I was one of the very lucky few to attend the BFI screening of the Sherlock series three opener ‘The Empty Hearse’ this weekend. This blog is not about the episode, and will contain absolutely no information, clues, spoilers or anything else relating to it.
It started for me on the train home to Manchester from London. I checked my phone, refreshed Twitter, and searched for posts relating to ‘bfi sherlock’. I wanted to get an idea of other attendees’ views on the episode and their experience of the day. What I found was surprising. Or maybe it wasn’t.
If I had not attended the screening that afternoon I might have come to the conclusion that two very highly regarded Hollywood actors had been coerced – nay, forced – into ridiculing a shocked and distraught audience with a reading of hardcore pornography. These terrible events had been orchestrated by the host, who had set out to humiliate the actors and belittle the author of said work, before picking off random members of the outraged audience with a handgun, in a final, bloody, coup de grace.
As it happens, I did attend the screening, and I did attend the Q+A – and I would like to share with you what actually happened, in front of my eyes.
Following the screening, the cast and crew of Sherlock were introduced onto the BFI stage alongside our host for the afternoon, journalist Caitlin Moran. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were there, with co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, producer Sue Vertue and director Jeremy Lovering. Caitlin began proceedings with an invitation to the gathered masses to get one enormous admiring scream out of the way right off the bat, and the audience duly obliged.
The questioning began with a long conversation about the episode we had just watched. Again, no spoilers here. Everyone on stage was having a good time, with plenty of good natured banter between them. All involved had a chance to speak for a while, and plenty of topics were covered, none of which I can describe, simply because it was entirely spoilerific for a good half an hour.
Eventually, the conversation (note: conversation, not simply questions and answers) turned to the subject of Sherlock fan-fiction. To great amusement from the audience, specifically the throngs of fangirls, Caitlin briefly suggested future plot ideas to the crew taken from three ‘fanfics’ she had found online. As the title of each fanfic was read out, the fangirls around me gasped excitedly and leaned forward in their seats, suggesting to me that the majority of them knew these stories very well, and very clearly wanted their heroes to know about them too.
Finally, Caitlin revealed the title of the story that has caused so much fuss in SherlockFandomLand over the last 24 hours. It was entitled “Tea”, which was, as it turns out, a sequel to “Coffee”. Yes, this got a laugh. Not just from Caitlin, as many would have you believe, but from the entire audience (including all the fangirls sat in my line of sight), cast, and crew. It got a laugh, because it’s a fact that Tea (a sequel to Coffee) is a cute, funny title in any universe. Not mockingly funny, just funny. Caitlin did state that the story “doesn’t contain anything bad”. I have read the story. It does contain a lot of bad. But not the section we were about to hear. Unless you think a gay kiss is ‘bad’, and I certainly don’t.
Then the moment of truth. Did Caitlin Moran really FORCE Benedict and Martin to read an extract from this fanfic? Were Benedict and Martin MADE to perform like monkeys in front of a baying crowd?
No. No she didn’t, and no they weren’t.
Printouts of the fanfic were passed to the pair. That’s ‘passed’. Handed over. Let’s just make it perfectly clear that nothing was thrust into either actor’s face. At this point I would recommend you watch the three-minute video which has circulated online. It’s happily spoiler-free, so everyone can see what transpires. Obviously I was there, so I saw it all happen in context with the rest of the show, but this is the next best thing. My own observations are highlighted in bold.
It begins with Caitlin asking the actors to play their roles in the fanfic while also reading their respective narratives. She then light-heartedly (watch the video) jokes that Jeremy Lovering is directing, to which Martin responds, with great comedy timing, “Get them in”, gesturing to the audience. This is a reference to something joked about earlier in the session, wherein it was acknowledged how difficult it was to film an episode without onlookers getting into shot. Again, the audience are all laughing. It was a funny moment.
Martin begins to read his part. As he reads, I am watching the audience. Being sat towards the rear of the not-very-large theatre, I can see everything. What you cannot see on the leaked video is all the fans/fangirls leaning forward, huge smiles on their face, giggling away. They are not laughing at the fanfic. They are laughing excitedly at their heroes reading an actual fanfic in front of their eyes.
Benedict then responds with his first line, which is “Sherlock licked his bottom lip”, to which Steven Moffat responds with “Whose bottom lip?” This of course gets a laugh from the audience. This is not mocking laughter, aimed at the piece or the author. This is laughter at a quick-witted response from Moffat. All on stage know what’s coming, clearly, because they are all very aware of Sherlock fan-fiction. The subsequent laughter comes from anticipation. “How far are they going to go?”
As a result of Moffat’s interruption, Benedict points out a slight narrative error in the script, nothing serious at all, which is swiftly brushed over as it is unimportant. Again, at this stage the audience are hooked to this. It is fascinating. Is Benedict Cumberbatch really going to read aloud from a fan’s work? It certainly seems so. Even better, Benedict’s next line is read in his Sherlock voice. For me personally, being in the same room as the actor who plays Sherlock actually playing Sherlock is phenomenal.
