HOW TWEET IT IS
He made Sherlock Holmes into a high-tech hero – now the web has made Benedict Cumberbatch its poster boy
evening at London’s British Film Institute, venue for the Sherlock season two premiere, and I think it’s fair to say the 450-strong crowd is in a state of fevered anticipation. At least the two youngsters behind me are. One of them has just spotted its star, Benedict Cumberbatch. “Imagine if he was sitting right here!” she whispers hoarsely. They imagine. It’s almost overwhelming. “Ooh, I want to tweet!” gasps her friend. “I want to tweet!”
To say that Sherlock has developed a vast and cult following over the past 18 months is an understatement. The series, a modern-day reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, launched on Channel 9 in 2010 and became an instant sensation. Since then it has been sold around the world and its fanbase stretches from smitten schoolchildren to Hollywood giants.
And it is Cumberbatch’s mesmerising performance as a speed-talking brainiac, so lacking in human empathy he appears to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, that has been the key focus of all the attention. Steven Spielberg recently called him “the best Sherlock Holmes on screen” – some tribute, given that there have been more than 70 of them. As Cumberbatch himself more phlegmatically puts it, “Holmes’s neurotic, thin, highpitched personality is something I have to get used to”.
The product justifies the hype. Written by two Conan Doyle “geeks”, Doctor Who collaborators Steven Moffat
and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock’s first series fizzed with ingenuity and confidence, making liberal use of 21stcentury techno-clutter (mobiles, laptops, GPS and text messages that floated across the screen) without compromising the spirit of the original books.
The success made series two oddly hard to make for Cumberbatch. “When I first went back to playing the part, it felt like a pale impression,” he says when I meet him a couple of days after the Sherlock screening. He chatters freely and with rapier speed – one thing he shares with his onscreen alter ego. “It felt like I was impersonating something I’d seen on the telly last year. It now had this life that was completely outside what we had done in front of a camera before. We had been part of the audience, and the audience reaction to it, for a lot longer than we actually had been playing the roles.”
The program has transformed his profile. Pre- Sherlock, the 35-year-old had put himself on the cognoscenti’s radar with a string of lauded screen and stage work, including a scene-stealing turn in the film Atonement.
Post- Sherlock, he has metamorphosed into something bigger and odder – a pin-up. Odder, that is, because Cumberbatch, with his long face, blanched skin and pale blue eyes, is not a conventional heart-throb. And yet the swooning web interest in Cumberbatch is legion, from the “Cumberbitches” – a Twitter collective devoted to his daily appreciation – to endless blogs and forums.
The hysteria is likely only to accelerate. Cumberbatch has just been on the big screen in Spielberg’s War Horse, the tale of a Devon teenager who follows his treasured steed into the trenches of World War I France. Now he is in New Zealand, voicing and “physicalising” Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, in which Sherlock’s Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins and Ian Mckellen returns as Gandalf. Mckellen said Cumberbatch’s Smaug screen-test was amazing, I tell him. Cumberbatch splutters. “Has . . . has he seen it?” Actually, Mckellen’s words were “electrifying – vocally and facially”. Cumberbatch looks ecstatic. “Wow! I’m very flattered.” He seems entirely sincere. So how did Cumberbatch do the audition? “I went a little reptile on it,” he says, enigmatically. He looked at Komodo dragons and snakes at London Zoo to see how the skeleton moves differently He says it’s all in the posture, and he crouches forward, swivelling his eyes snakily, to demonstrate.
Cumberbatch’s initial reference point for Smaug, interestingly, was his father, actor Timothy Carlton. “The Hobbit was the first book I remember reading at bedtime, and he characterised the whole thing,” he says. “It was the first imaginary landscape I had in my head, so it’s very close to me.”
You wonder if, as so often with British actors who hit the big time, the movie roles will bring an end to the TV work – even, whisper it, to Sherlock. “God, no-no-no,” he says. “The other thing I’m doing is Parade’s End, a five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Edwardian tetralogy for HBO and the BBC. I’m not loyal to one genre. I want to mix it up,” he says.
He is coy about Sherlock’s future, though; partly because the final episode of the new series is based on The Final Problem, in which Conan Doyle snuffed out Holmes via a Moriarty showdown at the Reichenbach Falls – a cliffhanger in every sense. “I should maybe say that I’m ready to say goodbye to him, but I would miss him,” says Cumberbatch, choosing his words with Holmesian precision. “It’s much better to leave people wanting more.”
Does he look forward to a time when the Holmes hysteria has abated? “I don’t know how that happens, but yes,” he nods – though he is not unmindful of what hype can do for a career. “It’s a horrible thing to say, but it gives you the power to do the kind of work you want to do. So obviously, some of it’s constructive.”
Of course some of it must be enjoyable, too. As we leave, his phone buzzes. It’s a text from Eddie Redmayne, friend and fellow rising star. It ends: “I will always be your Cumberbitch. Eddie.” We laugh. These days even Cumberbatch’s friends are in his fan club. And he walks out into the winter sun, moving quickly before anyone spots the famous cheekbones and can post a tweet.
Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock.