It was a quintessentially British way of announcing an engagement—a six-line entry in the ‘forthcoming marriages’ section of The Times newspaper this morning.
Like all such announcements, it was paid for at the standard rate of £29—about $40—per line, although The Times could not resist putting a box around the announcement and running a short news story on the engagement as well.
It was perhaps a surprisingly traditional way of announcing their engagement, given that Benedict Cumberbatch’s girlfriend of two years’ standing, Sophie Hunter, is considered in the theatrical community to be one of Britain’s most avant-garde theatre directors.
Indeed, some might say it’s the most conventional thing Sophie—who once said she would prefer to ‘fail gloriously’ than write ‘a polite piece of theatre’—has ever done in her public life.
In 2013, for example, she directed the North American tour of the highly experimental play 69° S. (The Shackleton Project)’ which dramatized the perilous voyage of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton via the medium of performers on stilts manipulating four-foot tall marionette puppets.
It could so easily have been a pretentious disaster, but in fact, the production was hailed by the Boston Globe as “an entrancing multimedia work that creates a portrait of humanity locked in eternal struggle with nature’s brute force—while reminding us that any victory over nature is at best temporary.”
The eldest of three children, Sophie comes from an established British family, albeit one steeped in a rare combination of both military and artistic tradition.
Her grandfather was General Sir James Michael Gow. Like many of the upper classes of the day, he used and was always referred to by family and friends by his second name, Michael. If a letter arrived addressed to his first name, James, it could be safely discarded without being read, as it had most probably been sent to him by someone who had simply looked him up in the society books of genealogy, Burke’s Peerage or Debrett’s.
Gow was Aide De Camp General to the Queen from 1981 to 1984. He was, among other honorifics, also Brigadier, Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland and president of the Royal British Legion for Scotland from 1986. He wrote a number of books dealing with the more amusing aspects of army life.
According to Sir Michael's obituary in The Telegraph, to which publication he was a keen letter writer, “He did not come from a military family; his forebears were artists, musicians and academics.”
That artistic streak surfaced dramatically in his granddaughter.
Although the family was based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sophie studied French and Modern Languages at Oxford University. She then moved to Paris to attend, for two years, L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, a famously avant-garde institution.
It is doubtless this sojourn that accounts for her ability to sing in French.
(The song is part of an album, The Isis project, that she recorded with the songwriter Guy Chambers in 2005.)
She then trained at the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (also known as the SITI Company) in New York City.
In 2007, she received the £35,000 Samuel Beckett Award to stage a play, The Terrific Electric, at the Barbican Centre, which she wrote and co-directed.
Hunter acknowledged at the time that there was a pressure to be experimental, telling Time Out, “I can definitely relate to that as a trap…. I’m hoping that if we fail, we fail gloriously. It would be terrible if it was a polite piece of theatre.”
She and Cumberbatch first met on the set of Susan Luciani's 2009 film Burlesque Fairytales, in which Hunter played Annabel Blythe-Smith to Cumberbatch’s Henry Clark.
At that time, Cumberbatch was still dating The Thick Of It star Olivia Poulet, who he met while studying drama at Manchester University.
Despite the couple calling time on their romance in 2010, Benedict told American Vogue, “We’re still very good friends. There was no acrimony. I love her, adore her, always will.”
By 2010, Hunter was directing a well received revival of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts at Access Theatre on Broadway. Hunter said of the play, "Ghosts is a series of violent encounters between characters ultimately concerned with survival: their own, and that of the faded ideals that haunt them."
Cumberbatch and Hunter have assiduously avoided being identified as celebrity couple until now. They were first seen publicly together this June at the French Open The pair were reportedly last seen together at London restaurant Quaglino's, but they arrived separately and were keen not to be pictured together.
Now, it seems, they have put such bashfulness behind them and are ready to go public at last—and have chosen to do so in the most British manner possible.