Sherlock’s Amanda Abbington weighs in on the premiere, and on playing the divisive Mary Watson.
Jace Lacob (Jace): Have you seen the Sherlock Season 4 premiere yet? If you answered, “Yes” we feel your pain. If you answered, “No,” don’t listen on until after you’ve watched.
MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Viking Cruises. See the world differently by exploring differently. Learn more at vrc.com.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Mary Watson surprised us for the first time in Sherlock Season 3.
Turns out, the witty, sweet-tempered lady we thought we knew had a bloody past. And, in a desperate attempt to keep her secrets, well…secret, Mary shot Sherlock, nearly killing him and breaking up her and John’s marriage in the process.
John: Perfect. So that’s what you were, an assassin? How could I not see that?
Mary: You did see that.
Jace: Now, Mary has surprised us for the second time.
At the end of the Season 4 premiere, the ex-assassin turned wife and mother took a bullet intended for Sherlock Holmes.
Mary: Look after Rosie. Promise me.
John: I promise. Yes, I promise.
Jace: But in a show where supposedly dead characters have come back to life on more than one occasion, is it possible that Mary will follow in their footsteps?
Amanda: No, no, she’s definitely dead.
Jace: Today, actor Amanda Abbington looks back on the past three years she has spent playing Mary Watson, and looks ahead to a Mary-less future.
This week we are joined by Sherlock star Amanda Abbington. Welcome.
Amanda Abbington (Amanda): Hello, how are you? (Laughs)
Jace: Good. How are you?
Amanda: I’m very well, thank you. Very much alive, so that’s good.
Jace: Yes! So, my first question isn’t actually a question, but a comment, and it’s more, “No!”
Amanda: (Laughs) I think that’s what the general feeling was. When we went to the screenings of them, that was the general feeling with the press and everything. They were floored by the fact that quite a main character just got quite so easily bumped off, but she was always going to die, because it’s Mary Morstan, and she dies in the book. So, she had to pop her clogs, so they did it in a very dramatic way, which was brilliant.
Jace: So, how and when did you learn that Mary Watson was going to be killed off in “The Sixth Thatchers?”
Amanda: I knew when I had a meeting with Steven and Mark about eight months before or something like that. And they said to me, “She dies in the first episode quite tragically.”
Actually, what they did say was that… Because at that time they said they don’t know whether to do it in a very dramatic way or to have her just walk in front of a bus, and just be really arbitrary.
Amanda: But they thought the drama made more sense, because it’s quite a high voltage show, so walking in front of bus probably would have been a bit of an anti-climax.
Jace: Yeah, so when you passed down and read Mark Gatiss’s script for that episode, I mean, what was your initial, sort of, visceral reaction to that scene?
Amanda: I was just thrilled that I would get to play that scene, because it’s such an amazing build up. Reading it… Yeah. I think I got very upset, I think I cried, because it’s such a… It’s beautifully written, as well, when she says, “Look after Rosie for me.” And as a mother myself, that was very easy to turn on the tears at that point, because she’s losing her baby and the love of her life. So, yeah.
It was a good scene to shoot, that. We spent two days doing it in Cardiff and it was fantastic.
Jace: And Mary finally reveals her true identity, Rosamund Mary, the same name as her daughter’s, to John, and says…
Mary: Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.
Jace: What was it like shooting that death scene in Cardiff, as you just mentioned?
Amanda: It was very moving. I think, when this is out, it’ll already be out. Martin and I split up back in March, so doing that was very emotional, because we were going through the beginnings of our breakup, so it added more emotion to it. But actually, we’re best mates, so it was very… It’s easy to work with Martin. You know, he’s one of my favorite actors and I love him dearly, so doing that stuff with him is always a joy, and very exciting, yeah. But devastating, you know, cause it’s a tough old scene to shoot saying all that, because it’s deep and meaningful stuff, I think.
Mary: John, I think this is it.
John: No, no, no. It’s not. It’s… Jeez.
