Benedict Cumberbatch is back on the box. And having spent the years since Sherlock began in 2010 establishing himself as a global superstar, he’s now using some of that star power to tell the stories that move him.
His new production company SunnyMarch makes its television debut producing an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time on BBC One. It’s bleak, languid, humane, full of love and loss. A million miles away, in many ways, from Doctor Strange or Sherlock or Star Trek.
“The original book is very much a critique of a horrific, post-Thatcherite dystopia, a slightly Orwellian place,” he says. “They are all very rich seams to explore. But we didn’t want it to have a view on education policy. We are not trying to make a social comment, far from it, this is a character-led piece that explores ideas of loss and childhood.”
This is a character-led piece that explores ideas of loss and childhood
As a portrait of grief, The Child in Time is quietly devastating. The 41-year-old plays children’s author Stephen Lewis, whose young daughter disappears during a shopping trip. His journey through this devastation is at the heart of a powerful single drama, which grapples with grief, masculinity, fatherhood, loss, healing and time. Cumberbatch gives the sort of intimate, nuanced performance we’ve not seen so much during his recent blockbuster adventures in superstardom.
“We also live in an age where TV and social media mean there are many more eyes on the horrific possibility of a child going missing, so we are keen to steer past the procedural aspect of the drama,” Cumberbatch continues.
“That is not what the book explores in this tragedy. The same with the politics, we felt it would be a red herring. There is an idea of what it is to be parented, whether it is by the state, by an individual mother or father, by grandparents, mother or father – all those things we do explore.”
The Child in Time steers clear of politics, perhaps as a result of what has happened when Cumberbatch has waded into social debate. Rewind two years to his sell-out run in Hamlet at the Barbican and at the peak of his popularity, he would implore audiences (below) to donate to Save The Children’s fund to help refugee children fleeing Syria.
“I remember being in countless stage productions and collecting for the Terrence Higgins Trust or cancer charities. All sorts of worthy causes but not feeling it was out of place,” he says. “We had so many people in the theatre every night, I spoke to the cast, I said, ‘If any of you don’t want to support this, I totally understand, but would anyone mind if I said a few words at the end?’
I asked the cast, ‘Would anyone mind if I said a few words at the end?’
“I asked the ushers – or the hosts, as they are called rather cultish-ly at the Barbican – young kids standing with buckets getting heavy with coppers, who were amazing. Although I did make a joke about availing yourself of paper rather than coins, but whatever people gave made a difference.
“People gave their time to collect it, the cast gave their support for an oft-repeated speech, and they were incredibly supportive. It felt like a natural thing to do.”
One night, this included saying “fuck the politicians” to unsuspecting theatregoers, as well as his heartfelt quoting of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s Home: “A parent only puts their child on a boat when the sea is safer than the land”. At the same time, he said: “I would like to sit down with Theresa May and really get an idea of how her economic and political model works. There is a huge crisis and not enough is being done.”
There was a backlash, he acknowledges, but money was raised. Was Cumberbatch scarred by his experience of public politicking?
“I got very, very heated about it on occasions, and I do regret that. Because I tarred everyone with the same brush. It was a knee-jerk reaction in terms of the refugee crisis, being a new father and seeing a two-year-old child wash up on the beach not dissimilar to the ones I had my childhood on, and will hopefully take my children to.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“I had to do something. I was in a position where I had some kind of a platform. The naysayers said, well, that is not the kind of platform to use for that kind of statement. But I’m a human being and it was a human crisis and I got over-excited and said things in a rather grand manner some nights.
“You stick your head above the parapet and that happens. But we raised money for children in need. So I don’t regret doing it for a second.”
I understand why some might think I should be housing people instead of complaining about a government not doing it
He almost went further, he reveals.
“I don’t know if it is worth bringing this up, but being conscious of the magazine I’m talking to – people were saying, ‘You’ve got a home, why don’t you house refugees?’” he says, choosing his words carefully. “And we did look into it. But we had, then, a very new baby – maybe four or five months old.
“Maybe people had a point. I understand why some might think I should be housing people instead of complaining about a government not doing it. But I was trying to raise awareness that we can do more as a society. Because I do feel we are able to do more than just recovering bodies.”
As his career continues to venture in many varied directions, and his production company prepares to announce further forays into film, Cumberbatch is finding new ways to navigate fame, while using his platform.
“There is a balance between trying to do something and people reading that as you telling them what to do – which is mortifying,” he says.
“I’m not a policy expert. You won’t see me on Newsnight or Question Time. I don’t know enough about social housing. But I think it is important, when you are in any position of influence or having the focus on you, to be able to draw the attention away from you and on to something worthwhile. That is not guilt, it is just being useful.
“And I will do that again, even if it does put me in the firing line.”
The Child In Time airs on BBC One, Sunday September 24 at 9pm