Daily Briefing

Patrick Melrose: what we know about Benedict Cumberbatch’s new series

Actor stars as the titular character in this bleakly funny yet harrowing literary adaptation

Sky Atlantic’s highly anticipated new comedy-drama Patrick Melrose is due to begin on Sunday 13 May.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the show is an adaptation of author Edward St Aubyn’s series of semi-autobiographical novels, which were published in five parts between 1992 and 2012.

So what can we expect from the five-part series?

What is it about?

Patrick Melrose, writes Deadline, “skewers the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s harrowing odyssey from a deeply traumatic childhood through adult substance abuse and, ultimately, toward recovery”. 

Cumberbatch will play the titular character, Patrick, “an aristocratic and outrageously funny playboy”, Radio Times says, who turns to alcohol and drugs to erase memories of his abusive father.

The action takes place in a range of locations and times, from the south of France in the 1960s to New York in the 1980s and Britain in the early 2000s.

How similar will it be to the source material?

Each episode will be based on one of the five novels, taking place over the course of a few intense days in the life of the protagonist. 

“The temptation to sweeten the pill for television is wisely resisted by director Edward Berger (Deutschland 83) and novelist-turned-screenwriter David Nicholls, whose harrowing script belies a CV dominated by froth such as Cold Feet and Bridget Jones’s Baby,” says The Daily Telegraph.

“Those of squeamish disposition may, in particular, find the many scenes in which Melrose pumps his veins with dope almost unwatchable. Meanwhile flashbacks to his upbringing in the South of France lay out the facts of David Melrose’s depravity, matter-of-factly and horrifically.”

Who is involved?

The series of novels was originally adapted for the screen by Bafta Award nominee David Nicholls, screenwriter of Far from the Madding Crowd and author of One Day.

In 2013, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch was asked in a Reddit Q&A which literary character he would like to play more than any other and his response was Patrick Melrose. Five years later, he is both the star and executive producer of the series, recently saying that he and his partner Adam Ackland “have been huge fans of these books for many years and David Nicholls’ adaptations are extraordinary”.

Alongside Cumberbatch, will be Academy Award nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh and Screen Actors Guild winner Hugo Weaving, who play Melrose’s parents, while Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Anna Madeley, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, and Indira Varma also appear.

What do the critics say?

Ahead of its premiere, critics are already heaping praise on the series, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it a “wild, often hilarious, dark and sad but also hopeful roller coaster that is kicked off in a fury in the first episode”, and that “there's absolutely no denying that the writing, directing and especially Cumberbatch will make you want to return each week”.

“For such a bleak story, that's quite an achievement”, the website adds.

The Daily Telegraph also gave it a positive review, singling out Cumberbatch’s performance as “a bravura tight-rope walk given the obvious temptation to surrender to the hamminess that the role of the debauched posh boy fleeing a childhood ordeal invites”.

It says: “On the page St Aubyn keeps the gloom at bay with acerbic prose that sparkles, while Cumberbatch achieves similar results by imbuing Melrose with a damaged swagger. He inhabits a disturbed and desperate individual and elevates the character’s struggles beyond mere misery porn.”

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