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‘Miss Scarlet and the Duke’ Creator Didn’t Want to Just Put Sherlock Holmes in a Wig

When series creator Rachael New sat down to conceive "Miss Scarlet," she took stock of how characters were being envisioned in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Kate Phillips, Stuart Martin

“Miss Scarlet & The Duke”

Bernard Walsh

If you look on social media you’ll find a lot of love for PBS’ latest detective series, “Miss Scarlet and the Duke.” The series, about a female detective in the Victorian era —played wonderfully by Kate Phillips — has captured not just those already fans of the public broadcasting’s elegant slate of mysteries, but fans seeking smart entertainment. Now that the entirety of Season 1 is available on the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel, there’s much anticipation about where the show goes from here.

When series creator Rachael New sat down to conceive “Miss Scarlet,” she took stock of how characters were being envisioned in the wake of the #MeToo movement. “This isn’t a criticism [but] I think people were desperate to have more female-centric roles,” she told IndieWire. New said she was sent numerous scripts, from both male and female writers, who had done little more than take a male-based property and swap the character to a girl.

“You can’t do that,” New said. “It wasn’t even really in my mind to take Sherlock [Holmes] and put a wig on him. It was always going to be someone very interesting, very female.” At the time the BBC had recently announced that Jodie Whitaker would be cast as the first female take on “Doctor Who,” which, according to New, compounded her desire to create a female detective in the vein, but not exactly the same, as Holmes. For New, her Eliza was going to be a more human take on the often superhuman Victorian detective.

Though there’s been several years in-between, it’s hard not to see commonalities between Eliza and another character Phillips herself has inhabited, Tudor queen Jane Seymour from “Wolf Hall.” Phillips says she’s certainly shed the doomed queen since the played the role, but she understands there are comparisons. “She’s a woman whose working under the framework of being in Tudor England where there were absolutely no possibilities for women, but she does it in her own way,” she said.

She cites New as the primary reason Eliza is so beloved as a character, because she speaks to what women so desperately want to say. “When your wonderful writer has come up with things that you’ve always longed to say but you haven’t had the strength and tenacity, or the intelligence to come up with yourself, you get to learn those lines and embody them as your own,” Phillips said.

This also comes through in Eliza’s relationship with William, aka the Duke, played by Stuart Martin. As the trio said, the Duke has his own “glass ceiling” that leads to him chronically butt heads with Eliza. “He [William] says how he feels and he’s very honest with his emotions,” Martin said. That honesty extends to social media, where memes and Tweets about Martin — and his character’s relationship with Eliza — are spreading far and wide. “The great thing about social media is those thoughts can be nice,” Martin said.

Kate Phillips

“Miss Scarlet and the Duke”

Bernard Walsh

Martin and Phillips are open about how they play with the characters “will they or won’t they” nature. “They’ve got so much love, and affection, and sexual tension for each other, that is clear,” Martin said. “It’s really the situation; what is thrown at them through both their work lives and expectations.” Phillips, who admitted she’s been watching a lot of “Dawson’s Creek” of late, said there’s a similar tension in that Eliza and William still have a lot of growing up to do.

Unfortunately, the series, like many in these current times, remains on hold due to the global health crisis. “We filmed in 2019 and wrapped in September,” New told IndieWire. “I was in Ireland finishing post-production and we delivered [the series] in January. So [COVID] wasn’t an issue at all at the time, nobody had even heard of it at that point.” Now, the pressure is on because the series should have gone back into production.

Both Martin and Phillips are prepped for the new normal that is mass testing and working under COVID conditions; each has already worked on various projects abroad working under strict guidelines. “It has very quickly become the new normal,” Phillips said. Martin explained there’s a lot more awareness of the part of an individual in a production these days. “It’s a totally different experience,” he said. “You are locked in your hotel because even when the country isn’t in lockdown you’re so terrified of being the one [because] you’ve gone to a cafe or gone to a gym and brought it back to the production.”

And while New can’t say when the return to work for “Miss Scarlet” will happen, she’s hopeful there will be news to share soon.

“Miss Scarlet and the Duke” is now streaming on PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel.

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