In September 2007, I took my best friend to see Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court. We were both instantly struck by the man playing the protagonist, Berenger. “Hmmm,” she said, scanning the script-cum-programme in the interval. “I think this guy needs a new stage name – it’ll never catch on. Ben-er-dict Cum-ber-batch.”
The passing of four years has fuzzed my memory slightly, but we later saw him in the Royal Court’s bar, either that night or when we were watching another play. He was with friends, and we debated going over to congratulate him on his performance but deemed it “too stalkery”. How we rue the day. She and I were two of the original Cumberbitches, in what is now a nation of Cumberbitches.
Technically, even we had jumped on the Benny C bandwagon a little late. Three years earlier, his role as a young Stephen Hawking – a beautiful portrayal of an incredible mind trapped in a disintegrating body – had won him a Golden Nymph award. On top of the regular TV rounds (Heartbeat – twice), this Harrow-educated son of two professional actors, who studied drama at Manchester before completing his training at Lamda, also played Pitt the Younger in the anti-slavery film, Amazing Grace.
But if this ascent has been steady, it is in 2012 that the 35-year-old will be propelled into the celluloid super league – and cement his position as the small screen’s most impressive star.
Less than a day into the new year, the fantastic foursome of Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss had already given the BBC television that its rivals will spend the whole year trying to trump. Sherlock, in its two seasons, has won almost nine million viewers an episode, two Baftas and provoked countless Twitter storms – most notably last Sunday, as fans tried to work out how the detective had faked his own death. Those missing their Cumberbatch fix can see him on the big screen in War Horse. Next, he will play the lead in Parade’s End, a BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War One tetralogy. At the end of the month, he’s flying to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings prequel, the Hobbit, in which he is playing the dragon.