In May 2019, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Doctor Strange) won his first ever BAFTA for Best British Actor for his title role in Patrick Melrose, which also won Best Mini Series, Writer and Production Design.
Based on the much-loved novels by Edward St Aubyn, each of the five episodes depicts a chapter in the life of the troubled Melrose, from his abusive childhood in the South of France in the 1960s to his adulthood in debauched 1980s New York and sober Britain in the early 2000s.
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of The Rings) features as his abusive father, while Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) plays his mother, who tacitly condoned the behaviour. While it’s every bit as dark as that sounds, it’s always bejewelled with a sparkling wit.
Now that Patrick Melrose is streaming first and only on Showmax in South Africa, we caught up with Benedict to find out more about the role, which also earned him Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Best Actor.
Who is Patrick Melrose?
Patrick is desperate to distance himself from his terrible childhood and as a result is, psychologically, all over the place. He’s addicted to drugs and near suicidal, but also incredibly funny and brilliant. He goes on this extraordinary journey from victimhood to survivor, via the most richly comic, scalpel-like postmortem of an upper-class system that’s crumbling, that dissolves as the stories continue.
It’s an extraordinary stretch of one man’s life, from an innocent child, to a terrified, self-destructive 20-year-old, to a sober thirtysomething, to a husband and father – to an orphan… what a great canvas to play with.
Was it a difficult role to play?
The hardest task was containing that amount of hurt and pain, having to go to a place where that was coursing through his veins and tipping him towards chaotic, self-destructive behaviour and finally a meltdown during his mother’s memorial.
But I’ve learned over many occasions to leave the work on screen, go home in the car, turn on the radio and start to let go so that I walk in the door and it’s not: ‘How was your day?’ ‘Well, I was looking at my dead dad, thinking of him raping me and then I injected cocaine into my left ankle and smashed up a hotel room before near overdosing on heroin and waking up surrounded by blood, vomit and needles. You know, the norm!’
Back in 2012, you said this was the one part that you wanted to play…
I remember saying it at a fan convention in Australia. I also said Hamlet – those are the only two roles that I’d ever bucket-listed. The last novel had been published in 2011 and that was the year I’d started to read the series.
This story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy, does it struggle to get there.
It’s an awful thing to say, considering how monstrous some of these people are, but I just felt that I had a slight lock in to the world. I had a little understanding of that milieu – the brilliance but coldness of the cynicism and the irony.
I remember my grandmother once saying, ‘Oh what a bore, oh darling, don’t let’s talk about that, it’s such a bore.’ A bore, like no one’s investing any kind of emotion or genuine care in things. It’s all so flippant.
My grandma, I should emphasise, was a caring, friendly person. There was just this social pressure to keep it all light and bubbly like cocktail conversation.
So the abuse and drug addiction in the story takes place in the aristocracy?
Yes, so one fear about this was: are we looking at high-class champagne problems? Is this going to ostracise people or alienate people?
But the type of person who struggles with addiction, the type of person who has experienced abuse, sadly ranges across all class divides and so there is a universality to this that I think will translate, plus this scalpel laser-like examination of the death throes of the old-world behaviour and attitudes of the worst of the upper classes.
They can have the most extraordinary ideas of ownership and property and what wealth is – but this story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy does it struggle to get there.
We’re aware we’re putting this question to the man who’s played Sherlock Holmes, but Patrick Melrose has a dedicated fanbase – is there any pressure there?
Yeah, there really is and that’s a bit daunting. Sherlock is literally the most adapted character in fiction. This is one of only two attempts. Every reader has their own cinema playing when reading fiction this good, and, because it is a long narrative of salvation, reading becomes a very personal thing.
No one can be everyone’s Patrick Melrose – although maybe with this new face technology they could stick other actors’ faces on my head to make that come about. Nicolas Cage as Patrick Melrose, perhaps?
Have you met Edward St Aubyn?
Yes. He’s incredibly erudite, intelligent and witty, but he’s also amazingly empathetic and genteel. He’s more generously ironic than the bitter self-loathing irony that permeates the more unattractive elements of the character in the book – which you enjoy from a distance, but I don’t think you’d really want to be around.
He makes no bones about Patrick being an alter-ego. How someone that good has come out of something so bad is a miracle, so I respect him for that alone, let alone how he’s imbued his art with it.
What should people expect?
Well… I hate this bit because you’re asking me to sell myself as I’m very tied up in this but… I think people are in for an unexpected treat. I hope they’ll be really entertained by some extraordinary material rendered by some of our most loved actors, young and old, and shot in a novel and beautiful way. Visually it’s going to be very different from episode to episode and there’s the obvious originality of the screenplay.
I hope people are going to want to read the books. I remember when we first made Sherlock, there was a spike in the sales of those books, and it brought Conan Doyle to a new generation. The Patrick Melrose books are an extraordinary achievement in 21st-Century literature. They’ll stand the test of time, so let’s hope our adaptation does.
The Patrick Melrose books are an extraordinary achievement in 21st-Century literature. They’ll stand the test of time, so let’s hope our adaptation does.