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On Benedict Cumberbatch

There is definitely something alien about Benedict Cumberbatch. This was exaggerated the first time we properly met. He arrived late, he often is, but with the flurry of apology that he means utterly, and sounds faintly bored of having to give so frequently. He was wearing his crash helmet and wet weather biker’s jacket. It was a modern style so had the moulded Kevlar pads and bumps that shaped his body like an exoskeleton.

He is immediately intelligent. He’s on his front foot and yet asking questions. One instantly gets the impression there is no depth to any conversation he is not willing to plumb.

Over the long casting period we discussed with him many times, which of our four leads he could play. What makes him different from most of the actors we saw was of course that he can play so many different parts. Again it’s the hint of ‘shape-shifter’ that gilds his gifts.

At first I was loathe for him to play James (thinking he may play another role). I felt that having become well known for playing Stephen Hawking so brilliantly he would be perceived as some sort of a “rent-a-cripple”… But there was something I needed in James that so few people could portray. And of course Benedict understood it immediately, which is why he is one of the great actors of his generation.

James is a hero. We have to love him. We have to understand why the boys love him and will go to the extreme they do with him… But he’s also a bit of a pompous dick.  I like to think this is what makes him believable. All these characters have flaws because we ALL do.

But it takes confidence and belief, total artistic commitment and an amazing lack of vanity for a young actor in his first real leading role to know that he can play this character on the edge of likability and get away with it.  Of course Benedict does.

The ability to play these complications is another matter. He is of course just a brilliant actor. All the boys were.  For me his most impressive ability, as I have said before, is to be technically brilliant, while all the while looking as though there is nothing but gut reaction going on. Watching him physically train to play James (He dieted, ran the cliffs and swam in the cold sea), and also delve into the meaning of every line in rehearsals, and then plot the effect of his illness on his body and mind as it would be in each scene (shot in the wrong order), while all the while being a joy to be around was impressive to witness. To see it as one performance in the final cut was remarkable.

He is rare even amongst the acting breed. If the character description says handsome: he is.  If it says Nasty: he is. Older: he is… Younger: he is. For this reason I just can’t wait to see what he will become.

Working with him was a delight. I learned so much. It was so often easy to see what he was like at ten years old. He’s a giggler, and a brilliant mimic and, like the other boys, he thought nothing of carrying kit up the steps from Barafundle Bay, even after having been on camera all day.

When we cast him in Third Star, his role in Sherlock was yet to make him the global star he is now. This of course did so well for us in to one respect and yet his schedule, by the time we released, made it impossible for him to do enough press. Fame had swept him up.  And yet, when we talk, I am really aware that he is enjoying it by revelling in the experience of the work far, far more than any of the perks of it.

One evening long after the shoot he called me to ask if he could come to my home to watch Have I Got News For You.  “Sure. Why?”

“Because I’m hosting it?”

I sat and watched him watching himself. He was thrilled that he “got away with it”, that his suit looked nice; that his memory of people laughing at the right times, on and off script, were real. He was edgy throughout and so relieved when it was over. It was strange to see him so effected by it at first– but of course I realised he was having to be himself. Like the great chameleons of the stage and screen, having to decide on a version of himself to go on camera was a risky business for him.

I’m not sure to what extent that was a turning point, but throughout that period I really felt he had to adjust to life as Benedict Cumberbatch in some way – and he found his feet.  Whatever personal doubts he had had, that were inaccurate, are far fewer now. Being really appreciated for what he does best has made him happier in his own skin… So he can spend the rest of his life enjoying wearing other peoples.

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September 24th 2009

Davy (Tom Burke) “That could have been bad” 

Today the crew are assembled to film a tricky leg of the boy’s journey. In the story, having found the going a bit slow, they decide to cut out what may be a day’s walking at their current pace, by lowering themselves and the fully laden cart, down the cliff face on ropes. So we are in the quarry near Barafundle Bay, which has a vertical cliff face that’s used for teaching rock climbing, and a mains power source in a hut that also has plumbing.

The Face-pullers – JJ, Benedict, Adam and Tom – are milling around in costume in a clearing at the top of the cliff. There’s a qualified team of rock climbers playing with bits of rope that will lower them down. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing with the rope but they’re experts and they seem cheerful. There’s our jolly paramedic standing by for this, our biggest ‘stunt’, with his seventh cuppa of the morning, served from the giant kitchen truck, which is within feet of us for the first time in two weeks. And the rest of the trucks are here too and parked on concrete not sand or cow shit. And there’s a real loo! It flushes and everything!

And so – sure – the rope-fiddling seems to be taking a tiny bit longer than normal – but today is already shaping up to be a good day.

No cows. No sea birds. No tide coming in. No boats moored in frame. No walkers sitting in shot painting infantile keepsakes, before going home, having pissed me off on purpose, to eat boil-in-the-bag-cod in front of Songs of Praise! Anyway.  You get the picture – TODAY – is a GOOD day.

I go about my business, making sure we are ready for various other things that are coming up. I have a chat with our new Key Grip, the theatrically named, Warwick Drucker, about laying track (that man can LAY –TRACK – by the way. Neat van too.  Brilliant. I make a mental note.)

Oh – did I mention the sun is still shining?

So then I go up to the top of the cliff for a gentle investigation into the time. The Face-pullers are still relaxed. And there is some amusement amongst the Rope-pullers. One of them wants to tell me something. He’s a local guy, part-time fireman. Typically handy looking. He has concerns about the paramedic.

“The paramedic?” I say.

“Yes.”

“But he’s great, he’s been really helpful… and he loaned us a quad bike.”

