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IT ’S A BRIGHT AF TERNO ON in April, and stand­ing in front of me, wear­ing only blue trunks, is Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch. We are in a re­pur­posed of­fice com­plex near Uxbridge, on the set of The

Child in Time, a fea­ture-length adap­ta­tion of Ian Mcewan’s Whit­bread Prize-win­ning 1987 novel. Cum­ber­batch is play­ing Stephen Lewis, a chil­dren’s au­thor whose three-year-old daugh­ter van­ished while the pair were at the su­per­mar­ket. It’s a hor­ror that puts an un­bear­able strain on his mar­riage to Julie (Kelly Macdon­ald) and on his other pro­fes­sional com­mit­ment: sit­ting on a Thatcherit­e gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee known as the Of­fi­cial Com­mis­sion on Child­care. Stephen is a man un­moored by loss, float­ing through life in grief-stricken iso­la­tion.

But right now, Cum­ber­batch is wor­ry­ing about his abs. ‘I do keep hav­ing to say to the direc­tor, “Did my body look too good in that scene?”’ he tells me, tongue in cheek, as he heads to­wards the bath- room to film a scene in which Stephen sub­merges him­self in the bath in his empty, echo­ing flat. ‘Can you see my six pack? Maybe I should hide it…’

‘It’s not for rea­sons of body im­age or any of that non­sense!’ Cum­ber­batch, 41, clar­i­fies, laugh­ing, as he tow­els him­self off af­ter a fourth dunk­ing. ‘I’m train­ing for the next in­stal­ment of Mar­vel [where he is repris­ing his role as mys­tic su­per­hero Doc­tor Strange in a cameo for the third

Avengers movie, Infnity War], whereas Stephen is

a man who’s in the deep throes of griev­ing and this hor­ren­dous, keen­ing, mourn­ing in­er­tia. It’s a huge wave of all sorts of things. And this is a year af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance of his daugh­ter, so he’s not been look­ing af­ter him­self. He’s been drink­ing, he’s been eat­ing what­ever he can find in a plas­tic food con­tainer. It’s not like he’s been on a Mar­vel diet and pump­ing iron like I have.’

The Child in Time will be the first drama by Cum­ber­batch’s Sun­ny­march pro­duc­tion com­pany to be re­leased. They are four weeks into the in­tense, mod­estly bud­geted five-week shoot. As a pro­ducer, Cum­ber­batch is in­volved in ev­ery as­pect of the pro­ject, from script de­vel­op­ment to choos­ing the cast and crew. ‘It’s not about con­trol at all,’ he in­sists. ‘It’s about mak­ing cer­tain con­di­tions more palat­able – cer­tainly not nec­es­sar­ily for me but for crew, work­ing hours, cater­ing, lo­ca­tions, fa­cil­i­ties. All of that can of­ten get over­looked in the grand mas­ter­plan­ning of get­ting things in on time and on bud­get. And I wanted to ex­ert a bit of in­flu­ence in that depart­ment.’ An al­ready de­mand­ing role in front of the cam­era, then, is dou­bled, tre­bled by his obli­ga­tions off-cam­era.

When Ian Mcewan be­gan writ­ing The Child

in Time, he wasn’t yet a fa­ther, ‘al­though my then-wife was preg­nant, so it was on my mind. And by the time I fin­ished the book – it was a long time in the writ­ing – a sec­ond child was born,’ he tells me. ‘I think the core of the story was that I felt that huge love, a new love for a child. And to de­scribe that love was in part car­ried through by imag­in­ing what it would be to lose that love.’

Scriptwrit­er Stephen Butchard (who adapted Bernard Corn­well’s The Last King­dom for the BBC) read The Child in Time on pub­li­ca­tion, ‘and it was one of those books that stays with you. I wanted to take care of the tone, the moods and the emo­tions of the book.’ Drama­tis­ing Stephen’s in­ter­nalised grief for the screen was a chal­lenge, and direc­tor Ju­lian Farino worked closely with Cum­ber­batch to cre­ate a story that wasn’t ‘end­lessly tear­ful’.

‘Bene­dict looks for emo­tional truth,’ Farino says. ‘He’s quite cere­bral but he’s also an in­cred­i­bly ver­sa­tile ac­tor – he’d of­fer a lot of dif­fer­ent el­e­ments in dif­fer­ent takes. He’s of­ten play­ing these mer­cu­rial, ar­tic­u­late char­ac­ters [Richard III, Sher­lock Holmes, Stephen Hawk­ing, Ju­lian As­sange and Alan Tur­ing, to name but a few]. And this is a lit­tle bit more ev­ery­man; the emo­tions Stephen feels are uni­ver­sal.’

