Authors: Justin Lewis
n 2010, when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast in the lead role of Christopher Tietjens in the lavish television adaptation of
, its American co-producers wobbled at what they felt was an audacious choice for such an major part. ‘HBO said, “Who is this Benedict Cumberbatch?”’ recalled the director of the series, Susanna White. ‘We said everyone will have heard of him by the time
comes out.’ Within a few months, White would be proved correct.
After BBC1 broadcast the first episode of
on 25 July 2010, its lead actor became very famous very suddenly. But as with all supposed overnight successes, the night had been a long one for Benedict Cumberbatch. At thirty-four years of age, he had already been a professional actor for a decade, with numerous credits in theatre, television, cinema
and radio. What had marked him out early, though, was a refusal to chase populist parts for their own sake. He had always opted for the route of quality work, and had never committed to long runs of a television series. This enabled him to avoid being typecast in one role.
It looked as if landing the part of Sherlock Holmes would change all that, and he would be fixed in the persona for good in the public eye. Nearly 10 million people in Britain alone watched the first series. Yet some smart career decisions have meant that he is not exclusively associated with Sherlock Holmes.
For starters, Cumberbatch’s exposure as the detective is limited: the series are just three episodes at a time, every couple of years; this is the antithesis of the ongoing,
soap opera, or the 24-episodes-a-year standard of American network television. By being occasional,
always feels like
television. ‘I just want to bring people in a little bit to the idea of sitting down on a Sunday three consecutive weeks,’ Cumberbatch told America’s National Public Radio in 2012, ‘and having that
moment, that really was a sort of national sensation in the UK. It was an extraordinary cultural moment.’
The other reason why Benedict Cumberbatch can never be just Sherlock Holmes is that, career-wise, he will not keep still. He has portrayed Stephen Hawking, Horace Rumpole, Frankenstein, William Pitt the Younger, Julian Assange, Vincent Van Gogh, the Duke of Wellington and Khan in
. He has collaborated with creative giants as diverse as Steven Spielberg and Sir Tom Stoppard. He is in one of the
funniest situation comedies of recent times, BBC Radio 4’s
. He has been celebrated for a great deal of theatrical work: Shakespeare, Rattigan, Ibsen.
Perusing the Cumberbatch CV, it is clear that he craves and welcomes variety in his work. He does not have one acting mode. For a while, it looked as if he had cornered the market in upper-class buffoons, but that has broadened. ‘I’ve often played men who are affable enough, if a bit silly,’ he once said, but denied he felt typecast. ‘I like to do a variety of parts so that people won’t get fed up seeing me.’
Cumberbatch rarely discusses his private life, but there is a great deal of gossipy, fizzy approval towards him, daft but usually affectionate. It’s the kind of good-humoured joshing that top pop stars receive. There’s an Internet site devoted to pictures of Otters Who Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch. He has been compared to meerkats, and even the racehorse Shergar. Caitlin Moran, the
columnist, believes he might be ‘the first actor in history to play Sherlock Holmes who has a name more ridiculous than “Sherlock Holmes”’.
Even when his collaborators talk about him now, it’s often a wry nod not just to his skills as a performer, but a tribute to just how famous he is. ‘He’s a handsome, remote genius,’ offered
co-creator Steven Moffat. ‘He’s impersonating a glacier but actually he’s a volcano – or actually that’s what I imagine his frantic and amorous female following are thinking.’
Benedict Cumberbatch himself, while delighted with success, feels more ambivalent about being famous. He welcomes the fact his status gives him access to more
ambitious roles, but is less sure about being public property as himself. ‘They know you from the trail you leave with your work,’ he said in early 2013. ‘They assume things about you because of who you play and how you play them, and the other scraps floating about in the ether. People try to sew together a narrative out of scant fact.’
