"So who was Terence Rattigan?" asked actor Benedict Cumberbatch (The Rattigan Enigma, BBC Four, Thursday 28 July, 9pm). Well, he was an English playwright who was born in 1911 and who died in 1977. His first success was French Without Tears (1936) and his last work was Cause Célèbre (1977). The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952) and Separate Tables (1954) are his masterpieces. There, Benedict, now you know. And for a bloke who plays Sherlock Holmes, I'm surprised you hadn't worked it out for yourself.
Yes, there's more to a life than facts. You couldn't have a more poignant sense of that than W.H. Auden's poem Who's Who. But did Benedict succeed in unmasking Rattigan? Not quite. The man had more disguises than Moriarty, Holmes' arch enemy. A wig, a little make-up and a change of outfit, and he would be unrecognisable. Holmes, too, was skilled at altering his appearance so that he blended into the background. Which is more than can be said for Benedict. His desire to take centre stage in the investigation into The Case of the Mysterious Mr Rattigan was evident from the outset.
Both men went to Harrow and both were in the same house, The Park. Benedict scanned the photos on the wall. "There's me," he said. He made some critical remarks about the parting in his hair, but commended his wicketkeeper's hands. "There's me again," he said, "wearing my Rattigan Society tie, purple with white rats on it." He sighed. "There are so many ties to remember." Indeed, but that one would be hard to forget.
Somehow Benedict managed to wrench himself away from the contemplation of his own image to look at Rattigan. "His parting is very stern," he noted, studying the first photograph. "There's already piping on his blazer," he said, scrutinising the second. Was this another example of the surreal element in the school uniform? No, it indicated Rattigan's sporting prowess. He excelled at cricket, just like Benedict. And there was something else the two shared: neither quite fitted into the Harrow environment. Rattigan was a scholarship boy while Benedict was a "commoner". What, with a name like that?
The similarities did not end there. Both men, while at school, evinced a talent for drama. Rattigan's first stab at playwriting was met with the comment: "French execrable, theatre sense first class." Benedict hurried us through the library, called The Vaughan, where, he briskly informed us, Rattigan immersed himself in Barrie and Galsworthy. He proved more expansive on the topic of his own performances in school plays. The way he spoke about his Rosalind made you sorry to have missed it.
David Hare said that Rattigan's main theme was "the impossibility of escaping from who you are". Benedict didn't even try. Even when talking to director Thea Sharrock, who like Rattigan left Oxford without completing her degree, he never let you forget he was there. While she spoke eloquently about Rattigan's appeal and his need to find out "what it is that drives us, what it is that makes our hearts ache, what it is that makes us happy and take pleasure in other people", the screen was filled with images of Benedict as David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance (1939), Rattigan's portrait of a couple whose feelings don't quite match.
That is another of his themes and it lies at the root of what Thea called "our amazing capacity to hurt other people". It's an idea that crops up in Julian Barnes' terrifyingly bleak novel, Talking It Over (1991). As you go on living with someone, he writes, "you slowly lose the power to make them happy, while your capacity to hurt them remains undiminished". But it may also be the consequence of living a double life, which Rattigan, as a homosexual, was forced to do. Then again, there is the testimony of one of his former lovers, Adrian Brown, who described the gay scene, with its private societies and clubs, as "great fun". Well, as long as you didn't get caught. John Gielgud was. The judge fined him £10 and told him to see a doctor.
When Benedict finally ran out of things to say about himself, he had a lot of good things to say about Rattigan. He was especially revealing on how the playwright contributed to the misconceptions that surrounded him. The invention of "Aunt Edna" to describe Rattigan's typical audience was a source of constant frustration. "I've never been able to bury the old bitch," he wailed.
Rattigan is all the rage at the moment, partly because it's the centenary of his birth and partly because he represents the apparent security of a bygone age. But he's also a disturbing presence, one who reminds us of the awful price of desire. Put all this together and the enigma of Rattigan begins to evaporate.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.