OAR-SOME! Doctor Who’s Matt Smith on making his new 1948 Olympic rowing drama
23:10 GMT, 20 July 2012
Being a 1,000-year-old alien travelling through time in a police box while wearing a tweed jacket, clip-on bow tie and armed with just a sonic screwdriver is one thing.
Being an oarsman shivering in shorts and singlet on a choppy stretch of the Thames at daybreak as, for the first time in your life, you step into a rowing boat, is quite another.
Matt Smith knows the difference only too well. As the current Doctor, he regularly saves the universe from destruction. But in his latest TV role, as real-life 1948 Olympic rower Bert Bushnell, he met his match. ‘I’d never been in a boat before and, of all the things I’ve done, it was the most daunting,’ he says ruefully.
Matt Smith and Sam Hoare as Bert and Dickie
His 29,000-light-year journey from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey was a doddle compared to what Smith, 29, found at Henley-on-Thames, less than an hour’s drive from his home in north London. ‘It was far from plain sailing,’ he says.
‘I had three or four duckings, which weren’t just cold and uncomfortable, but embarrassing, too. When you consider the dangerous situations the Doctor manages to survive in space, it’s pathetic I couldn’t even keep afloat ten yards from the river bank.
‘Almost as bad were the injuries. Doctor Who skips away at the end of every episode without a scratch. But after all that rowing – and unintended swimming – I was physically drained, my muscles ached and my hands were covered in calluses.’
He was rowing with fellow actor Sam Hoare, who plays Bushnell’s partner Dickie Burnell, in the BBC’s Bert And Dickie. Hoare, at least, had rowed at school, but he didn’t have enough experience to stop Matt, and himself, going overboard. Not for nothing did some of the film crew call the production ‘Chariots Of Fire – The Underwater Version’.
Matt Smith in rowing gear on the Thames during filming
Bert And Dickie tells the extraordinary story of how, only six weeks before the 1948 London Games, Bushnell, a champion single sculler, was reluctantly persuaded to row in a two-man boat with Dickie Burnell.
The working-class, slightly chippy Bert and the Oxford Blue Old Etonian Dickie – desperate to match his father’s Gold from the 1908 Olympics – which were also held in London – immediately rubbed each other up the wrong way. Yet despite their differences the pair delivered post-War Britain an unlikely boost when they won Gold.
Matt and Sam didn’t have the comparative luxury of six weeks’ training. They had four long sessions over eight days at Henley’s Leander Rowing Club just before filming began, working alongside the Olympic rowers preparing for this summer’s Games.
Their daily routine began at 7am and revolved around working in the gym, rowing on the river – and eating. ‘It was hard work,’ says Matt. ‘We’d start by having a big breakfast with the real rowers. These boys are burning 4,000 calories a day so they have a fry-up and a bowl of porridge for breakfast, do a few hours training then tuck into lasagne, bread, salad and pudding for lunch.
'I didn’t eat as much as they did, but it was still a lot of food for me.’ In 1948 there was still food rationing, and the film shows Bert tucking into special training treats of tripe and onion sandwiches and the unimaginable luxury of a juicy lamb chop.
Matt and Sam didn't have the comparative luxury of six weeks' training
He admits the pain he went through was intense at times. ‘At the end of every session, I felt I’d been through the mill. And even after the aches had gone, my hands were still painful.
'My bottom was really sore because the seats were grim and it hurt when I stretched. But I loved the challenge. I don’t have enough of them in my life. I work out in the gym to stay fit for Doctor Who. But this was another level of fitness. The Olympic rowers’ bodies are really powerful engines.’
A wiry 5ft 11in tall and little more than 10st, Smith is a far cry from the archetypal, muscle-bound Olympian.
His only real contact with the Games was when he carried the Olympic torch on the relay through Cardiff. ‘I was so proud,’ he says. ‘Afterwards I bought my torch and I’m going to mount it on the wall at home.’ And he confesses he’s driven by the same sort of will-to-win we’ll see when the Games begin at the end of this month. ‘I’m hugely competitive,’ he says.
‘As a sportsman [he played football for Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s youth teams, until a back injury ended his career at the age of 15] I would never say die. I never felt we were beaten until the final whistle.’
Smith admits he took on the part to push himself beyond the role of the Doctor. ‘I’m still learning about acting from job to job. You’ve got to keep working with different people and trying to think in a different way.’ Not that he intends to turn his back on the Doctor. ‘It’s been rumoured I want to give it up,’ he says, ‘but the truth is, I’m in it for the forseeable future.’ That’s a long time, even for a Time Lord.
Bert And Dickie, Wednesday, 8.30pm, BBC1.