How the new grungy Sherlock Holmes is the detective like you’ve never seen before
Our first view of Sherlock Holmes is a shock. Emaciated, shaven head, retching and drug-addled, he can hardly stand, let alone deduce. This, says actor Henry Lloyd-Hughes, is Sherlock as you’ve never seen him before. “The drug aspect has been touched on previously, but to go the full Trainspotting, and add in true emotional conflict, I don’t think [anyone has] taken it that far.”
Playing a grungy, emo Sherlock in Netflix’s new series The Irregulars did remove some of the pressure from inhabiting the oft-portrayed detective, adds Lloyd-Hughes, 35. “At no point did I think ‘How would Robert Downey Jr do this?’”
In fact, this Sherlock is initially elusive. As the title suggests, Tom Bidwell’s drama is led by The Irregulars – a gang of teenagers based on the urchins who crop up in three Arthur Conan Doyle stories, aiding the great man by gathering intelligence on the streets. Here, they actually do much of the crime-solving, while Sherlock battles his demons. In Bidwell’s world, those demons are literal as well as psychological: his Victorian London has sci-fi, horror and fantasy elements. Lloyd-Hughes likens it to “The X-Files meets Sex Education or Skins. There’s a monster of the week, an overriding big plot, it’s spooky, and I hope young people can watch it and see themselves.”
Although there’s plenty of period detail – with much of the show filmed in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter – the dialogue sounds modern. “It doesn’t have that traditional Julian Fellowes, ‘commas in the right place’ feel,” agrees Lloyd-Hughes. “And I should know, I’ve been in one [Fellowes’ The English Game].” But, he says, the success of Bridgerton proves that “actually people like it when you break the rules.” Also like Bridgerton, the casting is notably diverse – including a black actor, Royce Pierreson, playing Dr Watson. “That’s a reflection of people resetting the dial in terms of what we expect from television,” says Lloyd-Hughes.
He anticipates criticism from some Sherlock purists. “I’m sure people will have a lot to say, good and bad, about watching it if you’re very familiar with a previous version. But I like that we have those ironic nods [such as his Sherlock playing the violin] to say, ‘Oh, we’re well aware of what you think should be going on here.’”
Yet the supernatural isn’t such a stretch, points out Lloyd-Hughes. “Conan Doyle is the roadmap. He was interested in the occult, the afterlife, reincarnation, mediums and spiritualism. In a weird way, Sherlock’s obsession [in the series] is almost the closest to mirroring Conan Doyle’s obsession.”
It was also an opportunity to explore the legend of Sherlock and how that might be unreliable. “As a viewer, you’re seeing the world through this young gang, and he’s the rogue element – suddenly, this guy is telling you a story. The kids are constantly going back and forth, asking whether his intentions are good. They call him a w----r, a pr--k, they don’t trust him but they’re also drawn into his telling.”
Even while lying on his sickbed, “a husk of a man,” Sherlock still has an ego, observes Lloyd-Hughes, but it’s quickly punctured by Irregulars leader Bea (played by Thaddea Graham). “He’s talking about a previous case and he says, ‘It’s pretty famous, you’ve probably heard of it’, and she says ‘No I haven’t.’ You can see that’s one more wound for him. Sherlock’s got a version of the world, and when someone else says ‘That’s not the way I see it’, he can’t deal with it.” It’s only later in the series that he realises “there might be more to life than being right.”
Still, it’s startling to see a Sherlock who’s at a loss. “Traditionally, you’re confronted with this person’s mind-blowing genius and his skill set and his intellect. But here, it’s the opposite – an upside-down version. His life is in bits: smashed to smithereens in almost every single way.”
Oddly, that felt like “a happy accident,” says Lloyd-Hughes. This is a Sherlock that “feels right for 2020 or 2021. If we were doing the polished, all-bells-and-whistles Sherlock with his amp turned up to 11, it wouldn’t resonate in the same way.” Instead, we see “these kids who are experiencing a city and a country that is spiralling out of control. A darkness has come to London. Who hasn’t felt that in the past year?”