His discomfort with the excesses of the tabloids has led him to more or less dispense with discussing his own private life, and preferring to highlight his work, a preference this book mostly shares. For Cumberbatch, the work is the whole point of being a celebrity. But then, Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed that most unlikely of celebrities. He regards fame in itself as transitory. ‘I don’t want to complain or explain. It’s part of a predictable pattern. It’s a thing that will pass.’
eighing nine pounds, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch was born on Monday, 19 July 1976 at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London. He made his public debut at just four days old when his photograph appeared in the
. It was no accident, as both his proud parents were professional actors, familiar to millions of television viewers.
His mum, Wanda Ventham, had most recently been a regular in the ITV serial
before Benedict’s arrival, but her acting CV already stretched back 20 years with a string of credits in television and theatre.
in 1935, Wanda began acting at the age of sixteen, and after a brief period at art school, transferred to the Central School of Speech & Drama in London.
When she finished her course, she spent one year as part of
the resident theatre company at Royal Bath. She could easily have had a stint in Shakespearean drama; director Peter Brook offered her the chance to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, but she had to decline as she was pregnant with her first child. ‘I’d love her to have a “
moment”,’ Benedict reflected in 2010 about his mother’s possible missed opportunities in theatre, ‘but for that you have to have a huge backlog of classical roles.’
With her first husband, a businessman called James Tabernacle, Wanda became a parent for the first time in 1958. The couple named their daughter Tracy, and when grown up she would become a picture frame restorer. Even when her half-brother Benedict was met by screaming fans at premieres, there were those who would make a bee-line for his mum Wanda. ‘She still gets fans coming up to her on the red carpet,’ Tracy would say in 2012, ‘and Ben will ask her, “What are you doing?” She will say, “I was once famous as well, you know.”’
Wanda juggled motherhood with West End theatrical farces such as
Watch It, Sailor!
(1962), but her fame increased sharply from 1963 when she became a regular in the BBC television series
The Rag Trade
. Co-starring Sheila Hancock, Peter Jones and Barbara Windsor, it was one of the first hit situation comedy series where the action took place in the workplace rather than at home. It led to further guest roles in
The Likely Lads
, and starring roles in one-off dramas and original plays by the likes of Fay Weldon and John Osborne. Sci-fi devotees remember her fondly from roles in three
stories (starring respectively William Hartnell, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy), and from the 1970s series
, set in the year ‘1980’ and an early attempt by Gerry Anderson to move away from the puppet series he had created towards live action. In those days of
television – BBC1, ITV and (from 1964) BBC2 – a single appearance could be watched by many millions of people, and Wanda became a familiar face.
Wanda’s work covered dramatic theatre, comedy and action roles. She even did a few cult horror films, like
The Blood Beast Terror
with Peter Cushing in 1967, and 1974’s
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter
. She would turn up on quiz shows such as the game about obscure words,
Call My Bluff
, and the antiques panel game,
Going for a Song
. She would play opposite the top actors of the time – Edward Woodward, Beryl Reid, Leslie Phillips and a young Julian Fellowes – as well as the titans of TV light entertainment, like Les Dawson, Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies. Many series she appeared in are all but forgotten now –
The Rat Catchers, Rivera Police, Watch the Birdies
– but she was constantly in work and her list of television and theatre credits has continued into the 21st century.
The same could be said of Wanda’s second husband, whom she met in 1970 on the set of an ITV drama serial called
A Family at War.
Four years her junior, Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch had quite a distinguished ancestry: he was the grandson of Henry Arnold Cumberbatch, who had been the British Consul General in Turkey, and the son of
Henry Carlton Cumberbatch. Henry had been a
decorated submarine officer during World War I, and was a key figure in British high society, before marrying Pauline Ellen Laing Congdon in 1934. Five years after that, Timothy was born, but shortly afterwards, his dad returned to the forces at the outbreak of World War Two.
