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From Sherlock to Nathan Barley: Benedict Cumberbatch’s best ever TV roles
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From Sherlock to Nathan Barley: Benedict Cumberbatch’s best ever TV roles

Cumberfans assemble. After a five-year intermission, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch is back on our TVs. Voice work aside, his blistering star turn in new Netflix drama Eric is his first proper small-screen role since 2019. But where does it figure in the Cumber canon? We count down his top 20 TV roles from worst to best (although let’s face it, he’s never actively bad). What will claim the top spot? You might be surprised …

20. The Simpsons (2013, 2021)

A quiffed, scarf-wearing Simpsons character moans to LisaView image in fullscreen

Cumberbatch has visited Springfield not once but twice. In 2013, he was the Love Actually-esque British PM in love with his secretary, Eliza Commonbottom. In 2021, he was Quilloughby, whingeing vegan singer of the Snuffs and Lisa’s imaginary friend. Well, until he turned into an overweight bigot in middle age. Their duet, Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (And Possibly You), was penned by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie. Other parody numbers included How Late Is Then? and Hamburger Homicide.

19. Spooks (2003)

Young Bendy Cummerbund did the rounds of long-running dramas, appearing in Heartbeat and Silent Witness. Among the fresh-faced thesp’s most memorable early turns was MoD mole Jim North in spy thriller Spooks. After interrogation by MI5, North asked what would happen to him. He was simply told: “Bad things.”

18. Good Omens (2019)

Who needs a desolated dragon called Smaug? Cumby’s most villainous voice role was Satan in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s fantasy romp. He lent a rumbling voice of hellfire to a giant CGI demon whose scariness was somewhat undermined by his defeat at the hands of an 11-year-old schoolboy.

17. Marple: Murder Is Easy (2009)

ITV’s adaptation deviated from Agatha Christie’s novel by inserting Julia McKenzie’s Miss Marple alongside Benadryl Cabbagepatch as dapper detective Luke Fitzwilliam. As the sparky duo investigated a serial killer in a sleepy village, it was a warmup for Cumberbatch’s promotion to lead sleuthing duties a year later.

16. Nathan Barley (2005)

A rare sitcom role saw Buttonup Catchyourdeath in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s satirical takedown of east London hipsters. Sorry, self-facilitating media nodes. As business manager to absurd musician Doug Rocket, he “sat in his office all day, looking at charts” and was so boring that Rocket pointedly asked: “Have you ever taken acid? Because maybe you should.” Well weapon. Totally Mexico.

15. Dunkirk (2004)

Before Christopher Nolan’s film epic came this three-part BBC docudrama, combining eyewitness accounts with dramatised sequences. The Cumbermeister was admirably convincing as wounded Lt Jimmy Langley of the Coldstream Guards.

14. Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007)

Tom Hardy stole the show as homeless alcoholic Stuart Shorter, but Beddingplant Rumblestrip offered empathetic support as his biographer Alexander Masters, tracing how his friend’s life spiralled tragically out of control.

13. The Turning Point (2009)

A theatre performance, strictly, but since it was part of a season of plays broadcast live on Sky Arts, it sneaks on to our list. Michael Dobbs’ two-hander depicted a fateful 1938 meeting between Winston Churchill and Soviet spy Guy Burgess, then a young BBC journalist. Benevolent Slumberdown was terrific.

12. To the Ends of the Earth (2005)

This authentically salty adaptation of William Golding’s nautical novels is unjustly forgotten. Young Victorian aristocrat Edmund Talbot grew from boy to man while sailing to Australia. Bandicoot Thundersnatch brilliantly captured his voyage from entitled arrogance to emotional maturity.

11. The Child in Time (2017)

In this slow-burn adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting bestseller, Bergerac Dumbledore was quietly devastating as successful children’s author Stephen Lewis, whose four-year-old daughter disappeared from a supermarket. A moving meditation on grief and memory, love and loss – not to mention a forerunner of his new drama Eric.