They also de­cided to make more of the role of Julie. ‘She is the other half of the grief and the tragedy, but also a source of strength and courage,’ Butchard ex­plains. ‘I saw it as a story of love rather than a story of tragedy.’

Kelly Macdon­ald agrees. When I ask her, in the hair and make-up trailer, whether she drew on her own emo­tions as the mother of two young chil­dren, she em­phat­i­cally shakes her head. ‘That’s not how it works for me. When a scene is well writ­ten, the work is all there. And work­ing with Bene­dict helps – he nails it ev­ery sin­gle time. So both of

‘It’s great play­ing a man who drinks cups of tea, and isn’t fir­ing en­erg y out of his hands’

those [fac­tors] have made it quite easy to reach what needs to be reached. I mean, ev­ery scene, it’s such heavy shit!’ she laughs. ‘It’s re­ally full-on, but it’s been han­dled with quite a light touch.’

In his own trailer, Cum­ber­batch – him­self the fa­ther of two young chil­dren – quickly an­tic­i­pates one key line of ques­tion­ing. ‘It might look like an odd choice for a new fa­ther to be tack­ling a drama about los­ing a child,’ he nods, be­fore sidestep­ping the ques­tion by fo­cus­ing on more pro­saic, prac­ti­cal rea­sons. ‘It worked for me be­cause it’s a Lon­don shoot, and I’ve got a new­born.’

The Child in Time also felt like a per­fect fit for Sun­ny­march, the com­pany he formed with best friend Adam Ack­land in 2015. They met on the BBC’S 2008 drama The Last En­emy, where Ack­land was the sec­ond as­sis­tant direc­tor. He de­scribes the com­pany as ‘in­cred­i­bly writer-driven’, an ethos af­firmed by their other dra­mas in de­vel­op­ment: adap­ta­tions of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start

From, Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time and Ge­of­frey House­hold’s Rogue Male, as well as a TV se­ries of Ed­ward St Aubyn’s Pa­trick Mel­rose nov­els, film­ing this au­tumn, with Cum­ber­batch again in the lead.

With The Child in Time, both Ack­land and Cum­ber­batch worked hard to pick cast and crew who they knew and re­spected. ‘That was piv­otal for us. It was quite a small unit. It was noth­ing like the big Hol­ly­wood films we do as well,’ he adds, a ref­er­ence in part to The Cur­rent War, a de­pic­tion of the ri­valr y b e tween ele ctric­ity pi­one ers Thomas Edi­son (Cum­ber­batch) and Ge­orge West­ing­house (Michael Shan­non), which pre­miered at this month’s Toronto Film Fes­ti­val.

In­deed, it was the fact of The Child in Time’s small-screen des­ti­na­tion that added to its ap­peal for Cum­ber­batch. ‘This was such a high-cal­i­bre [pro­ject],’ he says. ‘There’s pedi­gree in­volved – it’s a BBC One drama, and the first ever adap­ta­tion of a Mcewan novel on tele­vi­sion. When you’re trusted to do that, that gives a cast-iron ini­tial qual­ity to the pro­ject.’

Prob­a­bly best-known and loved for Sher­lock (and, more re­cently, Doc­tor Strange), Cum­ber­batch also ad­mits, ‘It’s great play­ing a man who drinks cups of tea, has nor­mal con­ver­sa­tions, day­dreams, doo­dles on a pad and isn’t talk­ing at a mil­lion miles an hour or fir­ing en­ergy out of his hands.’

When I catch up with Mcewan af­ter film­ing, he pro­claims the fin­ished prod­uct ‘very mov­ing’. ‘A lot was rest­ing on [Cum­ber­batch’s] shoul­ders,’ he says. ‘The whole pro­ject from the be­gin­ning was iden­ti­fied with him. He was the one who wanted to do [the adap­ta­tion], and I got a feel­ing that it wouldn’t have got made with­out Bene­dict. He brings the weight of his enor­mous tal­ent, and the fact that he’s such a recog­nis­able fig­ure now – he’s on the edge of be­com­ing a na­tional trea­sure.’ The Child in Time is on BBC One at 9pm to­mor­row

Cum­ber­batch with Beatrice White, who plays Kate, the daugh­ter who goes miss­ing

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Stephen Lewis and Kelly Macdon­ald as his wife, Julie

Cum­ber­batch on lo­ca­tion dur­ing the film’s five-week shoot

Direc­tor Ju­lian Farino, left, with Stephen Camp­bell Moore, who plays Charles, Stephen Lewis’s friend

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