After the war, the young Timothy was educated at Sherborne public school in Dorset, and (like his future wife) trained at the Central School of Speech & Drama. He graduated in 1961, became a member of the Southwold repertory company, and by the mid-1960s was a regular both on TV, and at London’s Royal Court theatre, 40 years before his son Benedict would appear in plays like
. Timothy featured in productions of Edward Bond’s
, N.F. Simpson’s
The Cresta Run
and How to Get It
by Ann Jellicoe. But during rehearsals for the latter in late 1965, personal tragedy struck the Cumberbatch clan when Henry died suddenly. ‘My father arrived home,’ related Benedict four decades on, ‘and there was a hearse in the drive. He said, “Don’t leave that there, that’ll be the end for him”, and they said, “Sorry, that is why it’s here”.’
Aside from theatre work, Timothy was constantly on television, performing with Ronnie Barker, Joanna Lumley, Leonard Rossiter, Eric Idle, and his future wife. Having met on
A Family at War
, Wanda and Timothy soon began a relationship, and set up home together in Kensington in West London. In April 1976, they married, and three months later, their son Benedict was born.
A full analysis of both Wanda and Timothy’s stage and
screen careers would easily fill a book of its own. Their list of credits was already long and illustrious when Benedict arrived on the scene, and would continue to grow.
Wanda decided to return to work in early 1977, when Benedict was six months old. Immediately, she and Timothy landed guest roles in the ITV courtroom serial
, where they appeared in the dock playing warring spouses. From time to time, the couple would appear together in the same productions, but more often than not, one of them would work in theatre, the other in television, to make sure that at least one parent was at home to look after their son. Many years later, Benedict’s mother described their new arrival as ‘a whirlwind – he never stopped’.
was made by Granada Television in Manchester, the city where Benedict would study at university in the late 1990s, and Wanda in particular would appear in several other series for the company.
, in which she starred as the wife of a rugby player who has to retire from the sport after injury, was a popular series, but it required her to work far away from the family’s London home.
So in 1980, the last year before young Benedict started school, Wanda endeavoured to make her workload as light as possible, in order to spend more time with him. By now, the boy had started to become aware of exciting events like Christmas. ‘He is a bit puzzled,’ Wanda told the
at Christmas 1979, ‘because he was taken by friends to see two separate Father Christmases, and he can’t
why there were two faces!’
Possibly the first person to predict greatness for Benedict Cumberbatch was the veteran American actress Elaine Stritch. Perhaps best known in the UK for the London Weekend TV sitcom
, she was so impressed by the sight of the youngster walking across a field in red dungarees despite a nearby bull, that she proclaimed, ‘That child is going to be a star.’
Rarely out of work, Wanda and Timothy remained familiar faces on stage and screen into the 1980s, but they were neither household names nor from wealthy
, so the acting path was not one that brought guaranteed riches. ‘They saw the pitfalls of it,’ their son would say in 2013. ‘You don’t know where your next job is coming from, and it’s unstable, into which they were having a child – me. You want stability for your children … something better.’
Benedict remembered the Kensington of his earliest years as ‘run-down; smalls hanging out in the smog, riots in Notting Hill’. Indeed, his first school, a pre-preparatory one which he attended from 1981, was actually in Notting Hill. It was here that he made his stage debut. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s starting point in acting was the school nativity play, but he did bag the part of Joseph, and received his first reaction: laughter. Admittedly, the script for the nativity play doesn’t often call for the boy playing Joseph to push the girl playing Mary off the stage. But it wasn’t about the audience; it was about his co-star. ‘I didn’t really
it, and I wasn’t intending to play to the house. I was just furious about how self-indulgent she was being.’
A restless toddler, Benedict showed little sign of controlling his energy during his first years in education. His headmistress at the Notting Hill school wrote on an end-
report: ‘Ben is slightly more controlled but must try to be less noisy.’ The naughtiness was present when outside school too. ‘I used to expose myself in front of religious places,’ he would remember. ‘I was a very hot, bored boy and was surrounded by people who were older than me who were goading me. One day they said, “Go on, pull your pants down!” I obliged willingly.’
