If, like us, you're a fan of Stephen Moffat's godhead 21st-century updating of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock on PBS Masterpiece Mystery! there's no need to introduce you to Holmes' and Watson's landlady, Mrs. Hudson, but we will anyway.
What we know from the first season of Steven Moffatt's addictive three-part series is that a) Mrs. Hudson rents to Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a reduced rate as a show of gratitude for his ensuring the Florida execution of her husband, and b) Mrs. Hudson is a bit of a feather-dusting busybody, often popping into the tech-savvy crime solvers' flat at 221b Baker Street (she lives in 221a) at crucial moments to throw in her two cents or maybe wail loudly about a gory body part that Sherlock was storing in the refrigerator for research purposes.
But judging from last night's film-quality first installment of season 2, Scandal in Belgravia, it's clear that she's grown from a slightly barmy plot device into a clucking mother figure, someone who is there to take care of two adult male detectives who are as peerless at investigating wrongdoing as they are domestically challenged. That this juryrigged family feels so realistic is partly due to the series' fine writing. But credit must also be given to Una Stubbs, the great veteran British actress with the tinkly voice and the batty charm, who took an underwritten, tangential widow character and made her seem like someone who Sherlock and Watson could ultimately lean on. (To grasp how well Stubbs knows her way around a scene-stealing, oddball zinger, one need only turn to the slew of Twitter accounts and a blog on Tumblr spawned in her honor.)
If you'd like to know more about Stubbs' relationship with co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the kind of ridiculous props she's regularly confronted with on Sherlock and what sorts of desserts she liked to bake (when she was still baking), turn the page.
Squid Ink: One of the recurring themes in this season of Sherlock is how protective Sherlock and Watson are of Mrs. Hudson and how, in turn, she reflexively mothers them.
Una Stubbs: I really like Benedict and Martin. They're lovely men. We all get on so well together. But it just started evolving like that. That's how I'm used to being with my three grown-up boys. There's a scene in the very last episode [of this season] where we're in Mrs. Hudson's kitchen, and I said [to Benedict,] “You know what? My boys, when they come round, they go straight to the fridge.” So that's how he played the scene.
SI: Speaking of fridges, a memorable bit on Sherlock is when Watson opens their icebox and finds a human head. What are some of the other things that London's most famous consulting detective keeps stored at 38 degrees?
US: Thumbs … and something that was supposed to look like a heart. That's alongside my milk and things I've put in there. It's just infuriating every time I open it. There's all these disgusting things — and they really do look disgusting in real life. I think the heart was made out of a huge piece of liver. The thumbs were prosthetic, but very realistic.
SI: Do you, Una Stubbs, cook a lot?
US: I don't cook anymore. Not really. I sometimes do some baking, which I enjoy. I've done the cooking thing. Now I go out.
SI: What kinds of things do you bake?
US: Victoria sponges. Do you have those in Los Angeles? It's a very lightweight, very plain sponge cake. Tea bread. Banana cake. Those sorts of things.
SI: There's a lot of American food in London. What's your favorite?
US: Caesar salad and things like that. I put on weight very quickly, so I watch it a bit. I used to love the hamburgers, but I've cut that out now.
SI: Occasionally — at Sherlock and Watson's Christmas party, for example — Mrs. Hudson is put in charge of the food. What's her idea of a proper holiday spread?
US: Probably nothing very stunning. Probably small pizzas. Something where you don't need a plate. I think we call it “finger food.”
SI: What do you imagine that Sherlock Holmes likes to eat?
US: I think he doesn't have a good appetite. Which worries me. I try to get him to eat. It's all rubbish food Sherlock eats, that's why he looks so pale. A lot of crisps and probably food that's passed its sell-by date like sausage rolls.
SI: Mrs. Hudson has always been a mysterious character. How did they explain the role to you when you first came in to audition?
US: They didn't. You just were given the script and you read it and then you go home and work up the best way that you feel the character should be and how it would fit in with everybody else. There's no script description, either. That was a new one for me. But that's what I came up with.
SI: Mrs. Hudson is very mothering, but she also draws a line with Sherlock and Watson. She doesn't wait on them hand and foot.
US: In real life, with my three sons, because I brought them up on my own, I was quite a strict mother. Otherwise there would have been, you know, riots. So I used that. You don't want to be a walkover. It's not a very attractive trait, is it?
SI: The story goes that you've known Benedict Cumberbatch since he was little. True?
US: Yes. I worked with his mother [actress Wanda Venthem]. We used to sit chatting in the park and I'd be with my children and she'd be with Benedict. So I knew him as a little boy of about 4. Very polite. A lovely boy.
SI: Did you ever have to remind him that you'd known him since he wore short pants?
US: He'd already been told by his mother. He was very pleased to see me and then we had a laugh about it. He said he remember standing, waiting hour after hour, while his mother and me gossiped and he said he remembers being so BORED. [in a complaining voice] “C'mon, Mother!!”
SI: His looks are so controversial. An entire Tumblr page has been devoted to showing how closely Benedict Cumberbatch resembles an otter. Meanwhile, others call him this year's sex symbol. Thoughts?
US: On the street people say to me, “Hi, Mrs. Hudson!” and then it's, “Can you get his autograph for me?” One girl I met in a restaurant said, “I'm determined to marry him.” It's extraordinary. He is a completely original look, don't you think? One minute he's not quite so handsome. Then the next minute he's gorgeous. What is that term? Jolie laide. It's French for ugly-handsome.