Benedict Cumberbatch has never made a secret that there are just two roles he has ever wanted to play: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose. In 2015, he took on Shakespeare’s famous protagonist at the Barbican in London. In May of this year, he played the latter role—a semi-autobiographical approximation of novelist Edward St. Aubyn—with a little help from Reddit.
The five-part Showtime miniseries, which was directed by Edward Berger and adapted by David Nicholls with St. Aubyn, is not an easy watch. But its unique mix of dark pathos and black humor—not to mention its stellar acting, sharp writing, and eye-popping cinematography—make it one of the year’s most compelling dramas. As the miniseries prepares to compete for five Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for Cumberbatch, we took a look behind the scenes to find out what made Patrick Melrose tick.
1. EACH EPISODE COVERS AN ENTIRE BOOK.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose book series is comprised of five titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last, which is the same number of episodes as in the miniseries. It’s no coincidence. Each episode of the decades-spanning series covers one book, so that no part of the story was left untold.
“The books were fascinating because they were never envisioned as a kind of saga,” writer David Nicholls told Variety. “They were written one by one, and after each book, [St. Aubyn] thought that was the end of the story.” When it came time to adapt the series, it was important to Nicholls to maintain that ongoing structure as he believed that each story stood as “a snapshot from the character’s life."
2. THE BOOKS WERE CONSIDERED “UNADAPTABLE” BY MANY PEOPLE.
Like so many other popular novels before them, a lot of people couldn’t envision how one might adapt the Patrick Melrose books into a movie or television series. Among those people? Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Patrick’s mother Eleanor in the series. Leigh told Variety that while she loved the books, she “didn’t think it was possible to adapt it, ever.” So when she got her hands on Nicholls’s script, she was very pleasantly surprised. “The book came to life in such a beautiful way; I have no idea how he did it.”
Benedict Cumberbatch, too, was worried about how the books would translate to the screen. “I was very nervous about it, despite it being a bucket-list role because I knew the books had quite rightfully a variety of very passionate of devotees and they are difficult to adapt,” he told Deadline. “There’s such rich source material and extraordinary set pieces in the books as they are.”
Edward Berger, who directed the series, read the first book, Never Mind, in 1993—and even he admitted that he couldn’t imagine how one would adapt it for the screen because “not much happens. In terms of a traditional plot, there’s very little in it. It’s about one man, his psychological dismay, and him falling apart … So it’s very hard to visualize."
3. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH HAS REDDIT TO (PARTLY) THANK FOR THE ROLE.
During a 2013 Reddit AMA, a fan asked Cumberbatch, “If you could choose to be any other literary character in an upcoming role who would it be?” His answer was swift and to the point: Patrick Melrose. What the actor didn’t realize was that the project was already in the works, and the producers had been eyeing him for the part. When they learned that it was a dream project for Cumberbatch as well, the wheels started moving rather quickly. "Never underestimate the power of an online Q&A," Cumberbatch told the Los Angeles Times.
4. ITS STRUCTURE WAS INFLUENCED BY THE GODFATHER.
When asked about his process for adapting so much text into a set amount of screen time, Nicholls told Variety that learning the books “back to front” was the first step. The second step was to “take a step back to see what stayed in [my] head as important and what [I] loved.” He looked to what might seem like an unlikely source for inspiration: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
“I was very influenced by the way Francis Ford Coppola broke down The Godfather,” Nicholls told Variety, “so I broke each of these books down similarly and looked through them for the moments that I felt were most important and would work the best dramatically.”
5. LARA PULVER, A.K.A. SHERLOCK’S IRENE ADLER, ALMOST PLAYED CUMBERBATCH’S WIFE.
Fans of Sherlock know that Cumberbatch’s titular consulting detective is rarely at a loss for words, except for when he’s face-to-fact with dominatrix Irene Adler, a.k.a. “The Woman.” So it didn’t seem like the best idea to pair the two up as husband and wife for Patrick Melrose.
“The director of Ben’s Patrick Melrose project did call to ask about me playing his wife, but we both decided it wouldn’t work,” Pulver told The Telegraph. “When you’ve already been seen in a relationship together on such a large scale ...”
6. CUMBERBATCH HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH THE UPPER-CLASS MANNERISMS.
Though it might seem as if Cumberbatch is always playing some sort of aristocrat, he admitted that adapting both the vocal and physical mannerisms of the very specific English upper class to which the Melrose family belongs was one of his biggest challenges. “I know everyone goes on about the posh thing with me—but despite looking it, I am not that class,” Cumberbatch told the Radio Times. “That class is landed gentry. I had to posh up for this.”
“I went to a very posh public school, second to Eton, yet I had only one friend from the landed gentry,” he told Vanity Fair. "I’ve been trying to knock the corners off my accent ever since I left Harrow.” For help, he often tapped St. Aubyn.
7. NOW WAS THE PERFECT—AND PERHAPS THE ONLY—TIME FOR CUMBERBATCH TO TAKE ON THE ROLE.
While audiences see Patrick as a young boy played by Sebastian Maltz, Cumberbatch portrays the character from ages 25 to 45, which provided yet another challenge. Yet the actor thinks that, as far as his age goes, now is about the only time he could have pulled that off. “These books lay out a very particular set of circumstances and the personal dilemma of them,” he told Deadline. “So, of course, the older you get the wiser you get for whatever reason, but I think for these books, I had to be somewhere in the balance of his age.”
8. THE PRODUCERS WERE DETERMINED TO PORTRAY ADDICTION AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE.
In addition to starring in the series, Cumberbatch also served as an executive producer via his production company, SunnyMarch. As so much of the series centers on Melrose’s addiction to drugs, it was important to the actor and his fellow producers that they get that part right. Which took some research. “I’ve always been about moderation,” Cumberbatch told Rolling Stone. “I’m not a binger and nothing is habitual with me. So the idea of what an addict goes through is something I really had to come to understand.”
In order to help accurately portray the experience and psychology of addiction, Cumberbatch told Deadline that they “were very much advised by two people who were addicts as well as [St. Aubyn] having been very honest about his own experiences. I didn’t want to alienate that world at all. I wanted them to feel, however uncomfortable the watch might be, that we were being accurate. But also, I think that this is a story of salvation, so it’s universal. You don’t have to have experienced the trauma that he has on any level to go on the journey.”
9. CUMBERBATCH’S EMMY NOMINATION PUTS HIM IN RARE COMPANY.
Cumberbatch is no stranger to the Emmy Awards. In addition to winning the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for Sherlock in 2014, he has been nominated as a lead actor an additional five times—putting his grand total as of 2018 at six, an almost-record number that only Laurence Olivier has ever matched. (Hal Holbrook has them both beat with seven nominations.)
“It’s amazing,” Cumberbatch told the Los Angeles Times in reaction to the honor. “I don’t know what to say about that really. That’s something to put on your gravestone. I don’t know—yeah, I’m speechless. That’s my very English reaction to that. Maybe I should try other categories? Art direction?”
10. DON’T EXPECT CUMBERBATCH TO RETIRE ANYTIME SOON.
In any profession, the problem with stating your ultimate goal is what to do after you’ve achieved it. But early retirement is not a likely next move for Cumberbatch, who’ll voice the Grinch later this year. “Melrose and Hamlet were the only two roles I was ever desperate to play,” he told the Radio Times. “And now I’ve done both! I can retire! Much to the relief of the world! Except, I will never retire.”