Sunday 8 January 2012

Violinist Eos Chater write up of coaching Benedict Cumberbatch on playing the violin

Sherlock on the Fiddle

Sherlock’s violin
It’s weird being in a flat that you recognise off of the telly. Especially when that flat is 221B Baker street, belongs to Sherlock Holmes and is basically a life sized doll’s house, on scaffolding in a hangar, in Cardiff. It’s like Sherlock Holmes goes 3D interactive. You can walk through it, pick stuff up, sniff things, walk behind things. You don’t because that would probably make important people shout at you. But you could. 
 “and… Action”
 Sherlock Holmes is standing in his living room, playing a Bach piece in the mirror. I study his movements, his bow-arm and his fingers. He is interrupted by someone coming into the room. He stops playing and talks. I take a few paces back into the kitchen- no longer needing to be so close…there are what look like antique test tubes and flasks on the table as though someone has been doing a chemistry experiment- there are some plates in the old stainless steel sink, dishcloths hanging from the angular 50s cupboards. This is a very lived in flat and someone needs to do the washing up.
 I am here as Benedict Cumberbatch’s violin coach and today they’re filming scenes for The Reichenbach Fall, the third and final episode of Sherlock series two.
 I step in to give encouragement and make some tweaks - Benedict smiles, ‘was that ok?’ (it was) and then when I give a tip he consumes it entirely. Information is his quarry and it shall not escape him. No wonder he’s such a good Sherlock.
  It was David Arnold  (the composer on Sherlock along with Michael Price)  who had asked me to be Benedict’s violin coach. I was of course thrilled and more than a little excited to meet him for the first time, at Air Lyndhurst studios. We were sitting outside in the sun and Benedict strode up, motorbike gear on, helmet in hand… but I managed not to show my excitement too much- I might have glowed my underarms a bit damp but it was a hot day, so that could be forgiven…
 A lot of the lesson is spent on stance and hand positions and trying to work out how much of the Bach piece he would need to learn, timing it with his reading of the script.
 I lend him my spare violin to use for practice and as he attaches his own leather belt to it as a strap and slings it over his shoulders, I realise that violins look much more cool when worn by bikers.
 Lesson over, he offers me a lift to the station ON HIS BIKE.  I momentarily entertain the idea of agreeing, letting him take me to the station, waving him goodbye, and then walking the 10 mins back up the hill again to drive my own car home…but sense prevails.
 He’s very quick- he’s very focused. He’s not at all a muppet. And he’s a real perfectionist. Not content to just look convincing, he wants to sound convincing too- and despite not playing any instruments he’s very musical.
Unfortunately, the sound of beginner violin is not one suited to the musically appreciative ear. I think it might be one reason why almost all professional violinists started when they were around 5yrs old. It’s not the years. It’s the abilty to saw away perfectly content to be making such a horrific noise.  Older people just can’t bear the inevitably horrendous catawauling of the early years and they give up before they’ve got to the bit where it stops sounding like the results of a chance mating between a cat and a parakeet. To learn the violin is to become an expert in delayed gratification.

Benedict had a week,  and made a surprisingly good sound. I have no doubt he would be a good violinist if he had the inclination.
 I send him MPEGs of me playing the pieces so that he can practice using those, between lessons.