In fact, we do get a glimpse of Sherlock in his prime thanks to some flashback scenes. That felt almost like playing two different characters, explains Lloyd-Hughes. He worked closely with Lucy Sibbick, who won an Oscar for Winston Churchill drama The Darkest Hour, on creating a physical transformation. His Sherlock of the past has long, luscious locks and a very different presence. “We did what we could to make him seem bigger, more chiselled, more handsome. He’s got the pomp and swagger of a rock star.”
This is the latest in a long line of Holmes dramas, from Steven Moffat’s BBC series to Guy Ritchie’s films and last year’s Enola Holmes, also on Netflix. Lloyd-Hughes thinks Sherlock’s enduring popularity has a lot to do with our desire to “have marvellous brains explain the unexplainable.” That’s why crime dramas have become comfort viewing in lockdown.
But The Irregulars is a different viewing experience. “It’s more about asking ‘Has he actually got it worked out?’ There’s a lot of grief and uncertainty, and elements that are too uncomfortable, too unfathomable.” This Friday’s series premiere has been a long time coming. Bidwell started developing the project 10 years ago, initially as a film. The show began shooting in 2019 and had to stop in March last year because of the pandemic. “I’ve never been on a job before where we celebrated a year anniversary,” says Lloyd-Hughes wryly. “We had a gap of about six months, and then we went back to finish it in September. Lucy, who was doing my hair and make-up, said ‘Man, you have gone so much more grey since I last saw you.’ I need this pandemic to stop if only to halt the rapid ageing process!”
The shoot last autumn was his first experience of “the brave new world of Covid-safe filming. It’s masks, distancing, the whole studio being fitted with a special air purifier. Producers all over the world are having a serious headache.” Is it more challenging for actors? “It’s a different thing. You work slower: there are more barriers before you get to your mark and they say ‘Action’.” But Lloyd-Hughes says it’s tough for everyone involved, particularly the creative and production staff.
“It’s a great testament to the talent we have in this country – we export these people all over the world. But to say to them you’ve got to turn up to work earlier, every single aspect of your job takes longer, and the goal is the same, psychologically, that’s a big ask. I almost feel like there should be a separate category at future awards ceremonies: ‘This was filmed under Covid conditions.’”
The Irregulars was meant to come out last Hallowe’en (fittingly for its spooky vibe). For now, Lloyd-Hughes is waiting to see if audiences take to it and if that means a second series – and one that features Sherlock – before he commits to other work. But he’s got a sideline to keep him busy: designing cricket wear. It’s a family business. His great-grandfather, Nicholas ‘Paddy’ Padwick, owned a shop in Reading in the 1920s called N.E. Blake & Co, which is now the name of Lloyd-Hughes’s brand. When his grandmother died in 2018, he inherited the business’s archive, and decided to carry on the tradition.
Surprisingly, given that team sports have been off the agenda for much of the past year, “people getting in touch and buying kit just went through the roof,” he reports. “If you take away people’s hobbies, they start to value them more.” Lloyd-Hughes is a keen cricketer himself, playing for a team called The Bloody Lads.
He’s always had an interest in fashion and tailoring. “When I left school, I didn’t go to university or drama school – much to my dad’s chagrin – so I worked in shops, like Liberty’s and Dover Street Market.” This is the antithesis of fast fashion, he stresses: “It’s made to last.” Consumer interest extends far beyond the cricketing world. “We did our first pop-up in Korea, and we’ve been in a French fashion magazine.” Not bad for someone who got a D in economics A-level.
Lloyd-Hughes has also provided cricket wear for an upcoming episode of ITV’s Grantchester. “It’s this full circle moment, because I remember we had a cricket match when I was in [TV drama] Indian Summers, and seeing our costume designer making all the beautiful whites. I realised that it’s not that this stuff can’t exist now, it’s that it doesn’t exist.”