Mary: You made me so happy. You gave me everything I could ever, ever want.
John: Mary, Mary. Shh…
Jace: What is the life and death, I think, of that moment of her looking back on the life she finally was able to achieve, a cobbled together, fake life, as it might be, but it was perhaps the best version of Mary?
Amanda: Oh, I think it was definitely the best version of Mary. I think, she’d finally found peace, and she’d finally found solace, and the fact that it was taken away from her very cruelly, and sort of… Yeah, I think it’s heartbreaking, but I don’t think it’s lost on her that that was her happiest time, I think. You know, and I think, also, if I was- because I kind of have my own private backstory of Mary, and in my head, she didn’t have a particularly happy upbringing, which is why she turned to what she did, and decided to do what she did. So, that adds weight to the fact that this life she had with John and Sherlock was more meaningful, and had more substance than anything she’d done in her past.
Jace: I mean, given the fact that Sherlock faked his own death, Moriarty may have done the same, though I think that would be impossible…
Jace: What do you make of theories that Mary has attempted something similar?
Jace: She went in there with squibs loaded under her blouse.
Amanda: No, no, she’s definitely dead. She’s definitely dead (laughs).
Amanda: Mary’s dead. Yeah, she has to. That’s the other thing, you know. As I said, you know, Mary has a finite life. She has to die. She dies in the books and it would seem silly to carry on her character in the show, because you want to stay true to the canon of Conan Doyle.
And she had a brilliant time in the show, you know. She came, and she caused mayhem and shot Sherlock, and then redeemed herself at the end. And I think it’s a brilliant story arc for her. And she’s a really strong character, I think. And I think it’s very brave that she has been killed off the way she has. I love it, I love it.
Jace: Putting aside any theatrics, Mary could always return in a flashback. Does “The Sixth Thatchers” mark your final episode on Sherlock?
Amanda: Ah, that’s the thing. I remember Andrew Scott saying to me- I saw Andrew Scott a couple weeks ago, we were talking about Sherlock and he said, “The thing you have to remember about being on Sherlock, Amanda, is that you never leave, because the way Mark and Steven write is that they’ll always do flashbacks and things will always be picked up from years ago.” So, he said, “That’s the beauty of being in Sherlock, is that you’ll always be invited back at some point.” And it’s true, you know. It’s such a fantastic show for that; they can pick up any story thread and just, like, go back to wherever. You know, we went to the Victorian period, and things like that. So, that’s the beauty of being in Sherlock is that you don’t actually ever really leave. It’s like the Mafia (laughs).
Jace: (Laughs) You thought you were out and they pulled you back in.
Amanda: Yeah, pulled me back in (laughs).
Jace: (Laughs) Now, Mary’s quite a divisive character in the novels and among a certain subset of fans. Were you concerned ahead of time that she’d be seen as an interloper in John and Sherlock’s relationship?
Amanda: Absolutely. I mean, I always said that I don’t think she… For me, she was never divisive between John and Sherlock. She was never going be a divisive character between them, but I wanted her to be a divisive character for the audience, because it’s far more interesting when people hate you as well as love you. I think, you know you’re doing something right if an audience is divided. So, I wanted her to be divisive for the audience. I never wanted her to be divisive between John and Sherlock, because that was very, very important that they both liked her and that they got on together, and she didn’t ever split them up or try and get in between them.
But, you know, I think it’s great that people hate Mary. I think it’s (laughs) you know, it’s brilliant. It means I’m doing my job properly, because who wants a vanilla character? Nobody wants somebody who’s just boring. You don’t want to watch somebody who’s just pedestrian and boring. You want somebody to shake things up a bit. And if she’s making people hate her, that’s great. And if she’s making people love her, it’s equally brilliant. And I think, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if people just went, “Meh, okay. Well she’s there.”
Jace: Yeah, boring is not the adjective I’d use to describe Mary Watson.
