When the Bafta TV nominations for leading actor were announced, the next day’s headlines thrilled at the prospect of two of the nominees, Matt Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch, stars of the BBC’s Doctor Who and Sherlock, slugging it out on the red carpet (albeit, one assumes, metaphorically) for one of acting’s greatest accolades.
Adding an extra frisson was the fact that both shows vividly bear the hallmarks of Steven “Multi-tasking” Moffat and his collaborator Mark Gatiss. Moffat is the executive producer of Doctor Who who, with Gatiss, co-created and writes Sherlock. Gatiss also writes for Doctor Who.
Among the busiest young actors in the business, Smith has just finished filming the current series of Doctor Who, while Cumberbatch is fresh from the National Theatre’s triumphant Frankenstein and has just started filming the next series of Sherlock.
And while neither is a cookie-cutter pin-up, with their jolie-laide angular faces and gangly limbs, both are quirkily sexy, accomplished actors with a compelling on-screen presence and energy. It’s a brave punter who would bet on the Bafta outcome.
Though we shouldn’t forget that there are two other nominees – the masterful Jim Broadbent, nominated for Any Human Heart, and Daniel Rigby, who’s nominated for his impressive performance as Eric Morecambe in Eric and Ernie.
But the face of the modern leading man is changing. Just as cabinet ministers used to look like grown-ups, so too (until relatively recently) did best actor nominees. And in case you think these are simply the ramblings of a middle-aged woman who is regularly astounded by the youthfulness of police officers, let us consider the evidence.
Of this year’s four nominees, only one, Broadbent, 62, is over 35. Cumberbatch is 34 and Smith and Rigby are both just 28. I’ve noticed this subtle age shift over the past ten years, while I was TV critic for a national newspaper.
In 2006, for example, the shortlist featured two over-40s: Broadbent again and Andy Serkis, while the “youngsters” were represented by Michael Sheen and John Simm, then 37 and 35. Five years earlier, however, in 2001, it was a different story: with Michael Gambon (then 60), the late Pete Postlethwaite (then 54), Ken Stott (then 46) and a token stripling, the then 34-year-old Steven Mackintosh.
So what’s going on? Is it that our “best” actors are really getting “better” younger and are now therefore at the top of their respective games earlier than used to be the case? Or could it be that TV drama is casting younger actors to appeal to younger audiences, whose work is thus recognised sooner than it might have been?
Best actors used to fall into two categories – grizzled “characters” (Postlethwaite, Stott, Broadbent et al) or sex symbols-in-waiting, for whom a Bafta TV award may be a pit-stop en route to international heart-throbbery and a shelf full of gongs.
Yes, that’s you, Colin Firth (1996 best actor nominee for Pride and Prejudice) and very probably you, too, Tom Hardy (2008, for Stuart: a Life Backwards, who recently finished filming The Dark Knight Rises) – and it’s especially you, Andrew Garfield, the 2008 winner for Boy A, who was only 25 when he filmed the Oscar-winning The Social Network.
In fact Garfield may have been the tipping point – not only in terms of how best actors could look and how old they might be, but also because of what they could quickly achieve after the event. Garfield’s performance in Boy A was extraordinarily fine by anybody’s standards, but he also brought to it the vulnerability of youth and his slightly offbeat good looks.
Smith and Cumberbatch share those qualities. As the Doctor, Smith had a tough act to follow in David Tennant (another sexy anti-sex symbol whose clever choices of parts post-Who have ensured his career hasn’t stagnated), but within moments of his first appearance, the new “Doctor Who?” became “Doctor Yes, I Totally Get It”.
Steven Moffat has said he was looking for an actor in his 40s when auditioning for the new Doctor, but Matt Smith, then just 26, was so perfect that his age became irrelevant. As Moffat put it, “Matt is like a young man built by old men from memory.’”
Interestingly, Cumberbatch also considered auditioning for the Doctor, while Smith auditioned for the part of Watson in Sherlock. Moffat apparently considered Smith more Holmes-ish… but that part had already gone to Cumberbatch. Certainly, both the Doctor and Holmes – the stand-out TV roles of the current landscape – require a kind of manic on-screen energy.
Though their backgrounds are different – Cumberbatch is the ex-public schoolboy from an acting background, Smith a comprehensive boy who nearly became a professional footballer – whether they’re solving a mystery, getting (or losing) the girl, building (or being) a monster, cracking a joke or touching our hearts, both actors are distinctly contemporary leading men.
And while I’d rather the people who ran our country had a bit more gravitas, an acting meritocracy is very good news. The Bafta boys may look as though they’ve walked straight out of work experience and into their respective plum TV dramas, but they’re undeniably among the best of British.