Benedict Cumberbatch, Cheltenham Literary Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse

THE building was already packed to the rafters with the 2000 fans leaving the JK Rowling event when the 2000 Benedict Cumberbatch devotees began to arrive.

Benedict’s unbelievably brilliant portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes - in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s incredible reimagining of the tales for the BBC - was the reason he was at the 2012 literary festival, and there were screams when the actor finally appeared, casually clad in a blue duffel coat. 

After warming everyone up with a routine borrowed from Elbow’s Guy Garvey, he took a seat opposite his interviewer on stage, his charming Sherlock co-star Louise Brealey, whose character Molly is in love with the genius detective (and who may have played a key role in aiding him to fake his death at the conclusion of series two).  Their sparky chemistry throughout made for a revealing chat, with lots of laughter. Louise even revealed that she’d had countless dreams about the interview, including one where she admitted that she “wet herself on stage and tried to blame it on Benedict”. It was a relief, given Benedict’s recent reticence in interviews after having been misquoted/inadvertently dragged into media storms.

One recurrent topic of the evening was what the third series of Sherlock will be about. The creators have recently revealed three clues, rat, wedding and bow, but will say no more – as will Benedict: “No comment – as I am now used to saying. Nothing. In the past year, what has been extraordinary is that I have met some of the most extraordinary people…and they all ask one question. And I have to say no comment. I can’t tell you. Secrets are a good thing to keep.”

He revealed that his mother hadn’t thought him right for the role initially - “My mum went, ‘You just don’t have the right nose.’ Thank God he [Moffat] picked the right nose!” - and that he hadn’t been sure about the project until he read the script: “I heard about it…and was rather dubious about how cute it could be and an excuse to make money. And then I read the script and was blown away by it. It was so funny and so fast paced and at the heart of it was this friendship.”

The role is, he said, “such a rich gift for an actor. [Arthur Conan Doyle] makes the ordinary extraordinary… and Watson is the audience being dragged through. It’s about the thrill of the relationship. It’s been copied…I hate the word sidekick – I’m sure Martin [Freeman, who plays Watson to Benedict’s Sherlock] does too. It’s a double act.”

There was effusive praise for Martin from Benedict – he recalled that when they first read together, “I felt my game go up. He can ground this extraordinary extravagant character” - and for the pair from Louise, who revealed that she’d been frightened by how good they were at the first script reading: “it felt like you were both already there.”

And there were very warm words for his Frankenstein collaborator Jonny Lee Miller, who is now to play Sherlock for American television in the series Elementary, with Lucy Liu in the Watson role. Several American sites claimed Benedict had been critical of his friend’s decision to accept the role.
Benedict said: “Under no circumstances would I want Jonny to have anything but rip roaring success. First and foremost he is my friend – it would be pathetic. I made a joke, which doesn’t translate when written (something I’ve learned this summer). I’ve seen him and it’s fantastic. It’s really good and you should all watch it. He’s stunning to watch – he really knows what he’s doing. He asked if I was alright with it – I said of course I am. Don’t take me out of context. Lucy Liu is wonderful – it’s another great relationship.”

There were also revelations that he’d corpsed during a production of Hedda Gabler when a woman’s stifled sneeze became ‘apoo’ instead of achoo – “I was crying with laughter. I could not speak” – and he talked about his own education at Harrow (his old head teacher was in the audience), his gratitude to his parents for working so hard to pay for it, and his frustration at yet another media blow-up.

Referring to ‘tall poppy syndrome’ wherein those who rise to fame are knocked down to earth by a harsh media, he said: “This summer I’m poster boy for anti posh bashing, I’m some sort of voicepiece for poshness. One of the reasons I got involved in acting is to be free of that.”

There was also loud approval from the audience when he mentioned his forthcoming charitable cycle from Buckingham Palace on October 14 in aid of The Prince’s Trust – set up in the year of his birth – and spoke of his passion for its giving a voice and an opportunity to those who might not otherwise be “taken count of.”

He still takes the Tube, likes his motorbike (and the anonymity of the helmet) – “I want to be a human being” – but that he’s sadly beginning to realise that he must “curtail accessibility to remain safe or sane.”

Those who were lucky enough to attend this select gathering will have been wholly enchanted by his intelligence and winning warmth. The ascension of Benedict Cumberbatch’s star is surely set to continue.