Amanda: No, thank you. No, I don’t think she is at all. I think, you know, she’s multi faceted, and she’s flawed. And that’s what I love. I think flawed characters are so much more interesting to watch.
Jace: Before our next question, a brief message from our sponsors.
MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Farmers Insurance and their eighty-eight years of experience, helping people so that they can prepare for the unexpected. They know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two. Find an experienced agent at farmers.com.
MASTERPIECE Studio is also brought to you by Viking Cruises, exploring the world in comfort. Learn more at vrc.com
Jace: And we’re back with Amanda Abbington.
Amanda: Hello (laughs).
Jace: Over the course of the third season, Mary Morstan, who becomes Mary Watson, undergoes an enormous transformation once the truth about her past is revealed. What did you make of Mary when you read the scripts initially, and did you know her secret in advance of “His Last Vow?”
Amanda: Well, I always knew that she… I didn’t know she was gonna be an assassin. So, when Steven and Mark told me that I’d be playing Mary and the story arch for the third series, they said, “She’s got a very dark secret, which you find out in Episode 3,” but I didn’t know what it was until we got Episode 3.
But I like the fact that I didn’t know that she was gonna be a highly trained assassin, because I think I would have played it slightly differently. I would have played it more knowing. And actually it was quite nice that she was this… You thought she was a very sweet-natured, young woman, as opposed to this mild maniac, psychopath.
Amanda: (Laughs) So, when you’re hit with it in the third episode, when she turns around and she faces Sherlock and she says, “Is John with you?” you see that shift of, “Oh, she’s like a cold blooded killer. That’s interesting. Okay, that’s another thing that we can layer on and watch.”
Jace: And I love the call back to that moment in “The Sixth Thatchers” where she apologizes for shooting Sherlock in “His Last Vow.”
Amanda: (Laughs) Yeah.
Jace: She balances the scales almost by taking a bullet meant for him. What did you make of that moment?
Amanda: Well, that’s what I thought. That’s what I thought. In a split second, I think she knew that she needed to redeem herself. And I think that she didn’t think about the repercussions that she would die.
Somebody asked me… Actually, it was was really interesting, somebody said the other day about, “What do you think went through her head because she has a child. And don’t you think that it was really careless that she did that, because she’s got a daughter?” And I remember saying, “Well, I think, you just do it, you know? If somebody looks like they’re gonna get shot, what do you do? You move them out the way.”
So, that’s what I had in my head, that she didn’t want him to die or she didn’t want him to get shot again under her watch, because she was there, so she pushes him out the way and she takes the bullet.
But I don’t think she did it in order for herself to get shot. I think it was just an accident. You know, she just got hit by the bullet. I don’t think she planned on sacrificing her own life. I think she just wanted to move him out the way and she got caught in the crossfire.
Jace: I mean, if she did have time to think, do you think she would have perhaps changed her mind?
Amanda: I don’t know. I like to think she would have done it anyway.
And I think maybe on some subconscious level, that’s what she wants to do; she wants to make it right with him, because what she did in the third episode in the third series was crazy. So, I think, maybe on some subconscious level, she did want to redeem herself and be a better person, you know.
Jace: I mean, she shoots him, albeit not fatally, as a means of a diversion for an escape. It’s only later that we learn that she called 999 and saved his life. What does that say about her character now that we’ve reached the end of her arc?
Amanda: Well, I think underneath everything, all the stuff that she has done, underneath she is a good person. I do. Personally, I think she’s a good person. She’s just incredibly flawed. And I think, you know, she… I still try and work out why she shot him. I still think, “Well, I wonder what did she…? Was it ‘cause she needed to get away or she needed to…?”
Jace: I mean, to me it’s about survival. Everything she has done…
Jace: …has been about surviving.
Amanda: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I think it’s… What I think it is is it’s just a short hand now that that’s what she does. That’s her way of getting out of stuff is to just do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. And she didn’t want to explain, so she shoots him, gets out, dials 999, and so he gets saved. So, she knows he’s gonna be okay, but she needs to get out of there, yeah. I mean that’s probably my theory, I think.
