Henry Lloyd-Hughes on subverting Sherlock for ‘The Irregulars’
An interview with Henry Lloyd-Hughes about Netflix's The Irregulars and why its apocalyptic vision - and his "deconstructed Sherlock" - is all too perfect for our times...
The Irregulars is all set to be everyone’s new favourite Netflix show. It is a highly enjoyable riff on Sherlock Holmes and his young Baker Street ‘Irregulars’ which has more in common with ‘Stranger Things’ than a costume drama. One of the absolute highlights – and there are more than a few in a show packed with gruesome deaths and genius ‘look it’s the frickin’ Hound’ cameos – is Henry Lloyd-Hughes as the show’s Sherlock. More rumoured than seen until mid-season, when he arrives, he’s in a state that’s perhaps the polar opposite of the old Basil Rathbone image and even subverts Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern version. It’s an instantly impactful performance by an actor who’s been doing quality work for years in the likes of ‘The English Game’, ‘Killing Eve’ and ‘Les Miserables’. We managed to speak with Henry to find out more about the series, how he tackled Sherlock and the difficulties he’s faced during the pandemic…
Firstly, can you tell us about the show?
It’s set in a dystopian version of Victorian London, and we join a gang of misfits who live beneath a run down pub. Essentially the apocalypse is happening: things are spiralling out of control in London, people are getting murdered and all sorts of other nasty stuff. No-one can really work out what’s going on. This gang of misfits get recruited by a shady dude who lives near them to help him work out why the world is going to hell in a handcart. And that shady dude turns out to be Doctor Watson and he’s connected to another shady dude who may or may not be Sherlock Holmes and may or may not be played by me!
It’s an amazing thrill ride of a show. When you say ‘Victorian London’ people have an idea of some well-dressed men standing by a mantelpiece, smoking cigars, and patting themselves on the back for sedately having solved the greatest crime of the century. Instead, watching our show is like watching ‘The Walking Dead’, there’s people getting their eyes pecked out by birds, and all sorts of terrifying newfangled monsters in every episode. It’s a strange and hopefully entertaining hybrid of different genres – it’s a bit sci-fi, a bit horror, a bit drama, and I’m probably there on the more serious side of things with my deconstructed, hollowed-out version of Sherlock.
Given the way the show gives itself the freedom to throw anything at the setting, did that help in doing the character because you didn’t have to worry about the weight of history behind him?
That is exactly right. I get asked a lot, ‘Were you conscious about doing this like that other actor who played Sherlock Holmes?’ The reality is that the way [Writer] Tom Bidwell has served up the world of the story means it escalates so quickly into this absolute adrenaline-fuelled chaos, that I was just trying to get to grips with all the crazy stuff that was going on. I never felt encumbered by the ‘legacy’. Actually, as you say, I felt liberated to go off-piste and not hold back. That enabled us to do some quite weird stuff that hopefully for a Sherlock ‘stan’, is going to be a welcome surprise. Or even a horrifying surprise! We’re certainly going to reset the dial in terms of the emotional world of that character. And in the way you see him, and being a bit meta in the way that he examines his own myth, and his own ego. Having that stuff smashed out of you is an interesting investigation.
What kind of stuff did you do as research, you’d almost think ‘Trainspotting’ is a closer touchstone for you than the Basil Rathbone Sherlock?
Yeah someone put it on the internet years ago: in the French Connection II – Gene Hackman is such an amazing actor, and also as I’ve constantly comforted myself with, he didn’t really become an actor until he was about 45 – anyway in the French Connection II some gangsters get him hooked on a serious cocktail of drugs, and he comes off it in spectacular fashion in a lock-up. I did watch that! I’ll confess to you that I may be ripping off – no, riffing! – on the great Gene Hackman.
It was definitely more that kind of material I was interested in than anything else. I knew we were going to a different place and I needed to equip myself with what that might look like. It’s an emotional, personal, physical thing rather than historical. I’ve been in dramas before where you know so little about that period of history and something very specific is happening that you have to read loads of history books. This wasn’t the case, this was more about getting inside the head of someone.
When did you film it and what was it like?
We straddled Covid, as it were. We’re not unusual in that regard, so many productions have been through it. We would have originally wrapped in April 2020 but because of everything that happened, we went on bricks, and thought we would be on bricks for a week, but that turned into six months. We only had two weeks’ worth of material left to film, but with Covid protocol it ended up taking six weeks. It’s very unusual to be on the first series of something where people are having their year anniversary.
Covid filming is very different, and it’s much harder on the crew than the actors. The studios have to be retro-fitted with air extraction units to keep the air circulating, there’s one way systems everywhere and you have to keep your distance, obviously. But on top of that, the crew don’t get to take their masks off all day. I’m masked up but when they say ‘Action’ I get to take it off. Whereas if you’re in the lightening department you’re wearing PPE all of the working day like you would in a hospital. It’s really tough but we got through it. It’s testament to how hard everyone in this country works.
The show remind me of ‘The Great’, in the way it plays with history and expectations – is that where we are culturally, where it’s about mashing up different tones and ideas?
Two things I’d say on that. One is that audiences are always excited to feel they’re watching a format evolve. Why should people wearing period costume only be the preserve of the 9pm ITV Merchant Ivory caper – nothing wrong with that, I’ve been in those dramas and I recognise their place in the dramatic canon but at the same time I think there’s an appetite among young people especially: ‘why can’t we have that?’
