Benedict Cumberbatch Strives For Simple Answers In Complex ‘Child’ Drama


Related to: The Child in Time

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Benedict Cumberbatch heads the cast of The Child in Time — and his new production company took the lead behind the scenes, as well. It’s not Cumberbatch’s first experience with author Ian McEwan’s work — he appeared in the 2007 feature film, Atonement. Like so many readers, Cumberbatch appreciates the ‘cinematic’ qualities of McEwan’s novels. The busy actor stopped by for a chat about time, trauma and the subtle beauties of the everyday.



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Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

For children’s book author Stephen, everything stops the day his four year old daughter disappeared from his sight at the grocery store. It may have taken only a second, but his professional life, his marriage, the gentle breezy charm of his London life — all are forever shattered when Kate mysteriously vanishes.


Kate: Daddy, are we going fast?

Stephen: How fast, very, very fast?

Kate: Yes.

Stephen: Stupidly, ridiculously, illegally fast?

Kate: Yes.

Stephen: Hair flying in the wind fast?

Kate: Yes.

Stephen: Alright, just when there’s no one around, like now, — ready steady go!

Kate: Ahhhh!

Jace: Kate’s devastating disappearance drives a wedge between Stephen and his musical, easy-going wife Julie, pushing them away from the cozy safety of their London lives. But even years after she vanishes, Stephen remains convinced he might yet find Kate.


Stephen: For five minutes or more I’d thought I’d found her. Five minutes at least of euphoria I thought I’ve done it, and I thought of you, and telling you. Lucky I wasn’t arrested.

Julie: I think she might have to be the one to find us.

Jace: Actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen, and is also one of the film adaptation’s executive producers. The grieving father is a role far removed from that of his super-sleuth on MASTERPIECE’s Sherlock.

Benedict Cumberbatch: I think one baffled viewer described it as the worst episode of Sherlock ever.

Cumberbatch joined us in the midst of a particularly busy press tour to discuss how it felt to return to the work of author Ian McEwan in this, his new production company’s first film project.

Jace: And this week we are joined by The Child In Time star and Executive Producer Benedict Cumberbatch. Welcome.

Benedict: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Jace: Now you’re not only the lead, but an executive producer on The Child in Time. You’d worked on another McEwan adaptation with Atonement.

Benedict: Yes.

Jace: What was it about McEwan’s novel that attracted you both as an actor and a producer here?

Benedict: Well I think as a storyteller, you know, McEwan’s novels are always so cinematic. They really lend themselves to a visual medium and that’s been proven time and time again in film. This was the first television adaptation which was a huge honor for our production company, and it just all sort of fell into place at the right time logistically, with the adaptation coming to us already freshly scripted and it was a project proposed in full form rather, than someone saying, ‘Let’s adapt the book,’ no, someone said ‘We already have this adaptation, what do you think?’ So it was a sort of back to front process from that point of view and it just worked logistically with where I was at schedule wise and where the company was, so you know we were both very proud and able. So we just jumped at the chance. And Steven Butchard’s script is a thing of great, deft beauty. And so when Kelly Macdonald was cast, and Steven and Saskia Reeves for example, I mean it attracted some really heavy weight talent that I’ve been a huge fan of for a long time in all of those cases and everyone who we managed to have in however a fleeting role in the drama. It was really richly cast. And Julian, our director. Our captain. What an extraordinarily gifted, gentle soul that man is and just somebody who is really able to perceive the poetry of the piece and move it into a sphere that, while modern, had nothing to do with the procedural questions that would be asked of a missing child but much more focused and narrowed down on the shards of memory, of relationships, of themes of parenting, of grandparenting, of what it is to be a child and society at large whether it’s education or the state’s edicts about how a child should be nurtured. He’s a master, Julian at balancing all of that, but keeping the focus on this man’s struggle to come to terms with the loss and keep the relationships that are still present in his life going or understand them in a new light. I took great pride as a producer. We got together a great team of HODs and it was a very happy shoot for such a traumatic subject. And that’s the responsibility, the day-to-day running of a shoot and the enjoyment of the crew is the thing, you know, partly one of the reasons I wanted to get into this, was to make it a pleasurable experience that everyone could take pride in the results of as well. So we’re very proud of that aspect of what we achieved.

Jace: You mentioned the lack of procedural aspects, one of the things I love about The Child In Time is that it isn’t a mystery per se.

