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Jack Knox: Benedict Cumberbatch brings Empress apology letter to London stage

The actor read the letter recounting an infamous event involving pepperoni, seagulls and an Empress hotel room at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall as part of a charity event
Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter of apology to Victoria's Empress Hotel at London's Royal Albert Hall. VIA YOUTUBE

The video opens with Benedict Cumberbatch taking the stage at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall.

Then, alone at the podium, the actor launches into a story about Victoria’s Empress Hotel.

Well, not a story as such, but a dramatic reading of a letter — which, gosh, can’t have been the result Nick Burchill anticipated when he wrote the apologetic note five years ago.

Back then, the Nova Scotian was just trying to get the Empress to lift his lifetime ban, the one it imposed after a pile of pepperoni and a flock of seagulls (real ones, not the ’80s band with the terrible hair) conspired to turn his fourth-floor room into a haz-mat disaster.

Now? Burchill’s cringeworthy account of that dismal day is being treated as a masterpiece of literary correspondence. It was featured in Letters Live, a popular British event in which celebrities such as Olivia Coleman and Sir Ben Kingsley read well-crafted dispatches by writers as varied as Che Guevara, David Bowie, Charlotte Bronte… and Burchill.

In a just-posted video of the fall reading, England’s Cumberbatch adopts a North American accent for a stirring eight-minute rendition of the letter. (You can watch the video below.)

That’s a long way from the first, sad/side-splitting chapter of this tale, documented by the Times Colonist’s Katie DeRosa in 2018 after Burchill wrote his letter in an attempt to atone for an episode that had occurred in April 2001.

Back then, on a business trip to Victoria, Burchill brought a suitcase full of a Halifax delicacy, Brothers pepperoni, for old navy buddies here. His room in the Empress didn’t have a fridge, so he cracked a window to keep the meat cool.

That was his first mistake. The second was going for a long walk.

What awaited when he returned was a Hitchcock movie’s worth of gulls. “I didn’t have time to count, but there must have been 40 of them and they had been in my room, eating pepperoni for a long time,” he wrote. “In case you’re wondering, Brothers pepperoni does nasty things to a seagull’s digestive system. As you would expect, the room was covered in seagull crap.”

Startling the birds didn’t help the situation. “They immediately started flying around and crashing into things as they desperately tried to leave the room through the small opening by which they had entered,” he said. “Less composed seagulls are attempting to leave through the other closed windows. The result was a tornado of seagull excrement, feathers, pepperoni chunks and fairly large birds whipping around the room.”

Lamps and curtains perished in the chaos as Burchill fought his way through the flock to open the remaining windows, allowing the gulls escape.

“One tried to re-enter the room to grab another piece of pepperoni and in my agitated state, I took off one of my shoes and threw it at him,” he wrote. The shoe went out the window of the front-facing room. So did one remaining reluctant-to-leave-the-party bird after he chased it down and wrapped it in a towel.

Cumberbatch seemed to enjoy what came next. “I had forgotten that seagulls cannot fly when wrapped in a bath towel,” he read, channelling his inner Stuart McLean. “The Empress hosts a very famous and very popular high tea. I suspect this is where the large group of tourists was heading when they were struck first by my shoe, then by a bound-up seagull.” (FYI, the gull was unharmed.)

This wasn’t the end of the drama, though. Having recovered his shoe from a wet patch of soil, Burchill tried to dry it with a hairdryer. Alas, when he left the bathroom to answer the phone, the hairdryer fell into a water-filled sink.

“I don’t know how much of the hotel’s power I knocked out, but at that point I decided I needed help,” Burchill wrote. He called the front desk to plead for reinforcements. “I can still remember the look on the lady’s face when she opened the door.”

When Burchill returned from dinner that night, his luggage had been shifted to a smaller room. Then his company got a letter banning him from the Empress, the prohibition that led to his 2018 letter to the hotel.

In the end, stirred by his apology (and perhaps an accompanying gift of pepperoni) the Empress agreed to allow him back.

Burchill, reached Tuesday, said the hotel even offered him a free stay “under the condition I come supervised.”

And yes, he knew about the reading, as the organizers of Letters Live had asked his permission beforehand.

The Canadian agreed to the public performances because the event raises money for charity. He also gets a kick out of his letter being included among those penned by the likes of Mark Twain. “It’s an honour,” he said.

Cumberbatch has in fact read the piece a few times — twice in London and also, Burchill believes, in New York and Boston. “I think he likes to do it.”

As for returning to the scene of the crime, Burchill says he has yet to redeem his Empress voucher, but plans to do so.

“I’ll be out there soon.”

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