View Comments
Elementary, Ms Watson
Elementary, Ms Watson

Run a search of Sherlock Holmes on the Internet Movie Database and you'll quickly discover more than 200 results spanning everything from short movies made in the early 1900s and French telemovies to the more recent British TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law.

Given the long history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and characters being adapted for the small and big screen, it was surprising how much outcry greeted last year's news that American television network CBS had ordered a pilot for a modern day Sherlock Holmes story called Elementary.

Gasp. Even more shocking, the Americans were casting Charlie's Angels star Lucy Liu as a female Watson opposite British actor Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes.

Fast forward to late last year, where Elementary received a full season pick-up and became the top new show of the 2012/2013 US TV season. It has landed the coveted post-Superbowl timeslot for the big game airing on Sunday in the US and is now showing around the world, starting in Australia this weekend.

Creator and executive producer Robert Doherty never had any doubt that his Holmes, a recovering drug addict lending his talents to the NYPD homicide squad, would be played by anyone other than a British actor, and that Watson, his sober companion, would be a woman.

"One of the things that I was personally excited about was having an authentic British voice on American television," Doherty told a room of international journalists at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles last month.

"We have many excellent British and Australian actors and actresses who speak with American accents in American shows and so I was fascinated sometimes when I would tune into an awards show and actually hear somebody get to speak in their own tongue.

"There is just something - something falls away when you are not speaking in your own voice, you are not using your own voice, and so it was important to me, you know, to find Sherlock had to be British. These were the only two absolutes for us: Sherlock had to be British, Watson had to be a woman. Everything else was up for discussion."

Playing a character with amazing powers of observation has helped Miller, known for films such as Trainspotting and Mansfield Park and TV series including Dexter and Eli Stone, to improve his memory.

"It's funny because, having to do a lot of memorising and a lot of thinking and, you know, use your brain actually on a daily basis quite a lot, it does have an effect," he said.

"I remember more stuff. I am doing memory exercises daily, just memorising pages and pages of dialogue, and that does kind of, keep you more alert. If you exercise your brain, it kind of works better. Mind you, my wife will probably tell you different."

Liu became a household name as acerbic lawyer Ling Woo in TV's Ally McBeal before making her mark in the Charlie's Angels films and voicing Viper in the Kung Fu Panda movies and TV series. Her more recent TV credits include Southland and Dirty Sexy Money.

She was excited to take on a role that had traditionally been a male character.

"I think that Rob had in the very beginning the idea that he knew that Sherlock's character in the literature itself was quite sexual but uncomfortable with women intimacy-wise, and so how would it be to have that juxtaposed with him on a daily basis?

"And that's the incarnation of what we have in that development.

"So I was lucky enough to fall into that slot because Watson has to go toe to toe with him and be, you know, intelligent and he needs to respect her because he is working on a different level.

"I think if it was any different, she would become much more of a foil for him, which I think is what some of the incarnations that he had in the past made her more of; made Watson more of somebody who is the comedy aspect of the story and this time, you know, there is more of a tit for tat."

Miller and Liu both admitted they had not read the Sherlock Holmes stories before signing on for Elementary but have since become immersed in them.

"They are surprisingly current and modern, and they are really funny and humorous," Liu said.

"There is a reason why people keep having so many iterations of Holmes because it's fascinating and there are so many avenues that you can discover, just in one story."