Every parent’s worst nightmare

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Child In Time
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Child In Time

The Child in Time

BBC1, 9pm

It’s still unknown whether Sherlock will return to tackle another case, but we do know that Benedict Cumberbatch hasn’t given up on British TV. He’s back this week in the one-off drama The Child in Time.

Given that Cumberbatch is now in demand in Hollywood - he was Oscar-nominated for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and joined the Marvel Universe thanks to Doctor Strange - it would have to be a special project that tempted him back to TV, and The Child in Time is certainly that.

The drama has a powerful premise, which draws on possibly every parents’ worst nightmare, namely taking your eyes off your child for a minute, only to discover they have disappeared. It’s not a new concept for a TV drama, as anyone who watched the first series of The Missing will know, but The Child in Time is more than just a thriller.

But perhaps that should be expected, as it’s based on an acclaimed novel by Atonement author Ian McEwan.

Cumberbatch says: “I read the novel years ago and it stayed with me - profound, beautiful and very moving. Only Ian McEwan could write about loss with such telling honesty.”

It seems the admiration is mutual. McEwan says: “I have fond memories of Benedict playing a brilliant and key part in the movie adaptation of Atonement. Now, it’s a great honour to have this actor of such immense resource, experience and subtlety in the lead role of The Child in Time.”

If the author’s own seal of approval wasn’t enough of an incentive for Cumberbatch to get involved, The Child in Time has been adapted for TV by Stephen Butchard, the writer behind Five Daughters, and directed by Julian Farino, who made Marvellous, the touching drama starring Toby Jones that more than lived up to its name. And then there’s the fact Cumberbatch not only signed up to star in it, but also produced it through his company, SunnyMarch TV.

The actor plays Stephen Lewis, a successful children’s author whose four-year-old daughter Kate disappeared while they were in the supermarket. The devastating loss takes a huge toll on Stephen and his wife Julie (Kelly Macdonald) and sets them on divergent paths.

Three years after Kate’s disappearance, Julie has moved to the coast in search of a simpler way of life, while Stephen continues his daily search for their missing child. He finds some support in his regular dinners with his friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves), but when they announce they are moving to the country, it seems Stephen may have lost his one remaining lifeline.

Concerned for his wellbeing, Thelma suggests he reaches out to Julie again, but will she be receptive? And are Thelma and Charles battling demons of their own?

Through the couples’ stories, the film explores how grief can explode a marriage and the loss of childhood. But if that sounds unbearably grim, A Child in Time also looks at acceptance, the nature of love and the eventual emergency of hope.