“How could this guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes, the most famous character possibly of all time in fiction, also be really into this phenomena?” wonders Tom Bidwell, creator of The Irregulars, the new supernatural Netflix show set in the Sherlock Holmes universe.
“The two things clashed in my head. So I thought that should be what The Irregulars is – the world of Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Gritty London scenescapes are combined with storylines involving magic and mystery when Sherlock Holmes returns to our screens this spring – so don’t expect him, nor the series, to look anything like you’ve seen before.
For one thing, the detective is barely recognisable and drug-addled in this new Netflix spin-off.
The Irregulars focuses on a group of street kids who work for the famous detective and his sidekick Doctor Watson. They appear in three of the original Sherlock Holmes books.
We went to Netflix and said we want to write an X-Files-meets-Skins style show."
While creator Tom is a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, he tells HuffPost UK he went to pains to make sure this series stands alone from other Sherlock adaptations.
“We went to Netflix and said we want to write an X-Files-meets-Skins style show and they loved it,” he says of the series.
In the run-up to making the eight-parter, Tom says he “purposefully stayed away” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novels in order to make sure he crafted his own vision.
“I don’t want it to become too Easter Egg-y,” he says. “I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh that’s another Sherlock Holmes reference’. I want it to live in its own world and be inspired by character, rather than just me trying to crowbar in this and that.”
The end result features fairies and monsters, but front and centre are The Irregulars, a diverse group of youngsters who feel as much like they could be straight out of 2021 as 1901. That is the genius of the show, says McKell David, who plays Spike, one of the group.
“Of course this is the 1800s in the Victorian times, but I hope that The Irregulars opens your eyes that you’re watching the same kids [as today]. It’s the same kids, coming from broken homes, without the right influences in their lives,” says McKell.
“It’s a huge message in the 21st century when we look at kids and we look at gang culture.”
Jojo Macari, who plays Billy, agrees, adding that the show addresses mental health concerns among young men today. “People always ask me, ‘Do you see a lot of yourself in Billy?’ And I look back to myself when I was 16, 17, and it’s true. I really did not know how to process my emotions,” he says.
He continues: “And I think in terms of Billy’s arc... it is a show about processing quite heavy-hitting emotions which people do experience when they’re in their teens. It’s just something you go through and you don’t really come equipped for that.
“One of the big messages is showing you that your vulnerability and your trauma can actually be a source of great strength."
Episodes feature magical escapist vistas, including dream sequences and imagined realities. Add in a sinister Bird Master for good measure.
“My intention isn’t to tear up the cannon,” says Tom. “It’s to write something that’s entertaining and fun and hopefully they [the fans] can see in it that I’m a big fan of not just Sherlock Holmes, but Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Tom thinks it’s “inevitable” that fans will dislike the show before they’ve seen it. “They’ll think it’s a very different take on the world of Sherlock Holmes,” he says.
Responding to the internet pile-ons that sometimes happen when cult shows change their style, Tom says any sort of extreme fan reaction is “more to do with them than the show really”.
He adds: “People online want to express their opinions and go, ‘I know about Sherlock Holmes!’, and that’s fine. That’s just part of the job in the end.”
One stylistic decision was to embrace a more mature tone, incorporating swearing and more of what Tom calls “real language”.
“Not much lives in the space this show lives in,” he says of the style. “I wanted to make sure it felt fresh and it felt vibrant. I guess that’s why we made the choice to keep the swear words in - let’s keep the rudeness in a little bit.”
The language is likely to shock audiences, given how it shocked the crew on set. In episode five there’s a line where Sherlock describes a sound of something horrendous. “And he says, ‘It’s like rendering pig fat!’” remembers Tom. “The script editor read it and said ‘that’s absolutely disgusting.’ I’ve nailed it! I’ve nailed it!”
Other parts of the script push a message of diversity and inclusion. In a memorable line from episode one, The Irregulars discuss the importance – ironically – of accepting upper class people rather than judging them.
It’s a reverse on the traditional narrative arc which might see the upper classes discuss snobbishness about the working classes in Victorian England. “I felt like that exchange really had something in it, a modernity about the gang,” says Tom.
In another moment which feels very current, Leopold feels imprisoned in his palace and craves to leave. He asks if he can get permission to go and explore the world but is told no. There are starting parallels with Meghan Markle’s recent claims that she asked to leave the palace but was told she couldn’t.
“Let them make the memes,” laughs Jojo, who asserts that obviously any parallels with the British monarchy weren’t intentional given the show was filmed before Meghan’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. “If they want to make the memes, let them make the memes.”
Meghan and Harry parallels or not, The Irregulars is certainly Sherlock anew, and that will inevitably stir debate. But at its heart, reminds McKell, remains the warmth and familiarity of the original stories.
“We all sort of want to be a little bit like Sherlock I think,” he sums up. “That’s why The Irregulars is so cool: you’re getting to see him in a completely different light that he’s never been shown in before.”
The Irregulars is streaming now on Netflix.