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Best of British Biographies – Benedict Cumberbatch

Prior to 2010 not many people had heard of Benedict Cumberbatch  nor could they, probably, pick him out of a line up. That wasn’t due to lack of exposure; parts in seventeen TV shows, ten films, thirty radio programmes, and eighteen theatre plays gave him a decent amount of public attention but he was never what you’d call a household name. 

But then 2010 arrived, and with it a new adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories entitled, simply, Sherlock — and all that changed. For the benefit of anyone who’s been without electricity for the last twelve years, Sherlock is a modern-day retelling of the aforementioned stories, and Holmes was played by Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch CBE.

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I Wanted To Be An Aeroplane

Funnily enough, shortly afterwards another modern-day Holmes series was shot.

This was called Elementary, starred Jonny Lee Miller, had Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson, and was set in New York. Another link: Jonny and Benedict are pals in real life and took part in a marvellous adaptation of Frankenstein, which had them alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the monster. It’s on Amazon Prime Video at the moment.

Cabin Pressure with John Finnemore, Roger Allam, and Stephanie Cole

As so often seems to be the case, my first introduction to Benedict Cumberbatch was not through Sherlock. It was through a radio programme in the BBC Radio 4 evening comedy slot.  That programme was called Cabin Pressure and featured the goings on of the MJN Air airline; given how there is only one aeroplane it is, more accurately, an airdot. 

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The cabin crew consisted of Captain Martin Crieff (Benedict Cumberbatch), First Officer Douglas Richardson (Roger Allam), flight attendant Arthur Shappey (John Finnemore), and owner and occasional flight attendant Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Stephanie Cole). The humour, in the main, came from everyone mistaking the Captain for the First Officer and vice versa. That and the idiocy of Arthur.

Controlled Usage Is Not Usually Fatal 

Put like that and it sounds pretty dull but, frankly, so does “Let’s take some late 19th century stories but set them in the present day.

OK, they’ve all been done dozens of times already, but we might be able to wring another run out of them. Trust me, Cabin Pressure is worth a listen if you can find it. When they started recording the series it was the usual small audience that radio programmes attract; after Sherlock started it was like trying to get tickets for The Beatles!

The Holmes “family”. Sherlock with his mother (Wanda Ventham), father (Timothy Carlton), and brother, Mycroft (Mark Gatiss)

So it was around the 2010 mark that Benedict Cumberbatch started being noticed.

However, his acting credentials start much earlier. His first acting role was in primary school playing “a very bossy Joseph in the Nativity play.” It seems his patience was very thin, even back then: “Apparently I pushed Mary offstage because she was taking too long. Actresses, eh!”

How much of that behaviour is inherited may be impossible to determine, but he is the offspring of two talented actors; Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham. Both of them have over a hundred film and TV credits each and both are still going strong. In an inspired, albeit unimaginative, piece of casting Timothy and Wanda appear in a few episodes of Sherlock alongside their son, playing his onscreen parents.

And Abstinence Is Not Immortality

One of his first screen appearances was during 2002 in a two part, conspiracy thriller called Fields Of Gold. He plays Jeremy who is on screen for less than five minutes and has, roughly, half a dozen lines. More interestingly for me was that he shares screen time with the sublimely talented, and woefully underrated  (and, perhaps, a possible topic for a future one of these little items…) Phil Davis. Why is this so interesting? If nothing else you might remember him as Jeff the taxi driver who is a central character in the first episode of, you guessed it, Sherlock! 

Sherlock with Martin Freeman

And so began a life of gradually growing TV and film bit parts. There was a bit of real-world excitement when he was playing Edmund Talbot in the historical miniseries To The Ends Of The Earth in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He and his co-stars were robbed, tied up with their own shoelaces, and made to believe that they were about to be killed. 

Fortunately, the suspects fled the scene, but the experience ended up changing his outlook on life. He said, “If you feel you’re going to die, you don’t think you’re going to have all those sensations again—a cold beer, a cigarette, the feel of sun on your skin.” I can’t help but think that if it had happened post-Sherlock/Dr Strange there would have been a very different outcome.

You Are A Pawn, Kirk

Obviously, it’s highly unlikely for a total beginner to land a series carrying role like Sherlock or a pivotal one in a major franchise like Dr Strange so Benedict must have been getting his face and acting ability out there. He played quite a few, as The Guardian described it, “small parts in big films” and that’s when the big parts started rolling in. Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Starter For Ten are among those small roles.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Bigger films came knocking. Let’s be honest…playing a Star Trek villain is pretty big! As all the crew were reimagined for the Kelvin Timeline series, this meant that the bad guys could be reworked as well. So we could say thank you to Ricardo Montalban for the initial portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh but look forward to BC taking over in Star Trek Into Darkness. Well, a super-intelligent, genetically enhanced psychopath…can you think of anyone better?

