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Patrick Melrose

How Benedict Cumberbatch Became Patrick Melrose

Vanity Fair

In 2012, when it came time to publish a paperback version of the Patrick Melrose novels, the semi-autobiographical pentalogy by the English author Edward St. Aubyn.

His American publishers had no trouble rounding up rapturous praise from a passel of distinguished readers: Zadie Smith, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Edmund White, Sam Lipsyte, and Alice Sebold.

They might also have thought to ask a reader named Benedict Cumberbatch, who considers the books “the most exquisite achievements in 21st-century prose” a fortunate view, given that Cumberbatch stars in the five-part adaptation of the novels that airs on Showtime in May.

A darkly comic indictment of Britain’s upper class, Patrick Melrose, which also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Blythe Danner, follows its protagonist from age five, when he is abused by his father (played by Hugo Weaving) in a country house in Provence, through his young adulthood, when he becomes a heroin addict in New York and London, to his recovery from drugs and transition to fatherhood. “It was a hell of an arc to play,” says Cumberbatch. “Patrick’s life is a nonstop madeleine cake of horrors.”

Portraying a character from age 25 to 45 was a significant challenge, Cumberbatch says—as was capturing the attitude and vocal mannerisms specific to Patrick’s class: “I went to a very posh public school, second to Eton, yet I had only one friend from the landed gentry.

I’ve been trying to knock the corners off my accent ever since I left Harrow.” Cumberbatch consulted frequently with St. Aubyn, who, though he didn’t write the teleplay, made himself available to any cast member in search of biographical grist.

In the end, St. Aubyn reports, there’s unexpected consolation to be found in seeing his alter ego brought to the screen. “I’ve spent 25 years being asked if I’m Patrick Melrose,” he says. “So it’s a great deal of relief to be able to say, ‘No, Benedict Cumberbatch is.’”

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