Martin responds with what I actually consider a very well written line of narrative – “John turned to the left, his body at attention” – before tilting his head in a knowing way towards the audience. The double entendre here causes plenty of merriment. Soon after this, another line read by Martin, “John swallowed” gives us the biggest laugh, and curiously, a round of applause. A ROUND OF APPLAUSE.
This is not awkward. This is not an unpleasant atmosphere. This is joyful – these two A-list actors are on stage sharing in something fanmade, to an adoring audience, who are loving every second. And I feel I should reiterate, the majority of the attendees are most certainly fangirls (and fanboys, if you include me).
After Martin read a further line, Benedict paused briefly. This was the main incident, which needs to be clarified. Benedict did pause. Martin turned to him, expecting him to continue with the story, but Benedict had turned to Caitlin to suggest ‘let’s stop it here’. Caitlin immediately obliged and announced “yes, shall we stop it here – this sounded a lot better in my head”. NOTE – VERY IMPORTANT– both Benedict and Martin laughed at that statement, asking “did you write it?”. They did not feel put upon, they were not forced into a corner, they were obviously having a good time. So much so, that Benedict actually asked Caitlin whether they were ruining anything by stopping early.
Caitlin, as can be seen on the video, was almost over-apologetic, thinking that the previous minute or two hadn’t been entertaining, but it had. There was nothing unpleasant, nothing derisive towards the author, except for one statement – that the last line was “clumsily written” – but we’re not exactly talking about a damning critique on the author’s work. It’s all there to see on the video.
Benedict then made a statement. And it is this statement which I feel has caused all the uproar against Caitlin Moran. If Benedict hadn’t said this, the backlash towards Caitlin would not have happened, I am sure.
Benedict’s statement was this: “It’s just a point, I mean the fans can do what they like, but there’s a point, we do what we do with it, and that’s the fun we have with our fiction of it, is to point out that that [a kiss between John and Sherlock] is ludicrous in our universe of this storytelling. So, sorry to be all ‘mmmmm’ about it…*adopts cockney accent* His nibs ain’t doing that”.
Caitlin at this point apologised, explained that she was very sorry, and throws it open to the audience. All is rosy again. This was lighthearted.
Benedict’s statement caused the problem. The issue we have is that Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the show and the hero to the fangirls, has just stated openly and publicly that he doesn’t like fan-fiction. This causes a problem, because the fans are not going to turn on him, are they? No chance. They’re not going to turn on the rest of the cast and crew either. No, they’re going to turn on the one easy target – Caitlin Moran.
And so, this is what happened. Even though everyone in that room thoroughly enjoyed the whole event, through countless generations of Chinese whispers and misheard/misunderstood comments, the whole Sherlock fandom formed an army against Caitlin Moran, bombarding her Twitter with all sorts of unpleasantness. She’s been accused of going into that Q+A with an agenda from the outset, to use Benedict and Martin as pawns in her carefully planned attack on the fandom. And then there’s the other angle, that the whole thing was a direct attack on fanfics and through that, a direct attack on feminism. To paraphrase Benedict, THAT’S ludicrous. It’s nonsense. Utter, utter nonsense.
I will state at this point that I am aware of the other issues people have raised in relation to the event, such as ‘was it morally/legally right for this author’s work to be performed without permission?’ or ‘what about the breaking of the fourth wall (mixing up fan-fiction with the actual original canon actors)?’ but these are questions for other people to discuss and debate. I just want to put the actual unbiased facts out there, as it’s obvious that a great deal of misinformation has been fed to people through blogs and Twitter.
At worst, the introduction of the fanfic to proceedings was an error of judgement on Caitlin’s part. Simply that, a mistake. And I do have sympathy for the writer of said fanfic, who has stated that she never wanted the cast to read her work. But it certainly wasn’t torn apart like it’s being suggested it was.
For those who launched their tirades against Caitlin for ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and sharing fan-created material with the stars of the show, I’m reminded of a talk some time ago, where Martin Freeman was asked by a young fangirl whether he would wear ‘red pants’ for the show, to which the whole room full of fangirls shrieked with excitement, while Martin called them ‘dirty minded f**kers’. This was a direct reference to fan-made material involving artwork featuring John Watson in red underwear, and a direct request for the actor to wear said underwear in the show. Interesting then how this fourth wall opinion has now changed, simply because Caitlin Moran is someone in the public eye.
I am not defending Caitlin Moran because of any political, or feministic, or any other reason. I don’t read The Times and I have not yet read her books. I’m defending her because I’m sick of seeing the pack mentality on Twitter, especially when it comes to fandoms, ganging up on someone for reasons they have only heard second, third or fourth-hand. Or from watching a three-minute video of an event which lasted three hours.
Thank you for reading this, if you did. If you share my opinion, great. If not, then equally great, it’s up to you. I’m just stating the facts.