 The Bach extract I taught him was for The Reichenbach Fall, the third episode of Sherlock 2- and now I had been invited back for the first episode “Scandal in Belgravia’ in which there is, I am told, a fair amount of violin.
 Most of the tunes are well known -We Wish You a Merry Christmas, God save the Queen, Auld Lang Syne.. (  ‘must be set in July’ I thought) and one is to be a new theme which David Arnold will write. He is in America- so being him- he writes it from the Grand Canyon and sends me the recording, which I transcribe and learn. It’s a beautiful and forlorn melody. I hope I can do it justice whilst still sounding like Sherlock playing the violin.
 The score is the last thing to be written, so I choose the key of the known pieces so that they are the most easily playable on the violin, involving the fewest string and hand position changes.
I base all the known tunes around the same sort of hand position to make it easier to learn- I also keep all the bows separate- so a new note is a new bow. Not how you’d do it musically perhaps, but Sherlock is a keen amateur rather than a professional and keeping it simple is the key to making it look convincing; something I have to keep in mind a lot in the recordings.
 I record the guide pieces and deliver them on a dongle to Steve Moffat (writer extraordinaire) by hand at a read-through, which is taking place in a very unlikely and pleasingly disheveled location in central London. This feels exciting. Because it is.
 The producer, and Steven Moffat’s wife, Sue Vertue offers for me to sit in on the read through. I decline because I don’t want no spoilers, yeah? It is for this same reason that I have only scan-read the script for mentions of violin while trying to ignore all plot lines.
 By now I had given Ben two lessons. Now is his third and final lesson.
I was becoming familiar with his laser focus, and his ‘locked onto target’ eyes, when it’s best  to stand back and leave him to work it out for himself. Having been told once, he knows when and where he’s making mistakes, then he drills and drills until they are smoothed out- any tweaks from me while he’s in this process would be more of a distraction than a help.
 He pays a lot of attention to the way to handle a violin, “how would you lift it to your chin?’, “How would you play around with the bow?”, “Which way would I put it down on a chair?” and he practices and practices each component until he looks and feels totally at ease with the violin.
 Our time is nearly up and everyone else has gone home, except for a cleaner, who comes into the room, bucket in hand and backs out apologising. Benedict apologises to her for using the room longer than she had expected, and does so with such grace and charm that I more than anything am glad to be coaching such a lovely human being. We pack up so that she can do her job and go home too.

I get the shooting schedule through. Violin is needed from Tuesday- Saturday- so I head down to Cardiff for the week. 

I’m called for 12.30 on the first day- but I am woken by a phonecall at 8 asking if i can be there in 20 mins.I say yes of course and then scrabble around frantically trying to a) wakeup b) get dressed c) wake up.
 Once there I am taken directly to ‘the stage’  ie the large hangar type thing that the set is in. It’s very dark- with people huddled around monitors, scrutinising every stray lock of hair, moved prop etc. Sherlock’s co-creators and writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are there. Mark also plays Mycroft and is all dappered up in his costume.
 In the big scheme of things the violin isn’t that big a deal at all- but the production value on this being as high as it is, attention is given to every detail… I feel the responsibility of “violin department’ on my shoulders. Maybe it’s just my excitement at the novelty but it feels as though there is a real buzz on set; the awareness that something exceptional is being made. There are pictures and letters from Sherlock fans pinned up near the monitors, the hushed silence of the takes themselves punctuated by the hive-like bustle and activity of the turn-arounds, when the camera tracks are dismantled and re-laid, lights moved, props tweaked, air con units powered up.
some of the fan mail 
I go and stand on set, (ie in Sherlock’s living room/hallway or kitchen, 221B Baker Street) when he’s doing a scene with the violin in as he sometimes has questions between takes.
 Often, between scenes, his only moments of rest, he asks for lessons. He really is a hard worker. One time I’m giving him a lesson on the side of set, in the dark, dodging crew hefting lights around- with him dressed IN A BED SHEET. This is fine I tell myself. TOTALLY FINE.

Amazingly, they are also shooting scenes which don’t involve the violin (IMAGINE!?) during which, I sit around watching the monitors and getting to know some of the cast and crew. I also get into a bit of a loop with Martin Freeman -who plays John Watson:  He is the master of comic timing and understatement. He has an exceptionally expressive face, which you’d know if you’d seen him- which of course you have- he’s Martin Freeman for god’s sake. What’s wrong with you???
 We pass each other a lot during each day- our exchange goes as follows;
‘hello’..[tight-lipped smile; look to the floor] .
 This happens between 3 and five times a day. After the third day it starts getting a bit, well… hello-y. He breaks this run of helloing by asking me about the violin, where I’m from and being all jokey. . I say something that is supposed to be complementary but comes out a bit wrong,
 “no wonder you’re all so slim…sweating so much on set” Yes I know, I know!!  But in my defence it is a crazily hot day and they’re all in thick winter garb in what is essentially a greenhouse. Amazingly he doesn’t take offence.
 Una (Yuna) Stubbs is sitting on a seat in the kitchen, she says something quietly to me which I miss- so I crouch next to her to hear what she said. Then, in her unmistakable ‘gentle lamb’ voice, “That smell isn’t my feet…it’s the fridge”.
 That was the first thing she said to me. Una Stubbs!  I couldn’t smell anything but was instantly in love. I was only on set for a week but she’d sit in her chair, look at me and pat the chair next to her, inviting me over for a good natter.
She had an almost maternal love for the other cast members, and seemed very proud that Benedict remained the charming and gracious person he was in the first series, despite its massive success.

