did best and it's certainly always the thing that I respond most to in anything, is a sort of bittersweet quality. The parody is so sublime but at its heart it's deeply touching.

Interviewer

And you're right about, Wilder seems to be a director for whom writers have a particular favourite, I know Kazuo Ishiguro talks about Ace in the Hole and you mentioned earlier that Woody Allen apparently somebody said he doesn't like Some Like it Hot.

Mark Gatiss

Yes, and I said, "Nobody's perfect."

Please, I'm pleased with that one. I may use it again.

Interviewer

You mentioned this as an inspiration. One of the other kind of odd Sherlock Holmes films from the 1970s that... This was my first Sherlock Holmes adaptation that I'd seen and I think it might have been the second with Nick Meyers, The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution. Has that had any influence at all? Or has it always just been this version?

Mark Gatiss

Well, I'd say, I mean it's between Rathbone and this in a way. Everything is canonical, the way you sort of absorb it all, don't you. I remember, I read The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution before I saw it and I was very disappointed in the film and I sort of remain disappointed. I think because Nicol Willamson's Sherlock Holmes is so strange, and then you can't get past Robert Duvall's accent, you just can't. There should be a law against it.

I mean it's a wonderful idea. I just, I think it's probably a better book than a film. To me, this film has it all. It's kind of... And when you, as I finally did see the missing bits, which again in a perfect way in themselves are incomplete. There is the soundtrack of one case and no pictures, and the pictures of one case and no soundtrack so even then it's sort of insubstantial.

But it's just wonderful to have so much of your, as it were, your favourite version. What's really interesting is that Robert Stephens is, by no means, anyone's idea of Sherlock Holmes. As you'll see it's a sort of, it's a curious portrayal. It's very, it's almost, it's very camp actually and he wears a lot of eye makeup in a very late '60s way but it sort of fits this film perfectly.

Colin Blakely, I think, is like, is almost the perfect Doctor Watson. Almost.

And he could have played it in any number of versions, I think. He's just an incredibly funny man who has a heart of gold, you know. It's a very particular thing, and I suppose that's why I respond to it so much.

Christopher Lee's Mycroft though is directly why my Mycroft is like that. Because it felt to us that what Wilder was doing was taking a sort of one-joke character and making it more sophisticated. The Diogenes Club are actually sort of the British Secret Service and they're behind lots of things, you know. And the whole idea of the brothers having a much more fractious relationship is entirely from this film.

Interviewer

And, I am right in thinking that Mycroft had appeared in four stories?

Mark Gatiss

Two stories.

Interviewer

Two stories?

Mark Gatiss

He briefly appears also in The Final Problem. He's driving the carriage that takes Doctor Watson to the railway station, but you only find that out in The Empty House. Otherwise it's just two stories.

Interviewer

And, you're right. In the books he's just really seen as clever but overweight, and that's pretty much it. I've read somewhere and I could be wrong, but Alan Moore in The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen has him as M, Bond's boss, doesn't he?

Mark Gatiss

Yes, it's clever, isn’t it. It's brilliant. The film wasn't. But the way that he absolutely, you know, interlaces almost every aspect of late 19th century literature is breathtaking, really. The idea of M being Mycroft being slash Moriarty and everything, it's really wonderfully done.

Interviewer

And the critical reception of the film is quite interesting because it's late in Wilder's career. I think he had another five or six films in him, but yet some people have suggested, this may have been one of the larger nails in his career coffin because it cost so much money.

Mark Gatiss

And it didn't work.

Interviewer

And it didn't work at all. It was box office and critical reception. When's the last time you saw it and...?

Mark Gatiss

Last week probably. It's not that long ago actually, but I remember I saw it on TV and then one of my, you know, epiphany moments was, my sister bought me a wonderful book by David Stewart Davies called Holmes of the Movies one Christmas. And I grew up with that, and I don't think David feels the same way any more either, but I grew up with the idea that it was a noble failure. That it sort of starts okay and then goes downhill. You often do that. You buy into the idea of a film, the critical reception, you go, "Oh yes, it was like that." Then obviously, sometimes there is a perversity about people wanting to like the things that nobody else likes. As we know, this building is founded on that idea. But sometimes it's true. And sometimes it's not just people being sort of deliberately perverse.

It's because actually it hadn't found it's time. Over the years, what's wonderful about this is it's so matured, so many people love this film now and you can see it properly in the line of Wilder's work, but very much in the sort of line of Sherlock Holmes movies. Which as you say, you know, in the '60s had become, after A Study in Terror with John Neville that people just didn't know what to do with it any more, I think.

I'm sure at the time it was, and Wilder famously never talked about it, scarcely talked about it and in that annoying way kind of couldn't be won round. But I think that's what happens to a lot of directors if they have a commercial failure, they just forget about it. And I think he finally came to terms with the fact that people liked it but not as much as I think he should. You know it's such a, it's a very personal work, I think and a very profound one.

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