Sherlock – From Literary Classic to Modern Success. The Game is On!

Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, has seen a litany of permutations since he was first introduced to the public in 1887 in the first of the author’s four novels. However, it was Conan Doyle’s short stories—published monthly in The Strand magazine—that captured the public’s imagination and incited members of the public to write to the fictional detective at his home at 221b Baker Street in London (a fictional address at the time where today’s Sherlock Museum is now located). Some asked Holmes for help to find their missing pet, while others offered him their housekeeping services. Tired of the character, Conan Doyle eventually killed Sherlock off by plunging him over the edge of the Reichnenbach Falls in a fight against his arch enemy Moriarty. The backlash was unprecedented: 20,000 subscriptions to The Strand were cancelled, people donned black armbands in the streets in mourning, and Holmes’ obituary appeared in countless newspapers. Fiction had taken on a real-world existence, and a number of unofficial works featuring Holmes spawned during Conan Doyle’s 10-year hiatus before resurrecting the detective. This was the beginning of what we today call ‘fan fiction’.

Fast forward to 2010 and the ‘new-look’ Sherlock produced by UK indie Hartswood Films for BBC Wales, BBC One and PBS. The three series have registered unprecedented success: all have received multiple awards and the third, broadcast on New Year’s Day, is the UK’s most-watched drama series since 2001. Its global reach, in China in particular, has been phenomenal. Writing about shadowy government officials (e.g., Sherlock’s brother Mycroft) translates to censorship on Chinese television. However, online video websites—perceived as a fledgling industry—are exempt from many such restrictions. Airing on Youku—China’s version of YouTube—two hours after its British debut, the first episode boasted 5 million views in the first 24 hours, and 14.5 million after only two weeks.

The secret of success

Of course, it helps to have a stellar team. Sherlock was co-created by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss (who also stars in the production), whose credits also include Dr. Who (Moffatt as lead writer) as well as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in lead roles.

While much has been said about the ‘modernization’ of the stories, the creators have in fact stayed true to the Conan Doyle’s original story worlds. It’s the tools used to tell and share the stories that have been brought up to 21st century standards. Arguably, these are also key contributors.

Series 1 used simple, modern-day storytelling tools—slick text message cutaways to convey a conversation and Watson’s blog write-ups of each case (transposing the first-person narratives from Conan Doyle’s originals). Additional content could also be found online, including Watson’s blog and Holmes’ website, The Science of Deduction featuring cases that didn’t appear in the programs, and a forum where people could write in to Holmes asking him for help to find their missing pet. Sound familiar?

Twitter chatter, and lots of it!

Series 2 further developed the themes, and audience numbers increased to an average of 8 million viewers after its broadcast by the BBC in January 2012. The final episode sees Sherlock plunging over a building to his death after an altercation with his arch enemy Moriarty. Just as it had in the late 1800s, the story grabbed the public’s imagination and #IbelieveinSherlock went mad on the Twitterverse. Twitter conversations and, once again, fan fiction helped sate Sherlockfans during the two-year hiatus between series 2 and 3.

In late 2013, a real-world marketing campaign announced the New Year’s Day broadcast of The Empty Hearse, the first episode of series 3. An empty hearse drove around known ‘Sherlockian’ London spots with 01.01.2014 arranged in flowers in the back. #SherlockLives set Twitter on fire—22,935 tweets mentioning the hashtag were sent in the first hour alone.

Sherlock goes interactive

Extending its digital reach with its third series, Hartswood co-produced Sherlock: The NetworkiOS app with award-winning digital production company The Project Factory. Players become part of Sherlock’s trusted ‘Homeless Network’ across London (another nod to Conan Doyle’s canon) and help Holmes and Watson solve a total of 10 new cases, with access to exclusively-shot video of the two leads.

“We tried to match the show’s style, quality and intelligence. That was no small task,” says David Varela, who wrote the app’s script. More than addressing the needs of a TV audience, the app developers also had to take into account the desires of casual viewers and gamers. The story had to be accessible and have enough depth to warrant replayability.

Released in January, Sherlock: The Network was the number 1 paid app in the UK App Store for nine days following its launch (representing 47% of the global market) and has been the number 1 entertainment app in 30+ countries, including the US.

The same considerations had to be given to Season 3’s interactive trailer. Red Bee Media, the BBC’s commercial arm, worked with the Wirewax platform as early on as the pre-production stage. The first interactive video hotspot technology to be okayed for use on YouTube, Wirewax is also the first player outside the BBC’s proprietary Embedded Media Player to be featured on BBC websites.

Click to view trailer

The trailer featured hidden clues within locked content as well as embedded sub-content. The impressive technology collates detailed user information every three seconds, including measurements relative to the positioning of the user’s mouse. And the stats speak for themselves: average viewing time was just over four minutes (for the one-minute trailer); 30K+ tweets and hundreds of thousands of global FB posts recorded on the first night of release, plus 7 million recorded interactions with the embedded content to date.

The third series of Sherlock eventually broke Twitter records, with nearly 1 million tweets recorded. The final episode achieved the highest ever number of tweets for a single episode of a drama series (stats from SecondSync). The data is impressive.

Fans nowadays write to Sherlock via Twitter to try to help him solve crimes via apps and get close to him at Speedy’s Café. But it’s the audience’s connection to the story world, the blurring of fact and fiction and our ability to suspend disbelief that have always kept Sherlock modern.

Tishna Molla
Tishna Molla is a film agent, producer and consultant based in London, UK.
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