He made Sher­lock Holmes into a high-tech hero – now the web has made Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch its poster boy

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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.

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