 On the second day they were scheduled to film the scene with the longest bit of violin- the sad song- a beautifully melancholic and reflective theme- to echo the emotional world of Sherlock in that scene.

It’s a very long, demanding scene (as many of them are) with a lot of violin, and his playing is interrupted frequently. Sherlock is meant to be composing the music he’s playing as he goes along- so he breaks off mid phrase to write some of the melody down, then re-starts, then breaks off to swerve a question from Watson. So I need to see him; to play when he lifts his violin up and stop when he stops.
 But Benedict also needs to see me; to copy my bowings and to ghost what I’m doing. Between us we decide that the best way to do that is for me to be outside the window (which he will look through)- my back to him while watching a monitor of what he’s doing in the scene. I have headphones on to hear the cues too. We try it. I am too low,  Ben can’t see me. They put me on a scissor lift. Too low. They raise the scissor lift. They put one, then two boxes on the scissor lift for me to stand on. This works although I feel slightly precarious because the guard rail is now below my knees and the “baker street’ backdrop in front of me is moving in the wind- messing with my head, like an evil balance prankster ghost, and throwing me off balance.

backdrop and lift
 I watch Ben on this monitor while he watches me through the window.
I gaffer tape the music to the monitor. They are recording the sound. It’s quite scary as I could conceivably balls up the takes. Occasionally Benedict knocks on the window to ask about hand positions. Given how much else he has to think about while playing an instrument entirely alien to him (his multitudinous lines, which hand he uses to point, being on is mark)  he does remarkably well.
Sherlock’s window
As with other scenes they shoot many different angles.
 Even though I am watching him, watching me, watching him and concentrating…and we’ve been doing the scene for a while and I’m standing on a high thing with wobbly walls, trying not to fall off.. even given all of that…when it comes to the close up of Sherlock’s face when he’s playing this sad theme- he looks so forlorn and so deep in his own sorrow that I get overwhelmed with sadness and fill up. That’s good acting that is.
 I tell him afterwards that he made me cry. He beams…. Pfft. Actors.
 The next day and Benedict has asked for a lesson in his trailer before going on set to film a scene where he plays Auld Lang Syne . We never managed to practice this one before as there was so much else to do. Hand positions, bowing straight, stance etc. And he only needs to be able to fake it too- it doesn’t have to be pitch perfect. But it does. Because he’s Benedict. 
 I am stunned as Ben picks out the tune himself- I give him a starting position and a finger (oh hush)  and sit aghast as he picked out the notes  He had pretty much nailed it in ten minutes having only had three proper lessons- none of which was on the tune. We’re so excited, we spontaneously high five (something which I doubt either of us would normally do) and I decide he is something of a genius.
 My bit done, I creep out…the rest of the cast and crew still have 3 weeks’ shoot left. (Some of which get interrupted by riots in London)
 Once the edit is done , David Arnold and Michael Price set about writing the score. They also check the violin scenes for synch as there was no playback on set - that would have compromised the fluidity between dialogue and music.  (My previous recordings were more as guides than the final thing). Some of the shots now cut between beginnings and ends of songs, and they look very beautiful but the songs still have to sound as the songs themselves. So I re record the pieces. It’s a balance between keeping the tune as close to the original as possible, and back- matching the bowing, so I adjust my playing to fit with the picture as best as possible.
I am so grateful to have been a (tiny) part of the second series of Sherlock, having enjoyed the first series so much as a viewer.
I watched Scandal in Belgravia all the way through for the first time last night when it aired on BBC1 and was so glad I hadn’t read the script properly beforehand. It was a real treat to see it and without knowing what was going to happen next. 
 It also means I get to read the script now, with a cup of tea and some slightly stale mincepies.
Happy new year!

No comments:

Post a Comment