“The starting point was me” – Benedict Cumberbatch on why The Child in Time was so personal

The Sherlock star talks the strain of starring in "very, very dark" BBC drama The Child in Time

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How would you cope if your child vanished? This was the horrifying reality that Benedict Cumberbatch, the father of two young children, had to face in his role in The Child in Time, the BBC1 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel about a man whose young daughter is kidnapped from the supermarket.

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It’s a haunting, gut-twisting account of parental torture. “There was a point,” says Cumberbatch, “where I said to the director, ‘I’m worried I’m getting a bit too upset in these scenes.’ I suppose it’s easier to imagine [as a father], but it isn’t that difficult to imagine. These circumstances are harrowing… They’re unthinkable for any parent, for anyone who has children in their life. It’s horrific, and very, very upsetting.”

Particularly moving for Cumberbatch was a scene in the 90-minute film where his character Stephen Lewis, a children’s author, thinks he’s seen his daughter Kate again, three years after he lost sight of her.

“Everything opens up with a double sledgehammer of grief: he’s reimagining that loss, experiencing it all over again, and feeling the humiliation of running after a schoolgirl he thinks is his daughter.”

When it was published three decades ago, McEwan’s novel won the Whitbread Award and was declared an “extraordinary achievement” by The Guardian, while The Times concluded that “artistically, morally and politically, he excels”. Christopher Hitchens called it McEwan’s “masterpiece”, and the book has gone on to be studied by GSCE and A-level students across Britain.

“I’m a McEwan nut,” says Cumberbatch, speaking to Radio Times at a press event for the drama, “and I don’t think I would have been as interested in this story per se had it not been adapted from such a masterful work that is Ian McEwan’s original novel.”

It was also the lead character who appealed to Cumberbatch – an ordinary middle-class man married to Julie, played movingly by Kelly Macdonald. “I had a desire to portray someone closer to me,” says the Sherlock actor. “Someone who didn’t require a few hours in make-up, or a great deal of strenuous mask work, or something transformative,” he says.

“As far as knowing how I was going to play Stephen, it was quite nerve-racking – it’s the first time I’ve done that in a while. It’s me, as in, there’s not a huge difference in the vocal quality, the way I move. I even wanted to feel really relaxed in costume, so I brought in my own clothes, some of which we used.”

Indeed, today he’s wearing a navy blue jacket and trousers identical to those that Stephen wears in the film. “The starting point was me,” he says.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly MacDonald as Stephen and Julie Lewis

While McEwan’s novel is set against the backdrop of a Thatcherist government – and it’s a damning portrayal of it – the BBC drama loses its political critique, taking place in a nondescript era with a male prime minister whose political party is not specified.

The drama instead focuses on the relationship between Stephen and his wife in the wake of their domestic trauma. “The book has stayed with me since I read it 30 years ago,” says screenwriter Stephen Butchard, “and for me it was always the story of love more than anything else, of these people who find the strength to keep going.”

Also central to the drama is the question of how we should bring up our children, and how involved the Government should get. “You’re always going to have a debate about that,” says Cumberbatch, “because we’re rearing children all the time and trying to do better. But it’s really a relationship drama.”

The beautifully shot drama looks at how a couple copes with something they never thought they’d have to – but alongside the torment, there’s a sense of hope.

So what did McEwan think about this relationship-focused version of his novel? “Ian was actually thrilled about the things Stephen stripped down,” says Cumberbatch. “He said, ‘If I was writing the book [now] I’d probably want to do the same kind of edit on it – really focus on the relationships.’ He thought it was more powerful because of that.”

McEwan came to the script read-through but otherwise left Butchard and the cast to their own devices. “He was thrilled with the work Stephen had already done, so his notes were very minor and very helpful,” says Cumberbatch.

“If he offered anything [about the role] I’d take it, but he was just quietly respectful. He said, ‘Look, if there is anything you want to ask me, feel free to ring, the door is open.’ Maybe years down the line after it’s aired I might ask him what he thought.”

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Stephen’s Mother (Geraldine Alexander), Stephen Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch), Stephen’s Father (Richard Durden)

Child abduction has been the subject of a spate of TV dramas over the last few years, from ITV thriller The Guilty and The Missing on BBC1, to this year’s The Moorside, the BBC1 dramatisation of the Shannon Matthews case. Was Butchard concerned that The Child in Time might be seen as another grisly drama about a kidnapping? Did he worry there might be only so much an audience could take?

“I did think about it,” he says, “and I wrote the script and sat on it for 18 months and that was partly because there seemed to be a glut of child missing dramas, mainly related to crime, and thrillers. Even Broadchurch, which wasn’t overtly about child abduction, touched on it.

“I knew The Child in Time was completely different, but it’s good we’ve had that gap. I think there’s enough distance now between child abduction dramas and this, which is really about the beauty of finding some purpose in the aftermath of it all.”

While Cumberbatch wanted to look, sound and move just like himself while playing Stephen, he says he was determined not to contaminate his home life with thoughts of his character’s agony, despite having to shoot certain heart-rending scenes 40 times or more for eight hours a day.

“It’s incredibly unhealthy to bring work home and I didn’t want to bring that subject matter into our family life. Sophie [Hunter, his wife] didn’t read the script and hasn’t read the book so that’s an example of how I tried to separate the work [from his home life].

“The story is going to affect people reading and watching it, but at the same time it’s an enriching and loving tale of endurance and committing to love – a love that was there before and will endure after this horrible acceptance of an absence. The salvation in this very, very dark story of loss.”

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The Child in Time is on Sunday at 9pm, BBC1