As if getting a part as an uber-baddie in a multi-million dollar franchise wasn’t enough, the greedy sod only goes and lands another one! He voices and does an Andy Serkis mo-cap for Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. I’ve seen references to him voicing The Necromancer elsewhere in the Hobbit/Lord Of The Rings filmiverse but I’ll need to have another look to check that one out.

Dormammu, I’ve Come To Bargain

In the same way that Alan Rickman worried about becoming another Brit bad guy, perhaps Benedict was worrying about being the “go-to” villain for all the major franchises. But there was no need to panic! The mighty Marvel franchise swooped in and offered him the role of Dr Stephen Strange. I have to admit to a bit of a blind spot around the good doctor, never having read those comics, but I needn’t have worried.

Doctor Strange

Fortunately, Doctor Strange was a fun romp; no surprise given that there was Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Chiwetal Ejiofor, and Mads Mikkelsen involved. And I’ll be honest and say that I’m looking forward to the next outing in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. It’s just as well that I like the character, seeing as how he was all over the end of Phase Three and the beginning of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

Understandably, he was nervous to take on the role of Doctor Strange mainly due to the peri-global fanbase. After all, he didn’t have the CGI to hide behind like he did in The Hobbit films and, while Sherlock was big, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is abso-flipping-lutely humongous. There would be no more popping down the road when you need a pint of milk regardless of where in the world you are.

I Like Solving Problems, Commander.

So is everything in the CumberWorld all hunky dory? One thing he’s not happy with regarding his fan base is the term they came up with for themselves — Cumberbitches. He doesn’t like that at all, as he finds it offensive and degrading. He would prefer Cumberpeople. It’s nice he’s concerned but, well, the batch/bitch assonance is a gift to nickname creators! Also, I don’t think he’ll be taking over from David Attenborough any time soon. Particularly when the subject rolls around to aquatic flightless birds of the southern hemisphere: I have to thank my dear friend Melanie for sending me this.

As Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

But he isn’t going to be relying solely on his franchise appearance for income. He has plenty of other opportunities which he’s taking advantage of; the title role in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain for one and the lead in The Power Of The Dog which has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role is another. 

Personally, for the Male Actor In A Lead Role gong, I’m torn between BC and Denzel Washington for his starring turn in The Tragedy Of Macbeth.

He also manages to turn his hand to playing real live chaps. As well as the aforementioned Louis Wain, he’s also portrayed Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), Greville Wynne (The Courier), Dominic Cummings (Brexit: The Uncivil War), Thomas Alva Edison (The Current War), Richard III (The Hollow Crown), and Stephen Hawking (Hawking and Stephen Hawking’s Universe). There are more, but I think that has proven my point!

What Does This Do? Shoot Poison Darts?

But what I am most looking forward to most is the film he’s shooting now. For me this is almost a “perfect storm” of filmmaking; Benedict Cumberbatch in front of the camera, Wes Anderson behind it, and Roald Dahl providing the story. I must be one of the few people who loves Roald Dahl but have never read his children’s stories only the adult ones. 

As Greville Wynne in The Courier

The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar And Six More was one I read back in the last millennium; it was published in 1977 while I was in college. I think I may have said elsewhere that I devoured Dahl’s short story collections. They were invariably gripping, intriguing, and, occasionally horrifying but had a fatal flaw…they were unforgettable! Even now, forty years on, I can read the first line of a story and tell you how it finishes.

Will Wes Anderson be filming all seven stories in the book in a manner similar to the beautiful The French Dispatch or, as they’ve settled on just The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar as the title, just show us that story? To be honest, I have no idea  and, quite frankly, I don’t care! I just want to see a Roald Dahl story, presented by Wes Anderson, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Throw in the talents of Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel, and Richard Ayoade, and I’m looking to see if I can book my tickets yet!

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2 responses to “Best of British Biographies – Benedict Cumberbatch”

  1. Michael Fields Avatar
    Michael Fields

    I have to say I did start seeing him in Sherlock which I LOVED and was very mad when they only did about 3 a year, then waited a year to have another set but I would eagerly wait until January when they would come out, then they went something like 2 or more years before the last set, it was the best show of Sherlock I have seen (No offense RDJ) but I would love to see him go back to that and make another “season”

  2. Rob Williams Avatar
    Rob Williams

    I have to say, Michael, that Sherlock was the first time that I saw BC but I had heard him on the radio before that. Agree that it can be a bit frustrating when they only make two or three feature length episodes a year but, at least, it’s a case of quality over quantity.

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