Jace: True or False: The gun that Mary uses to shoot Sherlock was the same prop gun used by Daniel Craig in Skyfall?
Amanda: It’s true.
Amanda: (Laughs) Apparently it’s true, yeah. That’s what our firearms guy, Lee, told me. He said, “It’s the same one that Daniel Craig used.” And I was all over that, then. I was like, “Oh my God.” I was James Bond for the day.
Jace: Jane Bond.
Amanda: I was Jane Bond. Yeah, I was.
Amanda: I felt like a 007, yeah.
Jace: I love Mary and Sherlock’s rapport. They’re almost birds of a feather, these two, with John in the middle of them. What do you make of Mary and Sherlock’s bond?
Amanda: I think they are kindred spirits. I do. I think, they’re very, very similar. I think she sees his flaws and she sees his potential, and so does he. He just, you know, he likes her. And he doesn’t like many people, and he certainly doesn’t like many women. So, I think, he’s surprised by that and he likes the fact that they get on.
Also, but I think John, you know… All three of them, and I keep using this word because I think they are, they’re all flawed. John craves danger. Craves it. Sherlock’s a high functioning sociopath, and Mary’s an assassin. So, they are drawn to each other, and they have this lovely union together. And that’s what’s so lovely about their friendship is that they get each other. And I think it’s really interesting to watch that.
Jace: We’re not privy to Mary and John’s courtship. Did you and Martin ever discuss how they would have met and fallen in love?
Amanda: No, we didn’t actually. We never did, because it was so… Because it was on the page, as it were, because the writing is so brilliant, we didn’t really need to talk about a backstory. I think we probably said, “Oh, they maybe had met at the, you know… She was a receptionist or a nurse, so she worked at the GP’s place where he did, and maybe that’s how they got together.”
But it was never a hard and fast rule that we decided they had a backstory together. I just like the fact that you suddenly see them and they’re together, and you can form your own backstory, if you like. I think the viewer can form their own backstory as to how and when they met, really.
Jace: Now, when we first meet Mary, she’s a receptionist with a penchant for skip codes.
Jace: We find out she’s an international assassin. And then, she becomes pregnant and becomes a mother. How does that change Mary and how do you see her arc as a whole now?
Amanda: (Laughs) I don’t think it does change Mary. I don’t think it does because she’s… Like when they turn up with the bloodhound, she has got Rosamund with her and she gives her to John, and she’s like…
Mary: Don’t wait up. Hey, Sherlock.
John: Mary, what are you doing here?
Sherlock: She’s better at this than you.
Sherlock: So I texted her.
John: Hang on, Mary’s better than me?
Sherlock: Well she is a retired super agent with a terrifying skill set; of course she’s better.
Amanda: I think she’s a great mother. I don’t think it comes to her easily. But I think she does love her, and she’s trying to be a good mother, but I think, she craves the adventure and she craves the excitement, as they all do. So, I don’t think being a mother changes her at all, to be honest. I think she still wants to do what she wants to do.
Jace: W.C. Fields famously said, “Never work with animals or children.” And you do both in this episode with some baby actors playing Rosie, and an enormous Bloodhound. Which was harder?
Amanda: The Bloodhound.
Amanda: The Bloodhound was so much harder, because it didn’t do anything. It just didn’t do anything. It just sat there. We had to get another Bloodhound the next day, because the initial Bloodhound just wouldn’t walk. So, we had a scene where we’re in Borough Market, we’re filming in Borough Market, and the trainer said to us, “Yeah, he doesn’t really like crowds, and he doesn’t really like concrete, and he doesn’t …” So, he just sat on the floor. And then, one of the props guys had to get like a piece of stick, and I had to pretend that he was pulling me along, so that it would look like I was being pulled along by a dog, but actually I was being pulled along by a props guy.
