Benedict Cumberbatch is a man who needs no introduction – not just because of his instantly memorable name, but because of his ubiquitous presence on our screens in everything from BBC’s Sherlock to Marvel blockbusters. But if you think you’ve seen enough of the actor, Patrick Melrose is the perfect palette cleanser: you’ve never seen Benedict Cumberbatch like this.
Not since he stole scenes in Starter for Ten has he played someone so amusingly stuck-up, resolutely unlikeable and impossibly magnetic. If that sounds like a tall order for a character, Patrick Melrose isn’t the kind of man to be intimidated: he’s an aristocrat with wealth to match his confidence and drugs to fill the hole where his conscience should be, a man who wants for nothing except a humanity transplant. And another quaalude.
Based on the Booker Prize-winning novels by Edward St Aubyn, the tone is set from the off, as we see Melrose receive a phone call informing him his dad has passed away… and then grinning broadly. Melrose’s dad, we learn in this opening chapter, is as loathsome as he is, but at no point does the show really ask us to feel sorry for the end result of a clearly unhealthy relationship: it just points, laughs, and occasionally cries at the tragedy on display.
Because this is a tragedy we’re watching, as Patrick starts at a low-point in life and continues to spiral further down. “You’ll never hit rock-bottom,” offers one onlooker, but Patrick seems determined to try, jumping from heroine to cocaine to booze to amphetamines, only pausing to choke on a particularly pill, until someone gives him a glass of water. Cumberbatch commits fully to the role, throwing himself into the physical extravagance and rambling dialogue of a man who is completely out of it, because he can’t bear to spend time actually with himself. The script, by David Nicholls, manages to balance his rude behaviour with a constant narration from Cumberbatch, the bitter voiceover reinforcing the juxtaposition between his mind and reality. Deutschland 83 director Edward Berger, meanwhile, shoots it all with a surprising restraint, emphasising the mundanity of his empty existence.
Cumberbatch is essentially doing a one-man show here, but the cast around him generously give him the space to do so. Get Out’s Allison Williams brings just the right amount of kindness and detached disdain to highlight how self-centred Melrose is, as he journeys from his wife in London to New York to collect his father’s ashes. The staff at the hotel where he stays, meanwhile, are consistently deadpan, too polite (and too well-paid) to confront his behaviour, placing everything on a knife edge of anti-social awkwardness that repeatedly delivers laughs. By the time he ends up at the wrong funeral, things have descended into a masterful farce that remains enjoyably grim to the last. The kind of television that even Hunter S. Thompson would struggle to binge, this is a no-holds-barred comedy that dives into depravity without stopping for breath. As a reminder of Cumberbatch’s versatility and comic timing, it’s a treat. As the first of five steps in what promises to be a darkly entertaining journey, don’t wait to hop on and enjoy the ride.
Patrick Melrose premieres at 9pm on Sundays on Sky Atlantic, but is available on-demand before then, following a simulcast at 2am. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch Patrick Melrose online on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (Legion) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, Billions), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 14-day free trial.