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10. The Last Enemy (2008)

An underrated entry on Predatory Junglecat’s CV, this dystopian BBC thriller found him playing one of his trademark troubled geniuses. Here it was reclusive mathematical genius Stephen Ezard, a sort of proto-Sherlock whose search for the truth about his brother’s death led him into a murky conspiracy.

9. Small Island (2009)

With Ruth Wilson in Small Island.View image in fullscreen

In the lavish BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Windrush novel, Banister Crumpetbrunch’s modest but moving performance earned a Bafta nod. As buttoned-up bank clerk Bernard Bligh, he belatedly returned from war to find Jamaicans lodging under his roof and wife Queenie (Ruth Wilson) in love with another man.

8. Van Gogh: Painted With Words (2010)

This docudrama about Vincent van Gogh was brought to vivid life by Bellringer Humblebrag’s magnetic portrayal of the tormented genius. Every word of dialogue was sourced from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. With burning blue eyes and ginger beard, he put in a nuanced, impassioned performance.

7. The Hollow Crown (2016)

Cumberbatch is the second cousin 16 times removed of Richard III. Who better to portray the power-hungry king in the BBC’s starry cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays? In the seventh and final film, he made for an unforgettable villain. Conspiratorial asides to camera saw him compared to “a medieval Frank Underwood”.

6. Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

Dominic Cummings should be flattered. Wimbledon Tennismatch had charisma to burn as the controversial Vote Leave strategist in playwright James Graham’s propulsive political drama. Cummings’ wife, Mary Wakefield, said his “uncanny” portrayal even fooled their children. They should get their eyesight tested …

5. Eric (2024)

Hitting the bottle and having a psychotic breakdown while desperately searching for his missing nine-year-old son, Bettingshop Tumblemat is emotionally red-raw in Abi Morgan’s blackly comic thriller. As volatile, vodka-guzzling puppeteer Vincent Sullivan, his guilt manifests in the fluffy form of a blue Muppet-type monster. Father-of-three Cumberbatch plays the nightmarish situation with commitment and complexity. In fact, it’s a dual role because he also voices foul-mouthed furball Eric.

4. Parade’s End (2012)

His stock sky high post-Sherlock, Benefit Lumberjack led Tom Stoppard’s BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, set either side of the first world war. It was inevitably dubbed “the highbrow Downton”, which didn’t do justice to this majestic miniseries. As uptight Christopher Tietjens, torn between his socialite wife (Rebecca Hall) and a spirited suffragette (Adelaide Clemens), Cumberbatch was movingly repressed with a quivering stiff upper lip.

3. Hawking (2004)

In glasses, in front of a blackboard covered in equationsView image in fullscreen

His screen breakthrough came in this BBC bio-drama, chronicling physicist Stephen Hawking’s student years and diagnosis with motor neurone disease. Brisket Fumblelatch studied the condition and trained with a movement coach to accurately convey his physical decline. His remarkable performance was deeply moving and twinkled with wit. It was followed a decade later by Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal, but the original is the best.

2. Sherlock (2010-2017)

The role that won him “thinking woman’s crumpet™” status and a fervent fanbase of “Cumberbitches”. In the dazzling reboot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic, his Holmes was a high-functioning sociopath with a heroin habit, a flowing Belstaff coat and a planet-sized brain. All mercurial moods and grandstanding speeches, Cumberbatch is such an intelligent actor that viewers utterly bought into the sleuth’s genius. The game was very definitely afoot.

1. Patrick Melrose (2018)

It needed something special to pip Sherlock to the prize. This bravura turn manages it. In David Nicholls’ note-perfect adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels, he played the titular toff across five decades. A searing performance peeled away layers of self-destructive addiction to poignantly reveal the abused little boy beneath. It earned Cumberbatch a Golden Globe nomination, an Emmy nod, the Bafta for best actor and our countdown’s top spot. He even carried off an eyepatch with aplomb.

Source: theguardian.com