Amanda: And then, on the second day we got another Bloodhound, and he was useless as well. Very sweet, you know, very affectionate, but didn’t do anything. So, Steven and Mark, about half 7 at night, we were wrapping about 8:15, something like that, they wrote a scene on the pavement. And that’s the scene outside the telephone box where we say, “He’s not moving.”
John: He’s not moving.
Sherlock: He’s thinking.
John: He’s really not moving.
Sherlock: Slow but sure, John, not dissimilar to yourself.
Amanda: That was because the Bloodhound wouldn’t do what we wanted to do, so that scene was a scene written in about 10 minutes by Steven and Mark, because we didn’t know what else to do, because the Bloodhound was utterly useless, both of them.
Amanda: But the babies were great. The babies were fine.
Jace: Do you have a favorite scene from the series to date?
Amanda: Out of all of them?
Jace: All of them. All of your scenes.
Amanda: All of my scenes? I like the final scene in “The Six Thatchers.” I like my death scene, that’s good. And I like the scene… I think it’s “The Last Vow.” Is it “Last Vow?” Can’t remember now. Well anyway, where I’m on the bed, and John’s shaving, and he says, “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” And I said, “You should put that on a t-shirt.” That was one of my favorite scenes to film.
Amanda: And I did actually… I’ll tell you what I loved filming, because it’s so unbelievably camp and ridiculous, was the scene in “The Six Thatchers” when I’m on the plane as the American woman dressed up.
Stewardess: Everything okay, madam?
Mary: No, no it’s not, but what’s the use in complaining. I hear a squeaking. Probably the wing will come off is all.
Amanda: (Laughs) That was just like totally ridiculous. And I’ll tell you why that’s in, because Mark Gatiss- because I do loads of accents and voices and things. I do silly voices all the time with him. We always do ridiculous voices whenever we see each other. And he said, “I’m gonna write you some in.” And he’d written a German accented one as well, but we didn’t have time to do it. So, he just wanted… He basically did that just because he wanted me to do an American accent, just a silly American accent. So, that’s why that’s there. No other reason, than just Mark wanted me to an accent.
Jace: But you know now we’re gonna have to ask you to do the accent.
Amanda: (Laughs) No, because, look. America’s listening, and I don’t… I really like Americans and I want them to like me (laughs).
Jace: But it’s so funny, and it’s so over the top. It’s great.
Amanda: [American accent] It really, really, is. Okay, so, listen. Here we go (laughs).
Amanda: I’m so sorry. I can do a better one than that, I promise. I’m really sorry. I apologize to America.
Jace: That was amazing.
Amanda: Please don’t hate me (laughs).
Jace: That was amazing.
Jace: So, I want to play a quick game.
Amanda: Go on then. Oh, I’m not very good at games (laughs).
Jace: It’s gonna be about the next episode, “The Lying Detective.”
Jace: If “The Lying Detective” were an adjective, what would it be?
Amanda: Uh, it would be… “If ‘The Lying Detective’ was an adjective…?” It would be dangerous.
Jace: Dangerous. If it were a body part, what would it be?
Jace: Teeth. If it were a cast member from a Real Housewives franchise, who would it be?
Amanda: Bethenny Frankel.
Jace: (Laughs) You were way, way, way too quick with that.
Amanda: (Laughs) I know. I love her, she’s brilliant.
Jace: (Laughs) And apparently you do watch a lot of Real Housewives, is that true?
Amanda: I do, I love it. I love Real Housewives of New York and L.A. Is it? The Hollywood one. Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills.
Jace: Beverly Hills, yes.
Amanda: Love those two. It’s incredible.
Jace: As a child, you wanted to be a professional dancer before an injury sidelined you at 16. How has dancing influenced your career?
Amanda: Oh, it’s influenced me a lot, yeah. I think dancing does. It’s a definitely different type of discipline– that’s lots of D’s. But it is, it’s… I have a very good work ethic, I think; I knuckle down, and I think it’s because I used to dance a lot when I was a kid and when I was in my early teens, and late teens, and twenties.