The other thing I’d say is that obviously Tom Bidwell didn’t know that Covid was going to destroy the world. There is a version of the world of Sherlock Holmes in which the two iconic lead characters are really slick and have really got their shit together, and are just nailing it. But I feel like the world we are in in this show where everything is going to shit and no one knows why, and things keep getting worse and no one knows how they’re going to turn it around, somehow that is the Sherlock Holmes story that we need for now. I feel it would be a bit gross if we served up the James Bond rock n roll version. Tom’s accidently found the zeitgeist – not to take any credit away from him!
In the last few years we’ve been looking at the idea of the supersonic image of men and the reality of what they’re actually going through – is that a part of this show as well?
Yeah I think it is and I feel like that’s of much more interest to an audience now than it was a few years ago. It has some currency and relevance. And with everyone being stuck in their house for a year, who hasn’t been wrestling with their own internal ego or frustrations or limitations or insecurities? I feel like maybe this version of a well-known hero will open up a new era of introspective heroes. Batman sitting on the therapist’s couch! I do think it’s interesting and for me as an actor I always struggled when I’d be sent a script where the character would have do some sort of activity, like dance or something, and it always just so happened that the character was amazing at it. I’m always drawn to people who can’t do things – I immediately have an in, because I’m not someone who is naturally good at anything! When I’m looking for characters, the more adept he is the more I’m like, ‘I don’t know about this guy, he seems phoney.’ The less capable he is the more I’m like, ‘I really believe it.’ To all the script writers: write me a deeply unfunny, un-charming, untalented individual, and I’ll say, ‘This is genius!’
How have you found the past year personally?
Absolutely terrible, it’s definitely been the worst. I don’t suffer from clinical depression, my resting place is not naturally blue – but when a series of deeply upsetting things happen in a short space of time, like any human being I can get compressed and feel like the least good version of myself.
Elvis – I don’t know if he really said this – but apparently he said the secret to happiness is ‘someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.’ Those are the three things that you need. When the pandemic went from bad to worse, so much of the apparatus and escape that we use in our lives to make the tough bits bearable, got removed. I’ve had two small kids stuck in the house for many, many months. My youngest has spent the majority of her life in lockdown, has never been to a playgroup. For a large swathe of time the playgrounds weren’t even open, they were chained up. The absolute claustrophobia, the financial pressures… not unlike most of the people in this country, I felt myself reduced, shrunk.
The aspects of my job that are the least enjoyable are doing everything remotely, sending off audition tapes, totally in isolation, never seeing a real person. Only experiencing the most removed, virtual form of rejection which is part and parcel of my job, but normally its watered down by the human experience. Feeling I may not have got the job but I connected and contributed something. Spending a year just sending off tapes into the void…’Am I an actor? Did I dream this?’ A lot of people are having a really tough time in this industry.
Also from a health point of view, I had Covid quite badly, and I ended up in hospital having my heart checked out. The doctor said, “What I really need you to do is get loads of rest, try and relax.” Then one or more child goes through a sleep regression and you end up sleeping on the sofa for 3 months. When I went back in September to finish off this show, my lovely make-up artist Lucy Sibbick who won an Oscar for the Churchill film, said ‘Oh my word you’ve gone so much more grey in lockdown.’ I started 2020 with about 5% grey and I ended 2020 about 25%
What are you looking forward to as we come out of this? Have you re-evaluated things?
It’s weird to imagine what one could take from this very specific set of circumstances going forward. The blind optimist in me would like to think it’ll turn into ‘Well that was a really grim couple of years, thank god it was never that shit again.’ But I don’t know. I’m committed to ‘The Irregulars’ and in a holding pattern with that, on the career side. But personally, I don’t know. One of the positive notes is being in close proximity to the people I love means I’ve ended up reaching new levels of understanding and depth in those relationships. That will serve us well.
When you have something taken away you realise all the things you took for granted. Being able to play cricket with my cricket team that’s a simple pleasure made much harder. Those little interactions you have, the full spectrum of social experiences that we as human beings use. We fill our lives with little coffees and sandwiches and meetings and the occasional drink. I think the thing that I’m most desperate to filter back in is bumping into someone in Soho and getting a drink. All of the informality of life, the improvised nature of it has been taken away, everything has to be very clinical, with a real formula to it. I can’t wait to have that back.
So you’ve scratched off Sherlock in the iconic roles, who’s next?
Here’s my pitch: James Bond, but we reboot it to the Sixties. Take all the modern tech out of it, so it’s like Mad Men, and I basically Connery it.
I am a colossal fan of Daniel Craig as an actor and of James Bond, but there’s that bit in ‘Skyfall’ where he gets the old car and goes to Scotland, and that to me was the best bit since ‘Goldeneye’ – the computer game! Like what we’re talking about before, the more adept a person is the lower the jeopardy. So you need to take Bond and strip him down to a lighter, a gun, and a car from the Sixties with a double clutch. Like the first level of a computer game. Let’s do that. Tell Barbara Broccoli.
And finally, why should people watch The Irregulars?
Because it’s so apocalyptic it’ll make the real apocalypse seem ok!
The Irregulars is streaming on Netflix from 26th March.
Main photo: Photographer – Joseph Sinclair; Stylist – Manny Lago; Groomer – Shamirah Sairally
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