Benedict Cumberbatch wraps up in snowy Finland
Joe Windsor-Williams for High Life magazine
Benedict Cumberbatch ditches his trademark detective's coat for thermals as he dares to cheat death driving on ice in central Finland. Gavin Green joins him
The frozen lake we're standing on is speaking to us. It's a groaning, creaking voice, almost of pain, from way down deep in the icy abyss. 'Listen to that,' says Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed in a thick fur-collared jacket, black salopettes, chunky blue scarf, big snow boots, thick gloves and woolly hat. He looks more Scott of the Antarctic than Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. 'It sounds absolutely magical,' he says, concentrating hard on the sound of the ice moaning beneath us, around us. There is no other sound. It's too cold for birds or people or animals, too isolated for traffic.
'The ice is quite solid, I assume?' asks Benedict, articulating what we're all thinking. We're about to power around this frozen lake in a range of Jaguar sports cars and nobody wants their F-Type to turn submarine. 'Quite solid,' says our Finnish instructor, Tomi. He shows us a contraption that measures ice thickness. 'It's 35cm,' he says reassuringly. (That's just over a foot.) 'Although maybe less thick in places.' (An unhelpful postscript.)
We're in southern central Finland taking part in a Jaguar winter-driving course. Alongside me is probably the biggest British TV or film star since Anthony Hopkins made Hannibal a cannibal or Colin Firth performed his royal stammer. In excess of 16 million Brits watched Benedict reappear as Sherlock Holmes for his third series on BBC1, making it the most-watched — and certainly best-loved — British TV drama in over a decade.
He's tall (6ft), ramrod straight, just 37, slim (though trying to bulk up for his next part as a mercenary in Blood Mountain), has a blemish-free and stubble-free complexion, ice-blue eyes and swept-back auburn brown hair — which was dyed black for Sherlock, blond for Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.
It was Sherlock, of course, that made him a star. Since that first series in 2010, it's been nonstop. 'I've played so many characters so fast,' he tells me. 'I had a bank holiday weekend to transfer from Sherlock Holmes into Christopher Tietjens [in Parade's End].'
On the frozen lake, driving a fast car, Benedict applies himself with the customary concentration of Sherlock solving a murder mystery. 'I do take challenges seriously,' he admits. Tomi and a former Finnish female rally champion, Minna ('She's the fastest driver here,' says Tomi) show him how to steer, how to brake and how to accelerate, to get the Jaguar to dance on ice.
His enthusiasm and determination are as clear as the bright Arctic light. At first, he spins (we all do). Later, after some practice, he's powering and pirouetting around the Finnish ice lake, more Senna than Sherlock.
Cumberbatch's intensity comes as no surprise. You have to be committed and laser-focused, I guess, if you're going to morph convincingly from Sherlock Holmes to Stephen Hawking, from Vincent van Gogh to Julian Assange, from Frankenstein and the monster to Smaug the Dragon. He's been an aristocratic WWI army officer (in Parade's End and War Horse — he says he has the face for it), a secret agent (in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), a slave owner (12 Years a Slave) and a Star Trek arch-villain. He's been Pitt the Younger and Young Rumpole. He's even been on Sesame Street — 'one of the best fun things I've ever done'.
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