Benedict Cumberbatch: the road to Sherlock

As the detective drama series gets a second airing, a quick rundown of its star’s career so far


Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch was born in London in July 1976, named after his actor father Timothy Carlton, who ditched the Cumberbatch from his name, presumably worried that it wasn’t the name of a successful actor. Benedict has since proved him wrong. 


Cumberbatch was schooled at Harrow and studied drama at the University of Manchester but took a year out between the two to do some educating of his own – he taught English in a Tibetan monastery. 

His acting career first began to take off in the theatre, with acclaim for his roles in a number of classic plays and an Olivier Award nomination for best performance in a supporting role as Tesman in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. 

Following the usual bit parts in shows including Heartbeat, Spooks and Silent Witness, in 2004 Cumberbatch landed his first major TV role, playing Stephen Hawking in Hawking, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the physicist, for which he was nominated for a Bafta. 

In 2005 another starring role – and another BBC adaptation – saw Cumberbatch as Edmund Talbot in William Golding’s trilogy To the Ends of the Earth. 

2007 BBC TV drama Stuart: A Life Backwards cast Cumberbatch as writer Alexander Masters, looking back over the life of his friend, a traumatised homeless alcoholic played by Tom Hardy.

Another Bafta nomination for best supporting actor came for Cumberbatch’s performance in Small Island, BBC1’s two-part Second World War drama, based on the novel by Andrea Levy. 

Towards the end of David Tennant’s Doctor Who tenure, Cumberbatch was increasingly linked with the show, having suggested in interviews that he’d be keen on a recurring part and reportedly having discussed taking over the central role from Tennant. He eventually decided not to audition but would soon find himself working with the show’s producer, Steven Moffat – also a personal friend – on his most famous role to date.

In 2010 – following a sympathetic and critically acclaimed portrait of troubled artist Vincent van Gogh in BBC1’s Painted with Words – came the role that has made Cumberbatch a household name.

As Sherlock Holmes in Moffat’s modern reworking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the great detective, Cumberbatch was by turns brilliant and socially inept, arrogant and charming. Audiences took him to their hearts just as quickly as did Dr Watson (Martin Freeman). Together they tackled a murderous cabbie, a gang of international drug smugglers and arch criminal Moriarty himself. Further adventures are to follow this autumn, based on The Hound of the Baskervilles and short stories A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem.

Meanwhile, back on stage, Cumberbatch has garnered rave reviews in Danny Boyle’s production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which he alternated the roles of  the scientist and his monstrous creation with co-star Johnny Lee Miller.


And on the big screen, he stars in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (due for release in January 2012), and will voice both Smaug the dragon and the Necromancer in Peter Jackson’s upcoming Tolkien adaptation The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.