Benedict: I think one baffled viewer described it as the worst episode of Sherlock ever, which, you know, while funny belittles the point of what it does achieve. You know it’s not about that. It’s not a whodunit. It’s not the beginning, middle and end narrative. You know I’m very interested as an artist in exploring the gray areas, the areas between polarities and generalizations, I much prefer the kind of things that are uncertain and unresolved because I feel that’s near the mess of life is a lot of us experience it, in whatever form. So I think the story’s a little truer to that and you know that’s very much the case with the timeline, with this sort of weird fluidity, of where we are back with him in the present, or is it him still searching, is it just after the child’s missing, I think it’s quite clear and I think it where it becomes poetic, I think that’s very much the nature of the emotional charge of those moments. You know time is, as a theme, obviously next to childhood and being a child, is obviously the most prevalent thing as the title would suggest in the drama in the book, and it’s about the idea that time is elastic, it’s so about the gravity of a situation, about a moment that makes something fleeting and terrifying and heart pounding and immediate and now, and other moments where the minute stretches into an hour or vice versa. It’s something we all experience around tragedy and joy, age and youth, and memory plays with our idea of time as much as any of the extremes of our experience of the human condition. So I think obviously with this situation, very extreme situation, that’s something we wanted to explore, so that’s there in the film. It’s a purposeful part of the form, which I think, you know did confuse some people but like I said don’t tune if you want a sort of wam-bam, thank you ma’am bit of closure. It’s a complex, very human narrative.

Jace: No I mean to me it’s it’s about the fact that there are some mysteries that are and can never be solved. And that is sort of — the essence of the human existence is that we can never have answers to to certain certain things whether it’s a tragedy or a question.

Benedict: Yes, and that in itself is part of the tragedy. You know we search for answers all the time in our lives as part of the purpose or existence you know why would we get up every day if there wasn’t curiosity, and in this case it’s, can I survive? Can I get through another day? Can I live with myself? Can I approach living with the partner who I created this missing life with again? Can anything come good of this tragedy? And you know without too much for plot spoil, I wouldn’t say it’s it’s it’s a calmly upbeat moment. But there’s a moment of shifting of possible future possible big new beginning without ever forgetting what’s been left behind.

Jace: ‘She was there,’ Stephen says. ‘She was there, she was just there, she was right there.’ What was it like filming the scene where Stephen tells Julie about Kate’s disappearance?


Julie: You took your time, didn’t you? I was about to send out a search party. Where is she

Stephen: She was there. She was there.

Julie:  Stephen, where is she?

Julie: What do you mean?

Stephen: I don’t know.

Julie: What do you mean? Where is she? Where is she now?

Benedict: Awful. to know that you’re going to explode a bomb, to bring someone into the full horror of what you’ve just experienced, to share a truth that’s almost too terrifying to utter, and it is for a writer. And that moment you know sort of inarticulate repetitive mess of, ‘I don’t understand, I don’t understand.’ He can’t deliver it. He’s still in it. But you know it’s I find it a painful thing to watch because you’re seeing someone completely unexpectedly emotionally cut off at the knees just and it’s so raw the way Kelly responds, It’s so it’s so brilliant, as she is. It’s so straight to the heart of what it would feel like. It makes you feel sick to think about it, being a parent or not. I don’t think he’s aware of him being the messenger. He hasn’t thought of a way to tell her. I think he’s still utterly in shock as the police car journey would suggest. And you know he’s just looking at the peg that still has her jacket, her scooter helmet, her pink little scooter in the corner there. Kate is still there She hasn’t disappeared for Stephen yet. And I think the horror of what he’s experienced hit so hard when he tells his wife that it’s just it’s sick. You can’t fail to be upset by it.

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…

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Jace: Now the most surprising element of The Child in Time is actually its ending. What did you make of the reveal that Julie was secretly pregnant with Stephen’s child and now actually in labor?

Benedict: I think it offers a moment of salvation for a man that deserves some after what we’ve seen him go through. And for it to be a surprise, but he sort of has this extraordinary, uncanny knowingness on the tube where there’s a there’s a moment where he catches the eye in his panic to get to the hospital on time. That’s this kid makes eye contact with him, sort of smiles. Five six year old boy sweet fresh faced boy smiles and he looks down and smiles and says, oh that’s nice, and then looks back to sort of a sort of slight inkling of what just happened and looks back and the boys know that and I don’t I just think there’s a beautiful synchronicity narratively between his relationship with his mother and her mother his mother knowing that she was pregnant with him and visiting him as a boy. As far as narrative structures it’s a very peaceful poetic code and repetition of that cycle of events.


Stephen: Julie?

Julie: Stephen! My husband.

Nurse: You took your time, Mr. Lewis.

Jace: For me watching this as the parent of a 4 year old child myself…

Benedict: Crikey.

Jace: It was it was heartbreaking. How much of this do you take home with you?

