Why controversial public figures ought to be worried about a Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal - Anthony Clavane

Benedict Cumberbatch played Brexiteer Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. Photo:: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire
Benedict Cumberbatch played Brexiteer Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. Photo:: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire

I am a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. Over the years I have enjoyed the actor’s mesmerising depictions of a vast array of characters, from Sherlock Holmes to Dr Strange.

This week, a friend spotted him riding a vintage bicycle in London wearing a top hat and white gloves. He assumed he was impersonating Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, decided to lie horizontal  during Tuesdays three-hour emergency debate in Westminster. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, decided to lie horizontal during Tuesdays three-hour emergency debate in Westminster. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

The old Etonian should be a worried man. For the 43-year-old thespian is famed for his brilliant portrayals of controversial public figures, particularly those who provoke conflicting responses from the public.

In the 2013 film The Fifth Estate, for example, he played Julian Assange. Armed only with a white wig, fake teeth and a pair of contact lenses, he expertly brought to life the WikiLeaks founder.

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To some people, Assange is a valiant campaigner for truth, a fine example of citizen journalism, a brave and charismatic anti-hero of our times. To others, he is a devious, self-aggrandising creep.

More recently, there was his uncanny impersonation of Dominic Cummings in Channel 4’s docu-drama Brexit: The Uncivil War. Wearing a crumpled, back-to-front shirt, unconventional trousers and trainers, and a permanent expression of contempt, the spin-doctor is seen masterminding the Leave campaign’s insurgence against the establishment.

To some people, the Brexit guru is a strategic genius who single-handedly delivered the shock anti-EU vote, a data-driven, maverick wonk who came up with evocative
slogans about the NHS, taking back control and hordes of Turkish immigrants flocking to our shores.

To others, his far-out behaviour brought politics into disrepute. All three campaign promises, they claim, turned out to be lies. “He’s not the Messiah,” declared Rory Kinnear, playing his opposite number in the award-winning piece. “He’s just a…” (I am unable to use the full quote in a family newspaper).

Rees-Mogg is a similarly divisive figure. To some, a charming, old-fashioned, eccentric guardian of our morals – and grammar – to others a patronising, nanny-dependent, upper-class twit who seems determined to drive us over the proverbial cliff-edge.

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When the Leader of the House of Commons decided to lie horizontal on the green benches during Tuesday’s three-hour emergency debate in Westminster, public opinion was once against polarised. Critics took great exception to his slouching, one MP calling it the “physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect and contempt for our parliament”.

Moggites argued that everyone, even MPs, were entitled to the occasional power nap. Actually, I made that last sentence up; like Ed Miliband’s failed attempt to eat a bacon sandwich, the image of an out-of-touch toff lounging on the job during the biggest political crisis of the 21st century will surely come to haunt the politician for years to come.

My friend was also guilty of promoting fake news in assuming Cumberbatch was taking off Rees-Mogg in the new film to be released next year. The photographs of the shoot also threw me because the main character, the cat-loving artist Louis Wain, was clad in the kind of attire often associated with the honourable member for the 18th century.

It can only be a matter of time, however, before the actor takes on such a role. Like Assange and Cummings (and the stuck-up student who captained a University Challenge team in Starter for 10) he would be a perfect fit.

The Eurosceptic will no doubt be flattered. But he should beware the “curse of Cumberbatch”. The reputations of both the freedom of information advocate and the political strategist have plummeted since they were immortalised on celluloid.

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Assange is currently being held at a London prison, awaiting a full extradition hearing, charged with conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network.

And since he entered No 10 as a chief of staff, Cummings has been exposed as anything but a genius. A cross between Malcolm Tucker, Rasputin and Cartman from South Park, his cunning plan to prorogue parliament and sack dissenting Conservative MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, in order to deliver a no-deal Brexit has blown up in his gaffer’s face.

It’s turned out to be a plan more indebted to Baldrick than Sherlock. As I say, I am a big fan of Benedict. But there should be a warning issued to anyone about to be portrayed by the Hollywood star. Run for the hills.