Saturday October 6 2012 saw Sherlock fans travel in their droves to Cheltenham to listen to Louise Brealey interview Benedict Cumberbatch at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sherlock Holmes and his role in the television series. In the event, the talk became more focused on Benedict’s work and career, but when the discussion was as sparky, funny and entertaining as this that was certainly no bad thing.
When J.K. Rowling, arguably the world’s most successful modern author, tells her audience that she is merely the warm up act for Benedict Cumberbatch’s session, you can get a sense of the anticipation that was pervading the Centaur building at Cheltenham Racecourse. Emerging onstage to a frankly thunderous reception from the sold out audience of two thousand people, Benedict and Louise were in playful mood from the off, joking that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the true Sherlock Holmes experts, weren’t attending the talk. This led Benedict to play act shock and confusion, walking around and staring backstage in mock incredulity, before settling down in his seat. Louise noted the next time she would publicly say “I play Molly Hooper” in front of an audience would be during the read through for Sherlock Series Three next year.
While many of the questions covered previously known information, there was a smattering of confirmations and news revealed relating to Sherlock and Benedict’s upcoming roles, which we’ll get out of the way first:
- Mark Gatiss handed in his first draft of the opening episode of Sherlock Series Three last week - he tweeted about completion of a script that came as a ‘physical relief’ on Tuesday 2 October.
- Confirmation that Benedict actually owns one of the incredibly rare Belstaff Milford coats, made iconic by his role as Sherlock Holmes. It was a gift from Mark Gatiss after the filming of the original pilot episode of the series in 2009. Benedict joked that he has only worn it the once, hinting that going outside publicly wearing it would make him far too visible.
- There is no truth to the recent tabloid rumours about his role as the lead villain in the proposed 24th James Bond film. Benedict knows nothing about it.
- First news that Benedict has performed motion capture for The Necromancer in The Hobbit trilogy - previously it was only stated that he was voicing the character. This emerged from an expression of his frustration that most media outlets report that he is only providing the voice for Smaug the dragon in the films, whereas he will actually portray the entire physical onscreen performance for the gigantic creature through motion capture, which he performed during an intense couple of days of work in New Zealand earlier in the year.
- Confirming earlier comments, Benedict stated that the one role he would want to play onstage above all others is Hamlet, and he is working to find room in his schedule to make this a reality.
On Sherlock, both Benedict and Louise reaffirmed that they could only offer a healthy ‘no comment’ when questioned as to how Sherlock survived the drop from St Bart’s Hospital during The Reichenbach Fall, with Benedict saying that whether the questioner was Steven Spielberg or any other Steven, he could only offer the same answer. He told an amusing anecdote on playing the character, following an encounter with someone in a pub after the broadcast of the first series. The man had huge appreciation for his performance, but amusingly noted that Benedict had ‘stolen’ the famous praying hands from others who played the character in the past - though as Benedict noted, Sherlock’s famous physical depiction of thinking of course comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original writing!
Benedict said the version of Sherlock Holmes he was most familiar with while growing up was Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the Granada series, who he knew from a young age, noting the incredibly hawk like and cold quality he brought to the role, and the tragedy of his own life imbuing the character with these elements at such incredible cost. That familiarity led him to initially question the validity of BBC Sherlock before he auditioned, but once he discovered the calibre of those involved behind the scenes he lost any misgivings. He talked about his original audition for the BBC series, which famously took place in Beryl Vertue’s flat - with Beryl serving him tea and biscuits in a Mrs Hudson like manner - and his subsequent reading with Martin Freeman where he noted he felt his “game just go right up.” He was full of praise for his friend during the talk, noting that he hates the word ‘sidekick’ and that the pairing is more of a double act, and saying that Martin was actually much quicker in thinking than he was - amusingly Benedict said he was much closer to John Watson in real life, seeing himself as much more of a follower. Louise asked what his favourite part of filming Sherlock was, which Benedict found quite hard to pin down, and instead gave us a list:
- The end of filming a deduction - “a nice belt un-tightening reliever.”
- When he gets to run about and have fun and “be a bit of an action hero.”
- A nice “rat-a-tat” dialogue scene with Martin
- Portraying moments when Sherlock is wrong and has to be brought up short
- Filming the rooftop scene between Sherlock and John in The Reichenbach Fall, and being able to find a vulnerability and emotional depth for the character.
- “The coat is nice, but not in summer.”
- “Driving a Land Rover as fast as you can was good!”
- Getting the dialogue right is “one of the best things in the world”
- “And you” (to Louise)
When asked if he had a single favourite episode of the series as a viewer, he said he didn’t, but again highlighted the rooftop scene from The Reichenbach Fall and being able to see what Martin was doing on the ground while he was on the rooftop in the final version of the episode.