Benedict: Absolutely none. Gallows humor helps on set, to an extent. You know that you have to shake it off very quickly, especially, I mean the scene where he’s running through the school and then is finally confronted with the truth that the girl he thought was Kate isn’t and he openly grieves for her all over again. I mean that was sort of I don’t know maybe five hours of dance in the filming of it endlessly breaking down and that was you just so exhausted you just want to you don’t have to leave it behind.


Principal: I’m good friends with Ruth’s family. I remember her mother, Jacqueline, being pregnant with Ruthie, that’s what we call her. And have always called her. Is there going to be a problem Mr. Lewis?

Stephen: No.

Principal: Sit here as long as you need.

Benedict: I try very much to separate my work and my home life to the point not talking about my home life very much as well. But I’m a father and the thought of happening is beyond endurance really.

Jace: I mean I think I went through an entire box of tissues watching this because it was so distressing, but it ultimately ends in a real moment of joy and possibility.

Benedict: Yeah, I think so, and I mean you know I don’t want to deny that it’s a hard watch. But I do think there is real salvation and joy for this character and the drama does end on a note of hope. I think that’s that’s kind of crucial because it is a really hard thing to process. But like I said, while that is the central issue the central cataclysmic event that drives this character, you then do get an examination of what childhood is, what nurture is, what parenting is and what government does to interfere with that, as you know the ruling entity, state or people or education policy or whatever it may be that has happened in that whether it’s you know vaccines or promoting a certain form of literacy at a certain age or learning at a certain age you know all these things that are part of the meta of what being a child in any time of your life is. It tackles a lot but at the central heart of it is this tragedy that does then have a moment of joy and salvation at the end.

Jace: McEwan wrote the child in time two decades before Madeleine McCann disappeared. Do you feel that now ten years after McCann’s abduction the child in time perhaps feels even more relevant?

Benedict: I don’t think we did the adaptation for points of social relevance. I think it was much more a character study of a really appalling seismic event in a relationship. And what, if anything can be salvaged from that relationship. But to me it’s not really a drama it’s about a particular relevance. I think any time a child abduction or missing child case is brought to the attention of the public through the media or through art. It does. You know even 10 years on ready the right does resurrect Those very potent stories especially the McCann’s tragedy so it’s more the ripple of the memory and the realization that that was 10 years ago and where would she be now. And it does it does tackle themes of what it would be to be parents of a missing child rather than specifically relevant to a particular case. So yeah I think that was what McEwan was intending. And certainly what we tried to honor in our adaptation.

Jace: Finally you have Patrick Melrose coming out in the U.S. on May 12th on Showtime. What can you tell us?

Benedict: I can say that we have been working very hard to get it ready in time for May. That’s for sure. I’m really thrilled with the way it’s going. It was a pretty extensive shoot over five months, and we assembled an extraordinary cast around David Nichols’ superb adaptations of these I think really truly great touchstones of 21st-century literature and the shape of the five Patrick Melrose novels, written by Edward St. Albun, and they track a man’s life from the age of five to near 50. And it’s the story of a child who is abused by his father, who we then meet a decade later as a drug addict. As someone who’s the full grasp of addiction both to heroin, cocaine and alcohol to then in the third chance of being sober but rudderless and purposeless to the fourth chapter away. He’s married and having a family of his own and his father has his father dies actually in the second book so his mother who is still looking after starts to disinherit him and all the old demons start to surface again. And then the fifth book where you see in flashback him struggling against the alcoholism that that trauma released and it’s all that at the wake of his mother where he finally comes to terms with her complicity as well as her victimhood in the very abusive relationship she had with his father. It sounds very bleak, again, but actually it’s one of the most masterfully comic and witty pieces of English prose I’ve ever had the delight to speak in David’s translation of Edward’s writing and directed by a fantastic guy called Edward Berger who does a series called Deutschland 83 and shot with great visual flair by him and the BAFTA-winning DOP James Friend and I think you’re in for a treat. Five very different films,  and an extraordinary character at the center of them. And yes we’re surrounded by a wonderful cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh Hugo Weaving, Holiday Granger, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, James Feat, and of course, the wonderful Indira Varma as well. I think it’s going to be a really rich experience for viewers and a challenging but very enjoyable one. He’s a brilliant creation who again is searching for salvation and the special equipment needed to pool free of the gravity of his early days as an abused child. And you know, without any spoilers he kind of succeeds, and the moment of salvation is a very delicate peaceful one at the end of a very traumatic ride, and but a very funny one. So yeah.

Benedict:  I think it should be it should be quite a riot.

Jace: Well, thank you so much, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Benedict: You are welcome. Thank you for having me.

Jace: MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our Executive Producer. The Executive Producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises and The MASTERPIECE Trust.



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