More do-overs for Merlin, Sherlock
by Ed Bark on August 11th 2010 at 10:34 pm
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The "re-imagining" of Merlin -- or Sherlock Holmes for that matter -- is an ongoing proposition on big-screen or small-.
The latest do-overs involve Joseph Fiennes for next spring's 10-part Starz miniseries Camelot and Benedict Cumberbatch for a future Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Sherlock that already has premiered to acclaim and big audiences on the BBC.
Fiennes, appearing via satellite from Dublin with Camelot showrunner and writer Chris Chibnall, quickly stirred the pot by telling TV writers that his version of Merlin is "sort of a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and (former U.S. defense secretary) Donald Rumsfeld."
Fiennes, fresh off the cancellation of ABC's ambitious but poorly scheduled FlashForward series, tried to explain that Camelot is "about power, power-sharing, the gaining of power, the distribution of power, how we get people on our side, what lies do we tell them, what information do we put forward, what do we hold back."
But he wasn't yet out of the woods.
A questioner later noted that Rumsfeld is "widely, though not universally" seen as the bad guy in both the buildup to the Iraq war and its execution. "Is that to imply that Merlin is somewhat villainous?"
No, he's not an out-and-out villain, Fiennes replied. But Merlin is "full of Machiavellian machinations. And I think he's brilliant at getting the people to believe what he thinks they should believe . . . And I should take back the Donald . . . "
"I knew that was going to get us in trouble," Chibnall interjected.
Yes, said Fiennes. "I think I want to balance that up with Obi-Wan. So Donald and Obi-Wan."
"And Willy Wonka," Chibnall added.
Fiennes wouldn't be doing Donald/Obi-Wan/Willy/Merlin at all were it not for the demise of FlashForward. His FBI agent character was vexed throughout the series by a puzzling series of "blackouts" that paralyzed the world and pointed to something far more sinister.
"I felt like I went through a series of blackouts for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, woke up and the whole landscape had changed again. And here I was in the Celtic countryside," Fiennes joked. "It's a topsy-turvy world, isn't it?"
As a premium pay channel, Starz also is a safe haven from sponsors' messages, he pointedly noted. "You're not interrupted relentlessly. It's not all about depending on advertisers. We're free to deliver stuff at high quality for an audience that doesn't need to be interrupted or patronized with commercial breaks."
PBS, longtime home of Masterpiece Theatre, likewise is unburdened by advertising additives. But its Sherlock (Oct. 24th, 31st and Nov. 7th) might also be a bit jarring to traditionalists, even though he's in no way billed as Rumsfeldian.
A clip for the production bills the venerable Holmes as "a new sleuth for the 21st century." Or as Masterpiece maestro Rebecca Eaton put it to TV writers, "He is a Sherlock for our time."
The reed-thin Cumberbatch, son of acting parents Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, noted that he follows more than 230 previous incarnations of Holmes "in many different languages and different ages, different times as well . . . So it was quite nerve-wracking. But there is an element of a blank canvas because of this brilliant reinvention and reinvigoration of him being a 21st century hero."
All concerned, including executive producers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, were prepared for "fossilized" reactions to their jaunty new Holmes. But the Sherlock Holmes Society of London attended a screening, and "they absolutely adored it," Gatiss said. "We tried to be very, very true to the original characters, and there's so much in there for real die-hard fans to like. But for us, it's about getting back to the characters as written, rather than about the trappings of Victoriana."
"If I had a dollar for every time somebody came up to me and said, 'I really didn't want to like it, but I did,' then I'd be able to buy all of you drinks," Cumberbatch added.
"There's nothing to worry about," said Gatiss. "Actually, it's great to have more Sherlock Holmeses in the world, simple as that."
All of these well-rehearsed talking points were waylaid only by Masterpiece maestro Eaton's embarrassing interlude on Cumberbatch's surname.
"Your born name is not Cumberbatch," she told him.
"Yes it is," he said.
"Never mind. Forget it," Eaton said before nonetheless persisting.
"Explain what a Cumber bitch is," she told Cumberbatch.
"Oh God. Do I have to?" he protested.
"There are Cumber bitches in England," she said, pressing on.
"Cumber bitches, yes," said Cumberbatch. "I'm too embarrassed to even explain that."
"I'll explain what they are," Eaton volunteered. "They're a group of people -- this has been tweeted -- and they're a group of women who are forming whatever you form."
"A collective," Cumberbatch sighed.
"A coven," co-producer Moffat pitched in.
"A coven of Cumber bitches," Eaton said triumphantly.
Elementary, my dear Watsons.