Benedict also related the most embarrassing thing to occur to him on set filming the series, which was the infamous scene of Sherlock in nothing but a bedsheet inside Buckingham Palace. On one take of Mycroft stepping on the sheet in the scene, a combination of factors between Mark’s stepping and Benedict’s forward movement lead him to fall completely flat on his face. Further joking saw Louise reveal what was inside Molly’s Christmas present to Sherlock in A Scandal in Belgravia - a Mankini, as seen in Borat. He also commented on his occasional frustration with Sherlock’s hair, and the time it takes to prepare and look after it before filming can begin for the day.
Talk on his other recent projects also featured. Benedict revealed parts of his preparation for his role in Frankenstein at The National Theatre, attending a live autopsy and depriving himself of sensory experiences to attempt to understand the experience of being born anew. On Parade’s End, due to the tight production schedule he didn’t have the time to read the novels beforehand and relied upon the scripts by Tom Stoppard, the direction of Suzanna White, and the work of his co-stars to understand the character of Christopher Tietjens initially, before finding the time to plunge fully into the nine hundred odd pages of Ford Madox Ford’s work. He said that of all the characters he has played, Tietjens is his personal favourite, and that agreed with a statement from Louise that his look and manner made him well suited to playing period characters, but he said that his identification with that type of role could be attributed to his manner as ‘an old soul’ - something pointed out to him by one of his teachers while at Harrow. Incidentally, his headmaster from the school was in attendance, which led to huge applause from the audience, and later a bit of an apology to him when Benedict admitted to smoking and drinking whiskey in a successful attempt to deepen his voice for a school play!
Knowing the size of that audience, Benedict also quite wisely took the opportunity to address his recent misquoting in the press regarding the topics of Elementary and ‘posh bashing’, with two thousand pairs of ears being perhaps the best and most unimpeachable witnesses to what he had to say. He noted that much of this can be attributed to misinterpreted humour or even outright fabrication, so he is now being quite guarded when giving interviews. On Elementary, he said that it was impossible and wrong for him to claim any form of ownership over the character after 70 previous actors had played Holmes, and reaffirmed his genuine best wishes for his friend Jonny Lee Miller in his performance, wanting him to have “nothing less than rip-roaring success” and stated how impressed he was the series after viewing the pilot on broadcast while in the United States. On ‘posh bashing’, he said he was bemused by his sudden appearance as a mouthpiece for the privileged in the media from misquoted or even fabricated statements, and that one of the reasons someone becomes an actor is actually to be free of any notions of class. He is clearly very thankful for the chances he was given by his parents and the fame that has been afforded him though, and one of those is his chance to become a mouthpiece for charities, and thus help give people a second chance where they would ordinarily not be heard. He highlighted the Palace to Palace charity bike ride he is undertaking on behalf of The Prince’s Trust on Sunday October 14 2012, cycling 45 miles from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle - and joked he would wear the previously mentioned mankini as part of his cycling gear. He said the greatest benefit of sudden fame is the chance to talk about these things in front of a large audience, and the opportunities it provides in general.
Benedict also spoke about his upcoming projects, including August: Osage County, which he has been filming this month alongside Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Chris Cooper, and will return to the States soon to continue working on the film. Displaying an excellent poker face, he could give us no comment on anything relating to Star Trek Into Darkness, but said how the film will be a fantastic experience come May next year.
Discussion turned to Twitter late in the event, following Benedict’s query if people would like him to join the social networking site - to huge cheers. He reaffirmed that he has no plans to do so, and that he is not on the service at all, but also suggested he lacked the writing ability and skill to edit necessary to fit information into those pesky 140 characters.
Following the Q&A section of the panel - much of which we’ve covered throughout this report already - the event concluded having run over time, but even as we prepared to make our long journey home for the night, we stopped to watch the sheer dedication of the fans of this remarkable actor, and his response to them in turn, going way over the allotted hour of scheduled signing to ensure every single person queuing was able to receive his signature. It was a fantastically fun evening in the company of Benedict and Louise, with many moments of mucking about and humour from both that is difficult to describe after the event - though their late realisation that they were both being projected onto a giant screen to the audience was a definite highlight, with Louise’s shock and Benedict’s subsequent shameless mugging. It is always a tremendous pleasure to hear actors talk about their craft, and as good as he is on screen, Benedict is huge fun to listen to in person.
To donate to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Palace to Palace Charity Bike Ride, cycling 45 miles from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle and taking place on October 14 2012, visit his sponsorship page.
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