Sherborne’s Turing-Cumberbatch Connection

Benedict Cumberbatch may have gone to Harrow but his father, the actor Timothy Carlton, came to Sherborne!

Timothy Carlton Congdon Cumberbatch came to Sherborne in September 1953 and left in 1958 with his Valete in The Shirburnian confidently proclaiming that he was heading ‘To the stage’. Which is just what he did, changing his name to Timothy Carlton and making his West end stage debut in 1963.

Timothy Cumberbatch was a member of Lyon House where his contemporaries included John and Christopher Morcom, the twin nephews of Alan Turing’s school friend Christopher Collan Morcom who died in February 1930 while still a pupil at Sherborne, and where one of the dormitories was named in his memory.

When Timothy came to Sherborne the important role that Alan Turing had played in the Second World War was still shrouded in secrecy but his early work on computers was beginning to be discussed, in fact Turing’s last visit to Sherborne School took place in March 1953, just 6 months before Timothy’s arrival, when he gave a paper on the Electronic Brain to The Alchemists society. Turing died the following year and in 1955 his mother endowed the Turing Prize for Science at Sherborne in his memory. The Morcom family had also endowed a prize at Sherborne in memory of Christopher, known as the Morcom Prize for Science it was first awarded to Alan Turing in 1930 and again in 1931. In 1957, the prize was awarded to Christopher Morcom’s nephew, John Morcom. Both prizes are still awarded at Sherborne today.

It was while at Sherborne that Timothy Cumberbatch first took to the stage. In 1956 he appeared as Mrs Reade in the Lyon House play of J.B. Priestley’s Cornelius: A Business Affair in Three Transactions. The Head of Lyon House wrote in the ‘House Notes’ that ‘it was generally voted a great success. The enormous cast – 20 – made the production difficult, but it was worth it because of the fun and experience it gave to a large amount of people. Though the play itself was not a very good one the standard of acting was almost universally very high. For this all thanks to Mr Buchanan.’

Mr Buchanan was in fact Major John David Buchanan, MBE, who had come to Sherborne in 1948 to teach English. Having served in the Grenadier Guards during the Second World War he then became Private Secretary to Sir Alexander Cadogan, Britain’s representative at the United Nations. Buchanan surprised everyone when he decided to change career, becoming a schoolmaster first at Westminster Under School and then at Sherborne. As a teacher of English, Buchanan conveyed his own passion for the subject to his pupils, not only in class but also in House plays and as Chairman of the James Rhoades Society, where boys met together to read plays and of which Timothy Cumberbatch was a member. During this time Buchanan introduced the boys attending the meetings to a wide range of playwrights, including Shakespeare, Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Jean Anouilh, Noel Coward and, in 1957, to a radical new work by John Osborne called Look Back in Anger. When Buchanan left Sherborne in 1958, to become Headmaster of Oakham School, the Hon. Secretary of the James Rhoades Society wrote ‘It would be useless to try to assess the value of Mr Buchanan in the short space accorded to me, but let it suffice to say that the Chairman reading his “old men” parts, Mrs Buchanan’s excellent refreshments and the innumerable pleasant evenings spent at Lenthay Fields will remain in the memories of members past and present for a long time indeed.’

With his passion for acting ignited, the young Timothy Cumberbatch appeared again on stage in the 1958 Lyon House play, R.F. Delderfield’s Worm’s Eye View. In this comedy, set in the Second World War, Timothy played the part of Mrs Bounty who bitterly resents having five RAF recruits billeted in her home and redirects her frustrations against her family.

The Head of Lyon House wrote in the ‘House Notes’ that ‘There were times when the incredible strain of acting and rehearsing and organising began to tell and one wondered whether the whole thing was worthwhile. The final result proved that it was, but I would emphasize that the once every two years rule must be kept to, if only for the sake of the house’s reputation as actors, which at the moment stand very high.’ The reviewer in The Shirburnian noted that ‘T.C.C. Cumberbatch and S.W. St. J. Lytle presented an appalling pair of dragons in Mrs Bounty and her insufferable son, whose icy scorn and ruthless tyranny were so thoroughly odious that it was at once clear that there might perhaps be some slight friction here and there… I shall remember for a long time the sight of the quivering Taffy planting his foot firmly in the jelly, and of a pile of irate airmen taking it out of the wretched Sydney Spooner while the Duke, wide to the world, was blissfully smothering an outraged Mrs Bounty with ardent embraces.’By the time Timothy Cumberbatch left Sherborne School in 1958 he had decided that he wanted to become a professional actor, a decision that one day would influence his own son, Benedict Cumberbatch, to follow the same career and would result in him portraying Alan Turing, one of our most famous Old Shirburnians, in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.

Rachel Hassall

27 November 2014

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