Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch made my heart stop

By Gillian Reynolds
6:45AM BST 22 Apr 2015

Perfectly cast: Benedict Cumberbatch starred in Radio 4’s ‘My Dear Bessie’

Everyone loves Benedict Cumberbatch now but radio listeners loved him first, mostly for playing the Captain in John Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure, a wonderful Radio 4 comedy about a tiny airline played by a sterling ensemble (Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, Cumberbatch and Finnemore), elegantly directed by David Tyler of independents Pozzitive. It began in 2008, ran four seasons with a two-part finale to round it off last Christmas, recorded on a night when Cumberbatch fans blocked the street outside the studio because, by that time, he was TV’s blockbusting Sherlock and a film star too.

He was an interesting choice for My Dear Bessie (Radio 4, Monday) because this role wasn’t heroic or comic but the voice of a real life soldier, Chris Barker, writing from Libya in 1943 to a girl, Bessie Moore (Louise Brealey), whom he knew but not well. She was a Morse code operator at the Foreign Office who was surprised to get his first letter, but glad. They’d both just been through broken romances and, surprisingly quickly, the words they exchanged began to smoulder on the page.

It takes sensitivity to bring such a relationship to believable life, to capture in voice alone the physicality of their responses to each other’s words. Cumberbatch’s slightly Cockney Chris and Brealey’s shy but sharp Bessie did it beautifully. When he proposed, by letter, and she replied that they hadn’t even met since the letters began, my heart stopped. But not for long. Because they did get married, if kept apart by the war just a bit longer, and stayed married for 58 years. Bessie died in 2004, Chris the next year. Their granddaughter opened the blue box that held their letters in 2008. Simon Garfield compiled them into a dialogue, Sara Davies adapted it for radio and Gemma Jenkins, the producer, found the perfect cast. I can still hear their voices.


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