So… Yeah. And also, it gives you a good posture, and it gives you a good feeling for just being aware of your body and being aware of how you use it on screen and in the theatre. You know, you become more aware of how to adapt your body to certain characters. So, it’s very good for keeping up your mental agility and your physical agility.
Jace: Well, it’s interesting, I think, once we learn the truth about Mary, her physicality changes considerably.
Jace: And it’s much more sort of… I don’t know, intimidating, than Mary Watson.
Jace: And just… I thought it was an amazing transformation. I do think it is…
Amanda: Oh did you? Thank you. It was, sort of, premeditated. I did want to do that. I wanted her to be more snake-like, if you like. Just more sinewy and more on the front foot when everybody knew who she was, as opposed to this fairly fluffy, sweet, and mild-mannered girl, which she was before. So, I’m glad that came across, because I wasn’t sure if it did. That was just for me, but if you noticed it, then that’s brilliant (laughs).
Jace: I did notice. I noticed it.
Amanda: Oh, that’s fantastic. Thank you, I’m so pleased. My work here is done. That’s great (laughs).
Jace: “The Abominable Bride” took home an Emmy award in September for Best Television Movie, which was a high point for the evening as, while you were on stage, your purse was stolen.
Amanda: (Laughs) I know! I know!
Jace: Did you ever recover it?
Amanda: No, I didn’t. I didn’t. I never found it. It literally vanished. It went, and I have no idea where it went. It was crazy. Put it under my seat, told it would be fine, “Fine. You can leave it there,” came back, gone. It’s all gone.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s what it was.
Luckily, see, we had to have a piece of identification to take with us to go an HBO party afterwards, and I’d put my passport in, and then I thought, “I won’t take that, because if anything happens I want to go home.” So, I took my passport out and put my driver’s license in, but if I had left my passport in, it would have been a whole different story.
Jace: You would have still been here in L.A. We would have been doing this in person, then.
Amanda: I would, yes, absolutely. I would still be there, and I’d have bought a house, and I’d be living there now.
Jace: (Laughs) So, let’s get Sherlock Holmes on the case, then. Find…
Amanda: Yeah, let’s do it.
Jace: …find this purse.
Amanda: If anyone can, he can. Let’s face it.
Jace: What will you take away from your experience on the show?
Amanda: Oh, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever done, because I got to work with my partner, as well, which was brilliant. And he’s still my best mate, and we still get on. And so that’s… It’s really nice. And I got to hang out with Ben and Andrew. And I’ve made friends on it that I will have for life, you know, like Una, and Loo Brealey, and Laura.
It’s a really lovely place to be and go to work. There’s worse places to go to work, and it has been roller coaster from start to finish. It’s one of my favorite jobs ever.
Jace: The Sherlock roller coaster continues next week with “The Lying Detective” airing Sunday Jan. 8th, at 9 pm ET on MASTERPIECE, and streaming online.
Start your year off right by subscribing to the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and while you’re there, leave us a rating or write us a review.
Also, enter the MASTERPIECE 2017 Sweepstakes between now and March 15, 2017 for a chance to travel to the UK – and more. Go to pbs.org/sweepstakes for prizes and details.
And finally, new year, new credits… Our editor, Kathy Tu, is flying the coop to work at WNYC on her own podcast, Nancy, which will be coming out later this year.
A big “Thank You” to Kathy for all of her work this past year, and a shout out to our new editor, Elisheba Ittoop.
Welcome to the team, Elisheba, and welcome to the credits.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Rachel Aronoff. This episode was edited by Kathy Tu with help from Elisheba Ittoop and Paul Sanni. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises, Farmers Insurance, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.
Sign up to get the latest news on your favorite shows like Victoria, Sherlock and Poldark, exclusive content, video, sweepstakes and more.