It’s no good, Benedict Cumberbatch can’t stop us liking him
The Old Harrovian has resorted to some low abuse, but it only adds to the actor’s allure
Benedict Cumberbatch must be one of the oddest-sounding names in the acting profession. It puts you in mind of a flamboyant gentleman’s outfitters on Savile Row, or an undertaker in Dickens. So much so that his father chose Carlton instead as his stage name because it cast fewer shadows. But his 36-year-old son has made his unusual moniker part and parcel of the beguiling spell he currently casts over audiences. Neither he nor the name are traditional leading-man material. Those slanty blue-green eyes and hollow cheekbones, and that freckly ginger colouring make him, he has remarked, a dead ringer for Shergar, the missing-presumed-dead racehorse.
One critic spotted his passing resemblance to Sid the sloth in Ice Age, while a blogger likened him to an otter. News that he is to appear in next year’s Star Trek sequel-of-the-sequel-of-the-sequel is causing a flurry of “looks like” pairings of photographs with Mr Spock. Most, it should be said, have been posted by men. With the opposite sex, the star of Atonement, War Horse, Sherlock, and now the new, upmarket TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, can boast a 30,000-strong Twitter fan club called the Cumberbitches. There’s that unlikely name proving its worth again. Carlton wouldn’t have lent itself so easily to manipulation, but then it might have provided a bit more cover now that Cumberbatch’s every move makes headlines and is accompanied by the sort of hysteria usually reserved for boy bands.
Perhaps the desire to establish a few boundaries between himself and his public is why Cumberbatch – or Bandersnatch Cummerbund as The Washington Post recently dubbed him (the pun is more obscure than your standard Private Eye corruption, but it is testament to his global reach) – has of late started sounding a bit sour. Once he gave charming, modest interviews fanning the flames by revealing that he had “been broody since the age of 12”.
Of late, he has been straining to dispel his lovely-boy-next-door reputation. First he lashed out at Downton Abbey as “atrocious” – a kick in the teeth for the Sunday evening audiences who have propelled him to Hollywood stardom. Worse, he used the F-word in his attack on the serial. This is the man who used to be unable even to allow “Cumberbitches” to pass his cupid-bow lips, referring to them as Cumberbabes instead. Then he split with Olivia Poulet, his actress girlfriend since drama school (she plays Emma Messinger in The Thick of It). There is a well-established cliché of men who achieve fame dumping the women who supported them on the way up, and Ben Batch, as the red-top gossip columnists refer to him, has started playing up to the image of Cumber-batchelor (sorry, it’s catching).
He has been photographed on the red carpet with fashion designer Anna Jones and, more recently, with Lydia Hearst, the inevitable supermodel, on his arm. Next he took a lazy swipe in the forthcoming issue of Reader’s Digest at the Prime Minister – decrying “fat-faced flatulent Cameron’s efforts at Toryism”. Hardly Sherlock-like analysis. Given his own chiselled facial bones, it felt a bit cheap – like Keira Knightley picking on Ann Widdecombe because of her looks. And finally, he has been busy bemoaning, as an Old Harrovian, “posh-bashing” and threatening to decamp for America. But if there is a strategy here to cool things down with his fan base – and, remember, Cumberbatch “toyed very seriously with the idea” of being a barrister, and so knows his way round conjuring an argument out of nothing – then it seems to have backfired. It has only made us love him even more. The Guardian, no less, has done him the compliment of praising his defence of those born with a silver spoon, while Julian Fellowes – a more predictable defender of the upper crust – has laughed off Cumberbatch’s tantrum over Downton. “I have known Benedict since he was a little boy and I couldn’t be fonder of him,” he said this week. The thing with The Batch is that he is so obviously much more than the latest posh, pretty(ish)-boy English actor lapping up his 15 minutes of top-billing.
He effortlessly blurs the line between being a leading man and a character actor. Usually, you do the first young and briefly, then fade from memory, or you bide your time until jawlines sag before making your mark. Cumberbatch seems to have pulled off both at once. Take his choice of roles. He has studiously avoided the Hugh Grant, foppish rom-com route. And he manages, when the part requires it (notably in Sherlock), to carry an asexual air with him. Moreover, he avoids the obvious – giving a wide berth to efforts to make him David Tennant’s successor as Doctor Who – and goes instead for unlikely and potentially unlikeable parts. His Holmes could, in less subtle hands, have seemed remote and somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
He won plaudits for his Vincent Van Gogh in 2010’s Painted With Words, and awards for playing both Victor Frankenstein and his monster in Danny Boyle’s National Theatre adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror novel. His latest role – opposite childhood friend Rebecca Hall – as the repressed and cuckolded Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End continues this theme of playing characters that aren’t immediate audience-pleasers, and yet finding in their tragedy a human warmth.
As an actor, he’s more Daniel Day-Lewis than Daniel Craig. And for all his recent posturing on posh-bashing (his description of “roughing it” by going to Manchester University rather than Oxbridge is priceless), Cumberbatch isn’t nearly as grand as that surname and his alma mater might suggest. His parents are jobbing actors. Timothy Carlton’s long list of credits rings few bells, while his mother, Wanda Ventham, is still routinely tagged as having played Cassandra’s mum in Only Fools and Horses. She took well-paid roles on TV and in West End farces to pay the school fees, in preference to the RSC, he has said, but the couple still needed a scholarship to send young Benedict to Harrow.
The choice arose, he explained, after his prep school head recommended it as the antidote to the “hyperactive nightmare” that gripped him as a child. So placing him isn’t as easy as it first appears, or sounds. Whether he’s billed as Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Carlton or Ben Batch, there is that chameleon-like quality about him that seems set to prove far more enduring and intriguing for audiences than his angular, slightly wonky features, his current run of high-profile roles, or even his clumsy attempts to make us stop liking him.