Star of new BBC wartime epic Parade’s End, Benedict Cumberbatch reveals why his latest project is in a different mould from “*******” Downton Abbey
By Benji Wilson
Benedict Cumberbatch sits in his trailer in full military uniform. We’re parked just over the road from London’s Turnham Green tube station, and he’s cueing up some music on his iPod. But if the setting’s a little incongruous, somehow the outfit makes perfect sense.
After his role as a stuttering cavalry major in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, and with his crisp vowels, sharp eyes and a surname that sounds like it was made for a roll call, there’s something distinctly officer class about Benedict. He looks as natural wearing a woollen khaki tunic from the Great War as it’s probably possible to look on a glum day in west London in 2012.
We meet on the set of Parade’s End, the BBC’s epic new adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s forgotten First World War masterpiece by Sir Tom Stoppard. Benedict, 36, plays Christopher Tietjens, a brilliant government statistician trapped in a thankless marriage to a selfish socialite. An unconsummated relationship with a suffragette brings him some happiness—until his world is overturned when he’s called to the Front.
This is a role that demands a great actor and a committed bibliophile—Ford’s novel is a dense, sometimes formidable read. But not only did Benedict, the star of BBC One’s Sherlock, work through every one of its 900 pages, he also adored it. There’s a dog-eared copy next to the fridge in his trailer when we meet.
“I was blown away by it. I still go back to it every day. Like most adaptations of books I’ve done—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for example—the book is the best background and bedrock for characterisation. Of course, it’s heartbreaking as well, because you read a character with as many subtle shifts as Christopher and you think, I can’t play that. But then Tom is very good at getting to the nub of it.”
Tietjens, Benedict says, is a classic stifled Edwardian. “He’s hugely repressed, but also has a massive capacity for feeling. None of it is worn on the sleeve; it’s all incredibly insular. But he has moments where he’s known to ‘let moisture flow from his eyes’, as Ford calls it, when watching a soppy play or reading books.”
It took some time for Benedict to engage with Tietjens’ stern surroundings, but once he did, he says, he “fell in love” with the period. He’s not alone. The years before, during and after the First World War have received renewed attention, with War Horse, the BBC’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and, of course, ITV1’s Downton Abbey all offering their own takes on the time. How does Benedict explain this newfound obsession with the period?
Part of the appeal, he says, is that “there was a social structure that had to be adhered to”, from aristocrat to tenant and so on. But if that makes the former Harrow pupil sound like a raging right-winger, he’s having none of it.
“Everyone was held in their place, but what was honourable about it was that there was a duty of care from the top down. That shouldn’t be tied in with any sort of fat-faced, flatulent Cameron effort at what Toryism—horribly—is now.”
Benedict recognises that Downton itself has generated a lot of the interest in the period, too. “We’re remembering that there was a world before the First World War. We’re living in a culture now that’s revering, or having a nostalgia trip with, the beginning of the 1900s. Although Downton traded a lot on the sentiment in the last series…but we won’t talk about that series because it was, in my opinion, f*****g atrocious.”
The worry is that Parade’s End could be seen as just another drama in that mould: “There was that fear, yes. I thought, Are we pandering to a taste? But this is so much more sophisticated, so much more unusual. You rarely see a piece about this class of people that’s this accurate, funny and pointed. We’re not making some clichéd comment: ‘Oh, isn’t it awful the way there’s this upstairs-downstairs divide.’ This is about class and love, an elegy to a dying era. It’s the final mad waltz of Edwardian society into this war-game idiocy.”
“[My character] sees all that’s happening around him. He feels the unbearable pain of these interbred royal families, idiotic toffs and mind-blowingly selfish, stupid, pride-fuelled diplomats who worked on the principle that they could make treaties based on carving up lands that didn’t even belong to them in order to maintain stability and power pacts in Europe. Then they just made a complete f*****g mess of it and sent almost two entire generations to their graves.”
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