Benedict Cumberbatch looks spent. He’s perched on a sofa in a London hotel, having barely drawn breath for 40 minutes of talking about Parade’s End, Tom Stoppard’s five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s quartet of novels. These works trace the collapse of Edwardian society through the eyes of tormented aristo Christopher Tietjens. Overflowing with enthusiasm and insight, Cumberbatch’s ebullience is justified – Parade’s End has all the hallmarks of a slow-burn masterpiece.
Who is Christopher?
Christopher is the most adorable, long- suffering, virtuous character I’ve played. There are very modern aspects of his integrity and honour which really appealed to me: that we’re raping the soil beyond its means – we’re reaping the dividends of that now. And it’s admirable, his feudal ideal that value is something tangible rather than to do with money markets and greed. And that there’s a duty to those above and below your station. All those principles are so fucking grey now – lost to instant satisfaction and consumerism.
And he’s involved in a love triangle.
His wife Sylvia [Rebecca Hall] is out of time. She’s from the Jazz Age – high living and let the world go to shit. She’s bipolar and it’s a terrible mismatch. They come together as a result of mutual sexual attraction, but he sees her as damaged goods. He’s trying to do right by her, but he’s killing her with kindness. Then Valentine [Adelaide Clemens] comes along, who’s younger than him but has a very old soul. They can talk to each other on the same level. She promises a real future for him, but she’s forbidden fruit because he’s allied himself to the principles of marriage and doesn’t want to create a scandal.
What do you get with a Tom Stoppard script?
Tom and Ford have a view into the eccentricities and idiocies of the class system, as well as a delight in English language. Tom has an extraordinary turn of phrase, an incredible exactness and a great, highly sexualised humour. He can handle complex ideas with a dramatic context: it’s a wonderful, beautiful, erudite simplification of four complex novels.
Why is the Edwardian era so attractive for dramatists?
We’re living 100 years from when it all began, so it’s natural for storytellers to re-examine the era now there’s nobody alive to tell us those stories any more. I fell in love with Ford’s view of this absurd world imploding as a result of mechanised war. It outlines why a war could have sacrificed eight million people for the death of two.
What research did you do?
A lot of research I did for War Horse fed in to this. I read a book called The Great War and Modern Memory – how culture has shaped views of the war. How the Home Front was painting a picture of the front to keep morale up, so they didn’t know about the hot lead tearing into people’s faces, the rats, the cholera, the cold... Society is reshaped by this complete denigration of the value of life. Christopher speaks out about the absurdities and ends up on the Front because of it.
How was filming at the Front?
It really got under my skin. I was shocked at how flat Belgium was, then how with a tin hat on your horizon shrinks to a letter box. I had about five different script ideas, from the Chinese coolies who dug the trenches then dug out the bodies at the end, to the Wipers Weekly, produced out of this old printing press for the troops, which was like the birth of Private Eye.
What’s your take on Downton Abbey?
The second series did fall off a bit, but ask half of the cast and they’ll say the same thing! What Julian [Fellowes] does is great: incredibly palatable multi-storylines, good Sunday night telly. What we’re doing isn’t supposed to be a comparison, it just happens to be set in a similar era.
How have you dealt with the added attention since Sherlock?
Sherlock fans are, by and large, an intelligent breed, so they’ve gone through my back catalogue and got what I’ve done, why and how I’ve done it. There is some obsessive behaviour, but I worry for them rather than me. Any privacy in public now is odd to negotiate. The only thing is people surreptitiously trying to take a photo. That fucks me off. Why not just ask?
Do you worry about typecasting?
You do get asked to do what you’re most recently famed for. I’ve got a long face, I look a bit weird, I suit period costumes, but that’s about it. In the book Christopher is a fat, blond Yorkshireman. I would have gone further with a fatsuit, but there were discussions about, “Oh, we can’t lose his ‘matinee good looks’, we need something for the viewers to hang on to in this complex Edwardian drama.” I ate myself into the role as best I could.
Doing The Hobbit must have meant an even greater transformation.
Playing Smaug in The Hobbit, weirdly, is very freeing, once you put the suit on with the sensors on. Playing a serpent twice the size of the Empire State Building, that breathes fire, and is 400 years old and lives on a pile of gold in a mountain, is difficult to bring any reality to. So you have to lose your shit on a carpeted floor that looks like it’s come out of a mundane government building, and imagine yourself into it.
Parade's End screens in 2013 on channel 9.