The Seven Lives of Sherlock

Article Excerpt, Sunday Express, 15 June 2014.

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It seems quite remarkable to think that Benedict Cumberbatch is probably more familiar with near-death experiences than most other people. Since his early years, he has almost died on four separate occasions. He has survived everything from hypothermia and a bomb explosion to dehydration and near-starvation. Yet when people think of Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s likely the only near-death experience that comes to mind is the one that didn’t actually happen. And that, of course, was make-belief for the television cameras, when Benedict as Sherlock leapt from the top of St Bartholomew’s hospital in London for the finale in series 2 of what has become the most watched television drama since Doctor Who.

Probably the most terrifying of his near death experiences was his kidnap ordeal in South Africa while filming the mini-series To The Ends of the Earth for the BBC, one of his first major screen roles. Even though he has recounted the harrowing encounter before, in varying detail, no matter how he tells the story, the sequence of events still sound truly horrifying. As he remembers it, he was making his way back to the film set with co-stars Denise Black and Theo Landley on a Sunday night, after they had all spent an enjoyable weekend of scuba-diving at Sodwana Bay, not far from the same area where the real “Captain Phillips” five years later, would lose control of his cargo ship to Somali pirates. Benedict and friends were on a highway near the Mozambique border when the tyre on their car blew out and they had to pull in to change it over with the spare. And that was when six armed gunmen emerged out of nowhere from the bush. They were frisked and asked for money, drugs and weapons. Their hands were bound with their own shoelaces and they are driven away off the road, and out of sight of any trucks that may be thundering down the same stretch of highway.

Benedict was pushed into the car and squashed up against the windscreen from where he was sitting on Denise’s lap on the front passenger seat. Due to his awkward position, his back and head hit the windscreen every time the vehicle hit a bump in the ground. It wasn’t long before he was in a great deal of discomfort, so his captors stopped the vehicle, dragged him out of the car and put him in the boot instead. He remembers hitting his head as he was pushed into the tiny space and started to suffer with chronic cramps and concerns of passing out. His only thought at this point was were they going to kill him or take him hostage. Suddenly the car stops, and Benedict is taken out of the boot and forced to kneel on the ground, alongside his friends, in the classic execution position. A duvet is slung over his head to silence what he thought would be the gunshot to end his life. He remembers trying to reason with them, saying that killing him would not be a good idea as if they did, then they would have a dead Englishman on their hands to get rid of. After some time, which probably seemed hours to Benedict, but only minutes in real time, he realised the kidnappers had gone.

But that wasn’t the only time he had come close to death. Ten years earlier, when he was 18, and in the final year at Harrow, he was at home in Kensington, studying for his A-levels in his bedroom, when all of a sudden, the whole flat shook from a huge explosion. The windows shattered, a dust cloud enveloped him and his ears rang. ‘I ran through the flat. My mum and dad were saying “are you all right?” I said no, I couldn’t hear out of one ear.’ It was the 1994 terrorist attack on the Israeli Embassy, when a car packed with 14 kilograms of explosives went off and injured 30 people. All Benedict could remember was a deafening silence, then the terrible sound of glass falling to earth.

Despite Benedict’s own near-death experiences, it seems the boot was on the other foot when we look back at his family history. His great-great-uncle (on his mother’s side) was arrested and charged with stabbing a friend to death in August 1893. The relative, Henry Ventham, was just 14 when he and Frederick Betteridge, another 14-year-old, went blackberry-picking down a country lane near their Hampshire village. The teenagers were said to have had a terrible row, resulting in a fatal knife wound for Frederick, who was found with the blade still lodged in his chest. But Henry pleaded not guilty when placed in the dock at Hampshire Assizes in Winchester. He was dramatically cleared on the evidence of a third boy, who said the tragic lad accidentally ran on to the knife.

Not so dramatic was the time when Benedict was faced with a trauma of a different kind. Filming his screen test for Star Trek Into Darkness. It was Christmas Eve 2011, and director J J Abrams was interested in casting Benedict as the villain of his reboot sequel. The only problem was that he needed a tape as soon as possible, but of course, due to the seasonal holiday there was no one available to shoot it for him. Benedict’s Flip video camera wasn’t working and he couldn’t get hold of any other recording device, so in the end, out of desperation, because he had people literally knocking at his door two days after Christmas, asking for the tape, he decided his best option would be to shoot it on his iPhone with the help of two friends, so he ended up squatting in their kitchen at about 11 o’clock at night. With their two children asleep, his friend’s wife balanced herself on two chairs to get the right angle on Benedict’s face with desk lamps bouncing light off bits of paper, just trying desperately to make it look half-decent, all because it was going to be sent to J J Abrams’s iPad. It then took a day and a half to compress it. And then when Benedict finally sent it, he got told ‘J J’s on holiday.’ He was furious.

That wasn’t the only occasion that auditions had almost gone horribly wrong for him. He almost missed his scheduled meeting with Steven Spielberg for War Horse, when he couldn’t find a place to park his motorbike near Spielberg’s hotel in Mayfair, and was running unbelievably late. And on another occasion when he went to meet Swedish director Tomas Alfredson for a role in the remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor, he was asked what he thought of the script, but he hadn’t even seen it, let alone read it. It was the first time that Benedict had attended an audition reading totally unprepared through no fault of his own, but what had turned out to be a genuine mix up. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the day he spent a couple of hours sweating through a dinner jacket while doing stunts in a shabby, overheated Soho office in 2004, just before he headed out to South Africa, at a casting call for a video game version of James Bond that he didn’t get. If only they knew then that Benedict would, within a few years, be captivating audiences around the world, and surviving real life dangers like 007 did on the big screen, they may not have turned him down.