Recommended second chance
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a principled aristocrat who refuses to divorce his unfaithful wife in Tom Stoppard’s five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford novels. The Sherlock star tells TV Choice about the drama, and talks about starring in sequels to the Star Trek and The Hobbit movies.
You play the aristocrat Christopher Tietjens. How would you describe him?
He’s an extraordinary character. He’s out of time with the Edwardian era, and his belief system is almost feudalistic. He has a wonderful understanding of what England was, and how it’s been corrupted, which is a very modern message, because it’s to do with economics. He believes in the land rather than money markets. He calls the latter the ‘Toryism of the pigs’ trough’, which is what we’re living through now. And he believed in land being the basis of power, not money markets.
What do you like about him?
His quiet heroism appealed to me. He goes off to war, and ostracises himself to the point where he accidentally becomes a war hero. He takes over from a drunk captain and leads men who he cares for. And he personifies what that war did to people. It brought out the best and worst in people. The war was deeply ironic in that sense.
Why does he fall in love with the suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens)?
She’s a match for him. She has an innocence and a maturity. But he can’t do anything about it – even though he’s a red-blooded male and he’d like to – because he’s contracted to this virtuous thing of standing by his wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). That only shifts when he realises that he might be going back to the war to die, but I don’t want to spoil the story.
Tom Stoppard has based the story on four novels by Ford Madox Ford. What do you think of the original material?
It is a confusing story. It’s richly told and revealed by Tom Stoppard’s script. But at the end of the day, it’s an Edwardian melodrama. Downton Abbey, as I’m sure writer Julian Fellowes would admit, is a soap. It delivers that period in brilliant and easy to digest chunks, and that’s fine. But we’re trying to be faithful to this original story, written over a few years. So it asks a lot more of you. I can imagine a lot of people scratching their heads, but I beg people to stay with it.
You’ve also been making big-budget movies this year, so is that very different to working in British TV?
Oh yes, everything scales up. Your hours are weirder. You are working harder to an extent. The Star Trek sequel, to all intents and purposes, was an action movie as much as it was a sci-fi drama. There are lots of things that are very similar. The money in films is what directors get to play with. That’s where you really notice the difference.
You can get paid more for doing TV work than you can for films. By and large, that’s the rule actually, unless you’re the green-lighting name. So I could have made much more money if I’d stuck around doing more shows like Parade’s End.
What was it like filming The Hobbit: There And Back Again?
It was great. I had a very isolated time with Peter [Jackson, director] and Fran [Walsh, writer]. Weirdly it’s very freeing when you put on the CGI suit and the sensors [he plays the dragon Smaug and the Necromancer]. I’ve never felt less encumbered – it was incredible. How do you research that? You go to London Zoo and look at Komodo dragons and lizards. But you really just have to lose your s*** on a carpeted floor in what looks like a mundane government building.
Since starring in Sherlock, do you get approached by more fans?
Yes, hugely. By and large, they’re an intelligent breed, and they’ve sometimes gone over my back catalogue. So many more of them have seen To The Ends Of The Earth than would have done originally, so that’s nice.