Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a five-part drama based on the acclaimed novels by Edward St Aubyn and adapted for television by David Nicholls (One Day).
It’s 1985. Meet Patrick Melrose. A witty, well-bred twentysomething with seemingly infinite funds at his disposal and relatively little to do with it.
His privileged upbringing has afforded him the company of an ever-changing and overlapping roll call of girlfriends, and also a taste for just about every narcotic imaginable – both tragically born from the need to distract himself from a deeply traumatic childhood.
As we first encounter Patrick, he receives news that his loathsome father (Hugo Weaving) has passed away. Patrick must dutifully collect his dad’s remains from New York, where, he confidently declares, he will get clean.
But getting sober in the Big Apple is less a piece of cake, more a rancid slice of cold turkey and he’s soon hitting the city’s seedier back streets to score a fix of anything and everything on offer.
We caught up with Benedict Cumberbatch. . .
How did you get involved with the series?
Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz had the rights to the Patrick Melrose series of books by Edward St Aubyn and they came to me. I knew there’d be a broad bracket of actors who had also probably read the books and gone, “Hmm, wouldn’t mind a stab at that.” I was just very, very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I voiced my desire on a Reddit forum and I got a call! They wanted to meet when I was in New York, we had a breakfast and I was a little late and terrified as I was still rushing rereading the final two novels the night before and morning of the meeting! I hadn’t clocked they were only thinking about me for the role at that stage and so I was still nervous even when they were very clearly pitching their ideas
about adapting these extraordinary books for television.
Who is Patrick Melrose?
Patrick is a character desperate to distance himself from his terrible childhood and as a result is, psychologically, all over the place. He’s addicted to drugs and near suicidal, but also incredibly funny and brilliant. At the heart of the subject matter was something that I thought angled a world that I thought I knew, and turned it on its head through the perspective of this really unique character who suffers so much and goes on this extraordinary journey from victimhood to survivor, and is a champion of his circumstance in a way. And via the most richly comic, scalpel-like postmortem of an upper-class system that’s crumbling, a power related to that that dissolves as the stories continue. It’s an extraordinary stretch of one man’s life. And the appeal of the character through those shifts from an innocent child, to a terrified, self-destructive 20-year-old to a sober thirtysomething to a husband and father – to an orphan… what a great canvas to play with.
Did you talk to any addicts in playing him?
Yes, a wonderful husband-and-wife team, Cher and Russell from 3D Research. They worked with us in an advisory capacity and are professional advisors to many different professional bodies about addiction and drug abuse. They also have struggled with addiction themselves and were incredibly candid and encouraging and supporting throughout the whole creative process, in rehearsals and for the duration of the production. And of course Teddy himself! The paraphernalia and business of consumption was very complex and important to understand as of course were the physical and psychological effects of these substances. But most important was the drive behind the appetite, the addiction, the psychological need these destructive drugs create. What are they replacing? With heroin, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s about the warm embrace you never got from your mother. The relief from the
suffering of existence. But it’s not all just abstracting yourself from your reality because some of those drugs, especially the more active rather than the opiate ones, will exacerbate your
neurotic tensions and memories and throw you down the well of self into a vortex of your own making. In the instance of cocaine, it’s the jet engine rush of crystal citadels shattering, ie the
highest of highs, then the heroin as medicine to ease the landing. Of course, it was important to get the technicalities right. This is a very well heeled and experienced junkie by the time we meet him. So learning how to shoot up and what the effect is on the body and mind was of paramount importance.
Have you met Edward St Aubyn?
Yes – we’d met socially before, but after I was involved I didn’t want to approach Teddy too early. I didn’t want to start scrabbling around and trying to understand him and Patrick too
early. Then I bumped into him at a party; he said, “Are these books happening?” I said, “Yes, they definitely are.” He was generous and incredibly good company. He’s incredibly erudite, intelligent and witty, but he’s also amazingly empathetic and genteel. He’s more generously ironic than the bitter self-loathing irony that permeates the more unattractive elements of the character in the book – which you enjoy from a distance, but I don’t think you’d really want to be around. He makes no bones about Patrick being an alter-ego. How someone that good has come out of something so bad is a miracle, so I respect him for that alone, let alone how he’s imbued his art with it.
Back in 2012, you said this was the one part that you wanted to play…
I remember saying it at a fan convention in Australia. I also said Hamlet – those are the only two roles that I’d ever bucket listed. The last novel had been published in 2011 and that was the year I’d started to read the series. It’s an awful thing to say, considering how monstrous some of these people are, but I just felt that I had a slight lock in to the world. I had a little understanding of that milieu – the brilliance but coldness of the cynicism and the irony. I remember my grandmother once saying, “Oh what a bore, oh darling, don’t let’s talk about that, it’s such a bore”. A bore, like no one’s investing any kind of emotion or genuine care in things. It’s all so flippant. My grandma, I should emphasise, was a caring, friendly person. There was just this social pressure to keep it all light and bubbly like cocktail conversation.
So the abuse and drug addiction in the story takes place in the aristocracy?
Yes, so one fear about this was, are we looking at high-class champagne problems, is this going to ostracise people or alienate people? The type of person who struggles with addiction, the type of person who has experienced abuse, sadly ranges across all class divides and so there is a universality to this that I think will translate, plus this scalpel laser-like examination of the death throes of the old-world behaviour and attitudes of the worst of the upper classes. They can have the most extraordinary ideas of ownership and property and what wealth is – but this story is about how the true wealth is love, and how true, pure, good, innocent love can win through. But boy does it struggle to get there.