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Steven Moffat Explains the Origins of Sherlock’s Best-Man Speech

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, John Watson and Mary Morstan get married between adventures — off-camera, so to speak. Steven Moffat, the executive producer of Sherlock, tells Vulture that he never much cared for that storytelling decision. “I remember being a 12-year-old kid thinking, Oh, why didn’t we see Sherlock be the best man? Please, can we see that? That would be the best story in the whole world, and I don’t care if there’s a crime in it or not, because it must have been the best and worst speech of all time!” he says.

Fast-forward a few decades, and Moffat finally got to realize his childhood wish, with an episode built around Sherlock’s toast at Watson's wedding. Moffat, who has served as a best man himself three times (as well as a groom twice), says he’d been considering for years how the detective’s tribute to his friend might have gone down had Conan Doyle chosen to depict it; unlike Molly and Mrs. Hudson, he figured the speech would be heartfelt — even if it contained a good number of awkward moments (e.g., a comparison of John and Mary’s wedding to “the death-watch beetle that is the doom of our society and, in time, one feels certain, our entire species”).

“I thought what Sherlock would do,” says Moffat, “is he’d sit there and think, Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right cock-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So, I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely. And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate — he wouldn’t let his mate down. I think he paced all night to make sure it was moving.” (Production designer Arwel Jones confirms as much, by pointing out that the proof of Sherlock’s real feelings can be found throughout last night’s episode, “The Sign of Three”: If you look closely in the background of Sherlock’s apartment, for example, there’s a model of the wedding venue, and on his laptop there are drafts for the design of the wedding stationery. “He loves John, and he’s a control freak, so he’s actually very involved with the wedding planning,” says Jones.)

But first, Holmes kicked off his speech in spectacular train-wreck fashion:

All emotions — in particular, love — stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

And then, the backhanded compliment to John, which Moffat says he paraphrased from Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”:

If I burden myself with a little help mate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

As Moffat puts it, that’s merely Sherlock “bullshitting.” “He always is. He doesn’t think that at all. He doesn’t think any of those things, but he wants to think that he does, just as he wants to think he’s a high-functioning sociopath,” says Moffat. “He’s not a sociopath, nor is he high-functioning. He’d really like to be a sociopath. But he’s so fucking not. The wonderful drama of Sherlock Holmes is that he’s aspiring to this extraordinary standard. He is at root an absolutely ordinary man with a very, very big brain. He’s repressed his emotions, his passions, his desires, in order to make his brain work better — in itself, a very emotional decision, and it does suggest that he must be very emotional if he thinks emotions get in the way. I just think Sherlock Holmes must be bursting!”

And Holmes does get to the bursting point, finally, when the speech turns to some sincere words for Watson:

The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship. But as I am apparently your best friend, I cannot congratulate you on your choice of companion.

Actually, now I can. Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss — so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John...

Moffat admits to tearing up while writing that last bit. “I loved writing the speech, and I don’t normally cry when I’m writing,” he says. “I don’t cry at all unless my finger’s trapped in something. I didn’t even cry when I wrote Amy and Rory’s good-bye in Doctor Who. Sadness doesn’t make me cry. I think a simple expression of devotion probably does.”

Photo: BBC