Published: 20 December 2009, Sunday Times
Fancy some kedgeree?" asks Guy Ritchie. The last time I had kedgeree was as a student, I say, one of those squalid mash-ups of unspeakable leftovers. What the hell, this is Claridge's. "The kedgeree here is the best," he enthuses. Kedgeree has cultural significance for Ritchie. "Very English," as he puts it, a product of the Raj. Like pale ale, I offer, noting his proprietorship of a Mayfair pub. "What, and then we gave it to the Spanish?" Not paella, pale ale. He laughs. A famous dyslexic, Ritchie would seem to have copped it rather acutely.
Englishness runs through Ritchie like letters in a stick of Brighton rock. "As I've spent more time stateside," he muses, "I've become increasingly appreciative of English culture." Never British: this is "English", used in the Churchillian, Celt-offending sense, to describe everything from these isles. Given Ritchie's recent estrangement from a very famous alien, home would appear to be where the heart is. Brunch is served, mouthfuls are wolfed. "They've done well on the sauce, haven't they? The magic ingredient." Indeed they have, sir. Most pukka.
Was there anybody more "English" than the Caledonian-created Sherlock Holmes? This Christmas, Ritchie serves up a big-budget version of our most famous sleuth, played by Robert Downey Jr, with Jude Law as Dr Watson. It is a film of double significance. It's the first blockbuster treatment given to the detective; more pertinently, it is Ritchie's debut at hosting a major studio knees-up, the acid test as to whether, after those terse, insular Brit flicks, he can cut the mustard (English, naturally) at the helm of something epic and international. "This seemed like a natural segue, going small to large, but still maintaining an English identity," he explains. "New, but not too much. You can recognise the natural progression." Certainly we are on a recognisable manor. "And it was good having deep pockets," he adds (the film cost $80m). "I never had deep pockets before."
The presence of Downey, plus Rachel McAdams as the femme fatale Irene Adler, places it prudently "right in the middle of the Atlantic". Here, though, in the 1890s, Britain is the superpower (with Tower Bridge as an Empire Statement building) and America the postcolonial upstart. The story, written by a gang of Hollywood scribes, is a cocktail of Holmes themes. Veering onto Jack the Ripper turf, it features Ritchie regular Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood - a dark-arts serial killer, vaguely modelled on Aleister Crowley. "They [the Victorians] had a moment, rather like in the Renaissance, when they were interested in a reconciliation between science and spirituality," Ritchie says, "and we tried to reflect that."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a bit of a Renaissance man himself. The Edinburgh-born physician-turned-author was also an authority on the supernatural, a social reformer and an athlete - one who played cricket for the MCC and kept goal for Portsmouth. Traditionalists may be uncomfortable with the hyper-twitchy Downey Jr and Ritchie's portrayal of Holmes as an action hero (we meet him as a bare-knuckle prizefighter). Yet this Sherlock is probably truer in spirit to Conan Doyle's than are the deerstalker, tweeds and magnifying glass of legend - an invention of the Victorian illustrator Sidney Paget, compounded by the Basil Rathbone films.
It was at boarding school, says Ritchie, that he first got a taste for Holmes. Between the ages of six and eight, they would, for good behaviour, get narrated stories piped into the dormitory.
"I built up a mental image from back then.
I liked the idea that you had a guy who could think and act. Obviously, we've bigged up the physicality somewhat, though I don't think that's an inappropriate or an unfair interpretation."
The original popular private eye, Holmes remains hugely influential, on sleuths from Miss Marple to Morse, Columbo to CSI. Over 80 years and umpteen screen incarnations, the most faithful renderings of him are considered to be the four series Jeremy Brett did for ITV between 1984 and 1993. Even these glossed over Holmes's industrial intake of cocaine and morphine. Five years ago, the BBC showed Rupert Everett's sleuth waking up in an opium den. But, with a young audience in mind, there are no narcotics here. "Well, if you're going to be realistic about this, you can't have your hero on the gear, so to speak, can you?"
