Benedict Cumberbatch talks Parade’s End

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The man from Sherlock tells Gabriel Tate about his new drama, typecasting and dealing with the fans

Benedict Cumberbatch is 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. The works trace the collapse of Edwardian society through the eyes of tormented aristocrat Christopher Tietjens (played by Cumberbatch in the TV series). This overflowing ebullience from the acclaimed actor is certainly 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. All those principles are so fucking grey now – lost to instant satisfaction and consumerism.

And he’s involved in a love triangle, correct?
His wife Sylvia [Rebecca Hall] is out of time. She’s from the Jazz Age – high living and letting 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.

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 that 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.

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. The only thing is people surreptitiously trying to take a photo. That fucks me off. Why not just ask?

Doing The Hobbit must have meant a great transformation for you, right?
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 Premieres Sun Dec 22 at 7.30pm on BBC Entertainment (i-Cable channel 130 and now TV channel 529).

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