Then there was the occasion when Wanda took him to the theatre for the first time. Dad Timothy was in the play itself, and the excitable boy was mesmerised by the sight of the stage. When taken backstage, he couldn’t stop himself from shouting from the wings: ‘I want to go on!’ His mother had to stop him from running on and disrupting the production. Later on in childhood, his excitement could curdle into embarrassment; as Wanda expertly goofed around in Ray Cooney stage farces, he would feel awkward: ‘the audience loving her being caught in all those compromising positions and me, aged eight, absolutely mortified.’
Both Wanda and Timothy were determined that their son should have the most rounded of educations. In 1984, when Benedict was eight, he was packed off to Brambletye Prep School, near East Grinstead in West Sussex. He remained something of a tearaway there, although his disruptiveness was rarely nasty. ‘It was all a bit
,’ he would recall. ‘I got into fights. I was pretty naughty.’ More often than not, it was directionless mischief. ‘I had a problem
focusing. I probably had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or something on the border of it. I was always performing, doing silly voices.’ He was wild about
television and film too, especially from America:
Buck Rogers, Star Trek
– and films like the
trilogy. Television and action films were about his only real obsessions at this stage. ‘I was never obsessive about anything I watched when I was a kid,’ he told
magazine in 2013, ‘except maybe
. And I loved
His teachers tried to re-direct his energy in a more constructive fashion. For a time, he was taught the trumpet, which he feels explains the pronounced lower lip he would develop. ‘I have trumpet mouth,’ he would tell the journalist Caitlin Moran. But he would show real promise on stage. At ten years of age, he was cast in a Brambletye school production of
Half a Sixpence
. As Ann Kipps, the female lead, he would belt out show-stoppers like ‘I Don’t Believe a Word of It’, as sung by Julia Foster in the 1967 film version. He was increasingly able to temper his behavioural excesses. ‘I realised there were ways to channel the energy that didn’t involve being disruptive. Getting parts in school plays became my focus.’
By the late 1980s, Brambletye had its own purpose-built theatre, with a seating capacity of 300. It was opened by one Judi Dench. It was there that, in 1989, his penultimate year at the school, 12-year-old Benedict made his Shakespearean debut in a production of the comedy
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. He took the part of Nick Bottom, a bumbling weaver
with acting aspirations. It was a role bursting with comic potential, and apparently according to the school magazine, he did extremely well. ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’s Bottom will be long remembered,’ it supposedly stated. If this is true, it’s not a bad first review, unfortunate wording aside.
Benedict’s housemaster at Brambletye was Andrew Callender, who also taught the boy. He found it easy to recall his sporting prowess – notably at rugby and cricket – but it was his thespian abilities which were unusually prodigious. ‘Benedict was a remarkable young pupil,’ said Callender in 2012. ‘His acting came to the fore very early on. He had boundless energy.’
As the 1990s dawned, Benedict’s days at Brambletye were coming to an end. The school’s headmaster had an idea for where the boy should go next. He suggested to his parents that maybe the ideal place for Benedict could be the school he had attended himself: Harrow. There he might find the structure and responsibility to help him continue his journey through the educational system.
Brambletye had not been a cheap educational option. Harrow would be pricier still. Throughout the 1980s, Benedict’s parents had taken numerous stage and screen jobs to ensure that their son’s school bills would be paid. By 1989, Wanda was playing Rodney’s mother-in-law Pamela in
Only Fools and Horses
, and touring in stage farces by Ray Cooney.
Harrow was not an inexpensive option, and Wanda and Timothy needed a scholarship in order for Benedict to attend. ‘I’m not a hereditary peer,’ Cumberbatch remarked
years later. ‘I wasn’t born into land or titles, or new money, or an oil rig.’ Yet despite his relatively modest background when compared to many of his peers, Benedict Cumberbatch would feel extremely grateful for his education at Harrow.