The celebrated phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" is absent - that being attributed to PG Wodehouse - and so, mercifully, is the bumbling Nigel Bruce version of Watson. Law's ex-army medic is a more masculine, yet strangely doting, partner, "mother hen" to Holmes's "old cock", the near homoerotic equilibrium threatened by a Yoko, Watson's fiancée, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). "Most of the relationships I know where men are very close, it does get a bit Hinge and Bracket at times," Ritchie chuckles. "I think that's an endearing quality in a conspicuously heterosexual set-up, that they can afford to be rather camp with one another." Such admissions are a little unexpected, but Ritchie has always been a bundle of contradictions: the professed quiet man who doesn't shut up; the purveyor of East End gangster films, hobnobber with lowlifes, 15-year-old school leaver, versus the Hertfordshire-born mockney fringe aristo. To many, he and his producer partner, Matthew Vaughn (originally named Matthew De Vere Drummond), are lag-hags as interloping as the yuppie drug dealers in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
In Ritchie's defence, the chip rested more on our shoulders. There are certainly no affectations today. Dressed down in V-neck sweater, dark jeans and trainers, he is as affable as you could hope for. The voice is remarkable less for any Estuarine strangulations than for its acquired American pronunciations, such as "process" and "route". "They are the two words," he squirms. Legacy of time in LA, the former missus or both. Whatever the topic, there is always the proverbial elephant in the room - she of whom we do not speak, Her Madgesty, the woman he married in 2000 and quickie-divorced a year ago (copping, it is said, a settlement of between £50m and £60m). But it would be remiss to ignore her completely, so here goes. While one can understand an aversion to the tabloidisation of his life, I suggest, given what's happened over recent months, was doing a film of this magnitude a cathartic release?
Suddenly, over my shoulder, a large black man in a Savile Row suit looms, with Ritchie nodding feverishly in a "behind you" manner. A minder, about to terminate proceedings? An official from a Malawian adoption agency? No, it is Mr Christopher Livingstone Eubank, come to say hello. The lisping former middleweight thrusts out a shovel-sized hand in salutation. "You ain't half a got a grip on there, Chris," says Ritchie, the pair entering into some Hinge and Bracketry of their own, with Eubank apologising for the pressure of his clasp. "No," titters Ritchie, "I quite like a firm grip." Saved by the bell.
"Sorry, you might have to recap," he says as Eubank saunters off. I do. He thinks for a moment. The response alludes to the new film filling a certain void. After announcing himself in such spectacular fashion with Lock Stock and then Snatch - the shooters, the geezers, the Jasons - the advent of Madonna seems to have coincided with Ritchie's creative slide, first with the notorious Swept Away, a desert island romance starring his former wife that went straight to DVD in the UK; then Revolver, a supposedly Kabbalah-influenced metaphysical casino yarn: ambitious, yes, but which yielded the unedifying spectacle of Ray Liotta in his underpants. Critics laced up their Doc Martens.
Did the reaction upset him? "Swept Away was always going to have a limited audience," he insists. "The idea was that it was going to be a small film, but you can't do small films with the ex." And Revolver is still his favourite.
"I think on reflection it always will be." The problem, he says, is because he hit it big straightaway, he never got to do "esoteric". "You feel misrepresented on what your intentions were. And then you feel a bit of a mug. But there's a sense in all of us that enjoys other people's ascension - usually, more, the descent." So it was personal? "Celebrity culture can only be capricious and ephemeral," he shrugs. "Sometimes you are in sync with what everybody wants. Sometimes you're not."
By contrast, last year's RocknRolla, another gangland caper, was No 1 at the UK box office and hailed, inevitably, as a return to form - or return to the familiar. The end credits promised a sequel, the Real RocknRolla. "I tell you what, I'd like to do that," he says. There may be other priorities. He mentions the possibility of a children's movie. "A lot of kids' stuff is good stuff. I thought Ice Age 3 was quite genius." But you can bet that if Sherlock Holmes is a sizeable hit, Warner Brothers will be hauling him in pronto for a follow-up. The character doesn't figure directly in the film, but the hand of Holmes's nemesis, Moriarty, is there, teeing up round two. One can't believe it's not already in the works. "Might be," he smirks.
For Ritchie, the possibilities would seem endless. "I always wanted to go in this direction," he says. "Just been rather busy. I've got more time on my hands now."
Sherlock Holmes opens on Boxing Day