Mark Catley talks about Sherlock Holmes – The Best Kept Secret on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds
PUBLISHED: 00:32 13 May 2013
A brand new Sherlock Holmes adventure is premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this month. The playwright Mark Catley tells all to Terry Fletcher.
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, died he left a mystery that even his great fictional detective failed to explain. Now Leeds-based playwright Mark Catley has come up with a solution and on May 18th audiences at the city’s West Yorkshire Playhouse will be among the first to know the secret.
Holmes first appeared in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet and was an almost instant literary phenomenon with readers queuing for the latest adventure, rather as a later generation would for the latest Harry Potter book. But Conan Doyle grew tired of his creation and killed him off six years later in The Final Problem in which Holmes and his arch enemy Prof Moriarty apparently fell to their deaths from the Reichenbach Falls.
The literary world was shocked. The Strand magazine in which the stories had been published lost 20,000 subscribers almost overnight and people wore black armbands in mourning for their hero. Eventually public demand – or perhaps financial necessity – forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in an adventure called The Empty House.
But, says Catley, Conan Doyle never revealed what Holmes had been up to during those lost years. So now he has written a new play, Sherlock Holmes – The Best Kept Secret, to fill the gap. Set two years after the battle on the Reichenbach Falls it finds Holmes disillusioned and bankrupt yet refusing to take on any new cases until family ties call him out of retirement. Holmes’ mysterious brother, Mycroft, is accused of treason but can Sherlock save him from the gallows?
Holmes has undergone some radical reworking in recent years. Robert Downey Jr gave him a muscular Hollywood gloss while more recently the BBC and Benedict Cumberbatch have produced a 21st century Holmes. With a third series eagerly awaited, it has built up a loyal fan base with its tweaking of classic stories to give a modern twist and plenty of knowing winks to previous incarnations. More recently US television has come up with its own modern version and the added gimmick of a female Dr Watson but Catley has taken the cerebral sleuth back to his Victorian roots.
He said: ‘I’ve been inspired by Conan Doyle’s original stories and tried to be faithful to his Holmes though the success of the television series has been very helpful. Conan Doyle conveniently left that gap in the stories and I’ve happily stepped into it. It was exciting to write because everyone knows about Holmes and Watson so you can hit the ground running without having to set out the backstory.’
Even so he has set out to explore Holmes’ character a little more fully than perhaps even Conan Doyle managed to do and to fill in some of the events that shaped him. ‘There is a lot left out of the stories,’ he said. ‘For example there is very little about Holmes’ background but with Holmes and Mycroft together I’ve been able to go into that a bit. Also when the books were written they did not know much about things like autism and Asperger’s so we can explore that side of Holmes as well, his mental health. Holmes seems incapable of being polite.’
Some may have been daunted by taking on such a well-known figure but Catley is an old hand at developing shared characters. In the theatre he was the writer of last year’s playhouse success, Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging, adapted from Louise Rennison’s sagas of adolescent angst. But his television work has been seen even more widely, having been part of the writing team for Eastenders and series consultant on the BBC’s BAFTA-winning Casualty as well as producing one-off plays.
Most recently he has written episodes for the popular Call the Midwife and is more than happy to straddle the two genres, making him a natural choice when the idea of a new play with a brand new Holmes story was suggested.
‘It was a little odd in the way it came up because usually as a writer you have to pitch the idea and hope someone takes it up. This time the idea for a play was already there and I was asked if I would be interested in writing it.
‘I just had to pitch a story for it, which I really enjoyed doing. Writing for the theatre and television are not as different as some people try to make out but the final experience is very different.
‘I wrote last week’s episode of Call the Midwife, which was watched by 8.8m people and it was funny sitting down to watch it, knowing that millions of people were doing exactly the same thing but I had no idea what they thought of it. In the theatre there will be five or six hundred people in the audience and I will know immediately what their reaction is. The first thing I wrote that was seen by an audience was a play I was acting in myself so I was backstage waiting to go on when I heard the first laugh. I will never forget that experience. It’s like a drug. You want it again. Sherlock Holmes is not a comedy but there is humour in there. I was surprised how many laughs there were when we had the read through. I’m really looking forward to seeing it on stage and to hearing what audiences think of what we’ve done.’
After its première in Leeds the play is due to go on a national tour followed, it is hoped, by a West End run.
Sherlock Holmes – The Best Kept Secret by Mark Catley, West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds May 18th – June 8th.