Beryl Vertue: ‘Sherlock is a family affair’

Sherlocks godmother, a pioneer of independent TV production, says making things for accountants wouldnt be much fun

On Wednesday BBC1 aired the trailer for the new three-part series of hit drama Sherlock, driving social media speculation about what will happen next to Benedict Cumberbatchs detective and Martin Freemans Watson when all is revealed in January.

As Sherlock Holmes said: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth and fans are eager to discover the veracity of the rumours circulating about the show.

Co-writer Steven Moffat hinted earlier this year that this series is darker, and its executive producer, Beryl Vertue, tells the Guardian it is, a bit.

Its stunning, Im thrilled with it. Theyre three cracking episodes and I think audiences will think this is a good way to start the new year. I think its very exciting and very moving as well, and beautifully acted.

Sherlocks last outing, at the start of this year, took the festive laurels with 11.6m viewers tuning in to see the latest story in Moffat and Mark Gatisss reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles famous detective.

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With Benedict Cumberbatch at the Women in Film and Television awards. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The 90-minute special, The Abominable Bride, was released in more than 6,000 cinema screens in Asia and was seen by over 5 million people there something that may be repeated.

That in itself has been exciting, says Vertue, whose company, Hartswood Films, makes the drama. Its so loved worldwide its huge in China, Russia and Italy. This year we had our own Sherlock convention. Loads of people came from abroad just for a few days and brought bring things for Benedict and Martin theyd made.

There will probably be another UK convention next year and one is already planned for Los Angeles in May.

Vertue praises the fans, particularly the Baker Street regulars who turned up during filming and were terribly orderly with one even making 70 cupcakes for the crew, so its all lovely. Im very proud of it. its so well written and performed.

Produced by Vertues daughter Sue (Vertue says she has done amazingly well, its got a continuity about it I think) who is married to Moffat, the show is quite a family affair, says Vertue.

Youve got Steven and Sue and Im the mother-in-law and Benedicts parents are in it and Amanda [Abbington] and [her husband] Martin its lovely. My other daughter, Debbie [Hartswood director of operations], is very involved too. Its a pleasure to go to work really.

The family atmosphere, the writing and the fans response helps explain why the cast are so keen to continue, despite their hectic schedules.

I dont know when well do some more but I wouldnt say that we wont do some more because I think we probably will actually, says Vertue. But because its moved into a 90-minute format it can come as an event and people, as indeed they are here, are quite happy to wait.

It depends on everybodys availability. Martin and Benedict have become world stars and Steven and Mark are always doing things. Sherlock has become quite an industry to be honest, theres lots of merchandise which Sue personally vets so its classy. Hartswood works like that, like a family they all help each other and thats how I wanted it really.

Like the Conan Doyle short story that shares her name, The Beryl Coronet, Vertue is highly prized.

She has been given a CBE and won numerous awards including the Women in Film and TV lifetime achievement award which was presented on Friday by Cumberbatch whose mother worked with Vertue on Coupling and Men Behaving Badly. He described Vertue as Sherlocks godmother and praised her determination, fortitude and vision over the years.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> The cast of Men Behaving Badly Neil Morrissey, Leslie Ash, Martin Clunes, Caroline Quentin in 1996. Photograph: Brendan O’Sullivan/Rex

She has worked with some of televisions biggest names including Steptoe and Son creators Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock and producer, music entrepreneur and impresario Robert Stigwood. She did the contract for Daleks creator Terry Nation which gave him some rights to the Doctor Who villains.

It was the money Stigwood gave her after he wound down his organisation that enabled her to set up Hartswood in the late 1980s (named after one of the houses she had lived in) choosing Shepperton Studios for her one-man band office so it looked good on the notepaper.

For five years, she couldnt get going with anything. I began to lose confidence. I thought: I cant do it. Then I happened to see a piece of paper on a desk God mustve put it there or somebody some blurb from a publisher, and there was this book Men Behaving Badly. I thought Ill send off for that, its a funny title, it might be a film I read the book and then thought its a TV series, thats how it began.

Her story mirrors the evolution of broadcasting over the last few decades. As well as being one of the pioneers of independent production, she is credited with helping create the format deal with Till Death Us Do Part after realising that while other countries wouldnt buy the UK version, the ideas funny, Ill sell that.

She began her career typing scripts for her schoolfriend Simpson. I learned as I went along really. What I have got and Im aware of this is Im a rather logical person, and I think: well that sounds good, Ill do that. So thats what I used to do.

Her latest idea is to make a new version of Boris Pasternaks Doctor Zhivago, written by The Tudors writer Michael Hirst, whom she has long wanted to work with. The rights are held by an Italian publishing company and took months to get but her reputation helped her beat a big American company that bid more.

If we get a commitment for a series, which Im working on at the moment, Michael would write them all and that would be wonderful. Weve not quite got to that point but are moving to that area. Wed need about 16 episodes to do it really properly.

Times have changed though in that its harder to realise her vision sometimes, she says. People have become more risk-averse, theyre nervous and worrying more than they used to.

In a world of big super-indies, the family-owned Hartswood is unique.

Unsurprisingly, Vertue says, they have had quite a few offers to buy Hartswood. Then you think: no, I dont really want to do that. Weve all got a house and weve all got a car. We very much value our independence, and the minute people pay a lot of money for you you must do what they say. So youre making things for accountants if youre not careful, and thats not much fun.

You cant say never but at the moment were very happy as we are.

Sue
Sue Vertue and Steven Moffat at the Women in Film and Television awards. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex/Shutterstock
Despite beginning her career at a time when things were harder for women, she never saw herself as any different from men: There was a man on a plane and he said to me, You women and your feminism, I dont know how you think youre going to drive a 20-ton truck. I said, Well Im not sure thats my ambition. I mean, what a ludicrous thing to say.

She agrees women should be paid the same as men Hartswood does so. I think people are freer now about saying I cant do that Ive got a parents meeting people didnt used to say that.

Technology has changed a lot. We didnt have emails. Theyre lovely, emails, except theyve stopped us talking to each other, which of course is not such a good thing. And Twitter you can be president-elect and do that on Twitter now who would have thought? It sort of lowers the whole tone, doesnt it, really?

She underplays her success. You just have to work hard. Just be nice, be truthful. I think Ive got the reputation of firm but fair. I find the whole thing still ever so exciting.

CV

Age 85

Education Mitcham County School for Girls

Career

1960s Associated London Scripts, typing scripts, then agent and producer

1967 Deputy chairman of the Stigwood Organisation

1980 Founded Hartswood Films

1992 Producer, Men Behaving Badly

2000 Executive producer, Coupling

2007 Executive producer, Jekyll

2010 onwards Executive producer, Sherlock

2015 Executive producer, Lady Chatterleys Lover

2016 Awarded CBE for services to television

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/04/beryl-vertue-sherlock-is-a-family-affair-independent-tv

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