Benedict Cumberbatch: ice driving in Finland

Gavin Green
01 April 2014

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].'

He admits he's gone from an ‘anonymous actor' into ‘apparently a sex symbol — although it's a bit of a mystery why as my face has not changed that much during the ten years I have been in this business'. He's even been responsible for a new word: Cumberbitch. (Urban Dictionary definition: ‘Any woman who has a deep fascination with the wonderful, beautiful, talented English stage and on-screen actor Benedict Cumberbatch'.) Meanwhile, @cumberbitches is one of the largest social-media fan groups around, with over 123,000 Twitter followers, describing themselves as ‘the most glorious and elusive society for the appreciation of the high cheek-boned, blue-eyed sex bomb that is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch'.

There are no Cumberbitches around today. It's too cold for them, or anyone else. It's -7°C out on this frozen lake and feels bitterly, bone-bitingly chilly. Tomi says it's not cold. ‘Last week was -24. This is mild for February.'

Tomi says when it's -24 you can't touch anything metal with bare skin — so no touching a car with your hands, no touching the viewfinder of your camera with your eyelid. Otherwise you'll leave your skin behind. Benedict seems rather worried by that. I guess being eyelid-less wouldn't be a good look for an actor. He tells us he tripped recently while jogging on Hampstead Heath and, when he fell, he thought he was going to smash his face. His next thought was for Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, who, ‘would not have been impressed'.

The sun — hugging the horizon, even though it's early afternoon — has just come out from behind the clouds. It's the first time we've seen it. Up until now it's been flat grey soft wintry light, like you get in Scandinavian crime dramas The Bridge and The Killing. Suddenly that big lake, carpeted in fresh snow, ringed by white-dusted pine and birch, sparkles under the bright winter sun.

It's time to go rally driving. That's the big attraction of Alive on Ice, a Jaguar winter-driving course open to all. You get to drive very powerful sports cars on a frozen lake (on this occasion near the Finnish town of Hämeenlinna), instructed by former Finnish rally champions. Benedict is a Jaguar brand ambassador and, back in London, drives a shiny black XKR sports car. On the Alive on Ice course, you also drive Ski-Doos and ride in sleds pulled by huskies. (Benedict loves dogs although he says he's too busy to own one. Before he goes out on a sled, he's on all fours in the snow with a dog tickling its tummy, his new best friend.)

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'.

In real life, he's been car-jacked and has taught in a Tibetan monastery. And now he is in Finland, driving sports cars fast on ice. He tells me, on that frozen lake, that he tries to embrace ‘all the riches of life' and likes daredevil sports: ‘I'm not a macho alpha male sort of guy but I do like living on the edge a bit. I like skydiving, snowboarding, kite surfing and I ride a motorbike in London.'

We first meet, the day before, at Heathrow airport, at the beginning of our two-day adventure. He tells me the only Nordic country he's visited is Iceland ‘which I loved — it's like the gateway to another world'. He says, ‘I love cold weather but I've never driven on an ice lake before. It sounds amazing'.

His biggest driving challenge to date was on Top Gear. He did Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, in which celebrities lap the test track as fast as possible in a low-cost hatchback. He practised longer than anyone. In the end, he was disappointed with his performance, which he describes as ‘middling', which about sums it up — he was seventh out of 13, faster than Charles Dance and Ron Howard but slower than Susan Boyle, Jimmy Carr and Hugh Jackman. It is probably Cumberbatch's only on-screen failure. He's determined to have another go.

On the road from Helsinki airport to Hämeenlinna, we stop in a roadside café which reminds me of an American diner except the tables are real wood, the food is better and the drinks are way more expensive. Benedict tells me he got the part of Sherlock after the producers saw him in Atonement playing Paul Marshall, ‘a chocolate millionaire paedophile rapist. He's the darkest character I've ever played.' The hardest character to play? WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. ‘There is such moral ambiguity there. Also, he wouldn't meet me although we had an email relationship to try to get his perspective.' The character he'd most like to play? ‘David Bowie.'

The next day, after some ice-driving instruction on icy fields near our hotel in Hämeenlinna, it's off to the big frozen lake for the real fun.

We all power around a figure of eight. And around a short circuit — maybe half a mile long — constructed by snow-ploughing the lake. The piled snow acts as a crash barrier. It's terrific fun driving fast, and mostly sideways, on ice. It's a bit like snowboarding — always on the edge of being in control — but with 500bhp rather than gravity to power you. You've got a huge amount of power and very little grip, even with studded tyres. If you spin (and you will) you'll hit nothing more metal-mutilating than a soft snowy bank.

I drive the XKR-S sports car, the fastest and most powerful machine Jaguar makes. It'll do 186mph. But not here. All the cars are fitted with metal-studded tyres, for extra purchase. UK-specification tyres would have as much grip on the ice as a pair of brogues.

The object is to slide sideways around corners, just like a rally driver. You need to use the accelerator pedal deftly, the steering wheel quickly and precisely (during a manoeuvre your hands will pump like pistons) and, as Tomi says, you really need to feel the car through your backside. Get it right, and the tail of the car pendulums out, you steer into the slide and then you flick the car the other way for the next corner, Torvill and Dean on tyres. Or that's the theory, anyway.

Benedict has another go, this time in a roof-down F-Type sports car, heater on max, V8 engine screaming, tyres grappling for traction. He energetically goes around the corners, nicely sideways, and when he stops he jumps out of the car — almost slipping over on the ice — and says, ‘Absolutely amazing! Amazing! That was the most brilliant fun!'

His enthusiasm is as palpable as the tyre tracks he's carved in the ice. And, on one occasion, the chunk he's taken out of a snowy barrier (we all do that). His instructor over the whole programme is Jaguar test driver Gary Palmer. How did Benedict do? ‘He's determined, a good listener. He's driven very well. He's got a natural touch.'

I think Benedict Cumberbatch will be very pleased to hear that.