“Well he’s not a paramedic.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He treated one of the crew a few days ago when his hand was sliced open!”

“Well he’s not a paramedic.”

“But… he’s got a uniform and an ambulance!”

“Well he’s not a paramedic.”

I look down that the tubby and affable ‘Paremedic’. The rose tinted view fades and I see that his uniform is a tatty green fleece with a badge sewn on. His ambulance is an old Vauxhall Carlton with the word ‘Ambulance’ stuck on the side, and the whole thing looks like it’s been carrying fish bait for a bit too long. It turns out that this is because it’s been carrying fish bait for a bit too long.

I turn back to the fireman-Rope-puller. “….But…But he… What?”

The fireman tells me that the ‘Paramedic’ is well known to the local emergency crews. He allegedly has his own radio scanner and listens-in to emergency calls. He then likes to turn up first to accidents, especially those involving pregnant women, to lend a hand… He also runs a sex shop on the side… Apparantly the BBC made a documentary about him.

“Sorry. Could you say all of that again?”

The colour drains from my face. Behind the fireman-Rope-puller his colleagues are tying Benedict Cumberbatch to a rope that looks thinner than ever and they are about to dangle him of a cliff edge that is suddenly higher and steeper. I tell them to hold on a moment and go for a chat with the ‘Paramedic’.

I ask him if he is qualified as a Paramdic. He tells me he is not, but he IS qualified as an Special Emergency First Aid Assistant or some balls…. I ask if he is insured. He says he is. I ask if he can prove that. Now. He says the paperwork would take some time to find… I ask if he has ANY kind of credential on him. He takes out his wallet. It looks like it has been used to shovel the fishing bait into the ‘ambulance’. Inside it he finds a business card of considerable age and usage. It has the name of a private medical training company and a phone number so old that its London dialling code places it at least two decades back into history. He asks if someone has said something… I don’t answer.

I take it away and race to the office. We phone the number – it doesn’t exist. We look into how we found him. He had added himself to the Welsh Screen Commision database. We took this as a credential enough it seems. We were wrong. I ask Kelly Broad to find a new medic because the current one is going to need medical assistance himself in about five minutes.

I go back to set. He is still there though a little sheepish now.

“If this is a company that provides medical training that you paid for I should be able to call them.”

He thinks about this rather too long and says. “See, they aren’t so much a company, but an… organisation I started in order to-“

GET OFF MY SET. NOW.

I am shaking with rage. He drives away quietly. I get a bit shaky. I realise rage has been joined by fear. Fear of what happened there, because of what nearly happened – because of what could so easily have happened.

At the office the amazing Ms. Broad has been on the phone.

35 minutes later Adam Robertson is tied to Benedict. They are half way down the cliff because the new paramedic has arrived. He is tall and clean shaven. He is quiet. He has a big shiny Ambulance and a fluorescent uniform. He has an oxygen tank and foil blankets. He has the benign expression of a man who has just washed his hands and can resuscitate a dying woman without getting an erection. He has more qualifications to be there watching no one get hurt than I will ever have for running the whole shebang.

But he doesn’t have a quad bike he can lend us.

But hey – the sun is shining on the Face-Pullers, Rope-Pullers and on Warwick’s track. The smells of cooking from the kitchen fill the quarry and maybe… just maybe we’ll catch up the hour we lost. Maybe.


On Tom Burke

I had been a fan of Tom Burke for a while. Having first seen him in the BBC’s Dracula I was immediately struck by the fact that he is gifted with that certain something you can’t look away from.

He came late to Third Star. That is to say that for nearly three years, whenever we had auditions we had asked his agents to get him in, only to find he was always busy. It is of course a quirk of fate, as in so many areas of making a film, that lead to his finally being available to come and meet us when we were finally well and truly ready to shoot.

His reading of Davy was perfect. What more can be said?

In his first reading I was able to see at last, right there in front of me, exactly why Davy is my favourite character in the script. Davy is no more confused about life than the other four, but his honesty (about everything that makes his life difficult) makes his fear and uncertainty seem to be far greater. In fact – his honesty make his life the most simple. This is subtle stuff to play at times and where the script let’s Davy down Tom’s portrayal more than makes up for it.

Tom is a handsome chap of course, but even in the rushes Davy’s calm face gained a kind of enigmatic beauty. For all his over cautiousness and moaning – that beauty comes from inside the character of Davy – and it’s why we would all want him as one of our best friends. But the brilliance in being able to create that is all Tom.

That talent would be enough for any actor – but I think what I cherish most from working with Tom on Third Star is that he is one of the funniest bastards I have ever known. I actually think his mind follows paths that only the great comic creators take.  He is a skilled writer and I’m sure he’ll be an equally talented director.

It was actually only after filming Third Star that Tom and I became close friends.  Some time later Tom did ‘Design For Living’ at the Old Vic. I went to see it three times and EVERY time, I found that I was still totally enthralled at his performance, in a way that one can usually only experience with someone who maintains a certain mystery, because their real personae is unknown to you. And that mystery is the alluring thing that he naturally possesses  – and why he is so fascinating to watch as any character and equally exciting to know in real life.

This week, I am going to see his parents in a play together. His father, well known for his elaborate practical jokes backstage, is David Burke and his mother is Anna Calder Marshall. I’m sure I’m going to see evidence of where ‘the talented actor Tom Burke’ comes from. But I also know that at some point in the evening, when the lights come up, Tom will say something to me that I could never have expected in a million years. And apart from his love of the work and the text, in writing this, I wonder if it simply his devilish taste for seeing the absurdities of every human around him that drives his talent.

I cannot, for one second, imagine being bored by Tom Burke. And that is about the nicest thing I can say about anyone.