Lloyd-Hughes is also kept busy taking care of his daughters, aged four and two. Becoming a father made him a better actor, he believes. “The most important thing to do is to live a full life. Not to say you have to have lived everything that you perform, but it gives you a richer palette. Having kids changes your skills as a storyteller.”
Just like cricket, acting runs in his family. His grandparents were actors, as was his mother, Lucy Appleby, and now his younger brother, Ben; the siblings played Ed and David Miliband in 2010’s Miliband of Brothers. But Lloyd-Hughes says it was never a preordained path. “It wasn’t until I was 17, playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, that I got the sense I was doing something that people were really responding to.”
But his mum was instrumental in looking up auditions, while Lloyd-Hughes wrote to agents in the middle of his AS-levels. “One agreed to let me in her office. I was with her for 15 years.” An early break was playing Ravenclaw Quidditch captain Roger Davies in 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the fourth big-screen Potter outing) even though his part got cut back drastically. “I went from wearing school uniform to... wearing school uniform. Between that, The Rotters’ Club and The Inbetweeners, I didn’t get out of school uniform till I was 23.”
Potter was his first movie role, filmed straight after the Seventies-set Rotters’ Club. A rather naive Lloyd-Hughes realised too late that he was now stuck with the “Farrah Fawcett-style” Rotters hairdo for eight months of Hogwarts scenes. “It’s such a cult thing, so even though I’m barely in it, I still get sent pictures. All I can think is, ‘Oh my god, that Seventies hair!’”
Oddly, hairstyling helped him score the role of bully Mark Donovan in The Inbetweeners. “I was due to do this rap version of Cyrano de Bergerac, so I shaved my head. Then the director went AWOL and it got cancelled. But I walked into the Inbetweeners audition and they said ‘Oh yes, that’s what that character should look like.’”
It is frustrating, says Lloyd-Hughes, that some casting directors aren’t more imaginative. He was initially just seen as a posh boy, he recalls, who could only do period drama: “Another Country or Journey’s End. We can’t see him for anything contemporary.” Then those same casting directors saw him with a shaved head and said he was too contemporary for period drama.
He thinks that only casting actors in roles close to themselves is “absolute nonsense. Actors should be allowed to act. That transformative power – that’s where we all get our kicks. Let people experiment. You won’t have any Daniel Day-Lewises in the future if you say ‘This is your bracket, this is what’s expected of you.’ Can you imagine if we said ‘Anthony Hopkins can only play Welsh characters.’ You never would have had Silence of the Lambs. It’s not about putting new barriers up, it’s about dismantling as many barriers as possible.”
Lloyd-Hughes says his role as villain Aaron Peel in Killing Eve was “a dream job. I was such a fan of the first season. I’d done a few period dramas on the bounce, so it felt like a huge departure to suddenly be wearing zip-up fleeces.” He recalls going into the audition with a pair of glasses – similar to the ones he wound up wearing in the show. “Tech supremos don’t go around dressed like rock stars. They dress like a guy who works in a computer shop.”
Peel was more sinister and fascinating the more contained that Lloyd-Hughes played him, he soon discovered. “It’s probably the least I’ve ever said in a role.” He loved it so much that he “kept coming up with excuses, before my death, as to why I would reappear. ‘Twin brother?’” No dice.
What about a return to stage? Lloyd-Hughes was in the original cast of Laura Wade’s Posh, which depicted a Bullingdon Club-like Oxbridge dining club, alongside Kit Harington and James Norton. That was “a once-in-a-lifetime gig,” he says. “[Director] Lyndsey [Turner] and Laura had been working on it for five years before we turned up. In rehearsal, I remember getting handed a f---ing bible: ‘That’s your character.’”
As for the part that got away, he was dying to get involved with the Almeida’s American Psycho musical in 2013; Doctor Who’s Matt Smith wound up playing Patrick Bateman. “I paid for a music video of me singing George Michael, wearing a pinstripe suit covered in blood,” Lloyd-Hughes remembers. “I sent it to [director] Rupert Goold’s office and never got a response. Rupert, if you’re out there, I’m still waiting!”
The Irregulars is out on Netflix on March 26