NO time machines were required when Matt Smith travelled back to the London Olympics of 1948.
An era of post-war austerity, rationing and that certain kind of British spirit.
Bert And Dickie is a BBC1 drama telling the real life story of two young men from different sides of the river.
Bert Bushnell, played by Matt, was a “chippy” single sculler from Maidenhead in search of solo Olympic glory.
Instead finding himself paired with Eton and Oxford educated Dickie Burnell (Sam Hoare) in the double sculls.
Writer William (Billy) Ivory’s wise and touching script explains how Bert and Dickie were thrown together just five weeks before the Olympic final at Henley.
Charting their often choppy path to a golden victory.
Due on screen next month (July) ahead of the London 2012 Games, the film is also, among other things, a tale of the two young men’s relationship with their fathers.
John Bushnell played by Douglas Hodge, with Geoffrey Palmer as Charles Burnell.
I watched some of the filming last August when the production was based just down the road from me on the river in Chiswick, west London.
And attended a London preview screening of the drama this morning, followed by a Q&A with Matt, Sam and Billy.
My transcript is below – including Matt’s view on the Olympics, having carried the torch in Cardiff last month, and an inevitable question about his future as Doctor Who.
Bert and Dickie Q&A:
Learning to row / scull?
Sam Hoare: “It’s definitely a skill we both had to learn. I had rowed very small bits at school. Matt I don’t think had been in a boat ever before. Annoyingly it turned out he’s arguably better than me. We had about a week’s training with this amazing coach who works for Leander Club and also coaches some of the GB teams. It was a crash course of trying…I fell in three times at least. We definitely fell in once in front of the camera crew, which was mildly embarrassing. It was a crash course of within a week doing our best to try and approximate an Olympic standard of rowing which is obviously nigh on impossible. All we could do was give it our best. I think we always said that we were probably unlikely to fool anyone who knows anything about rowing. But if we can hopefully fool people who don’t then we’ll have done our job.”
Matt Smith: “That was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, actually, was going down and just learning a skill. That’s one of the great virtues of being an actor is you get to go in these little pockets, you get to acquire these skills along the way. It was a wonderful way to spend a week.”
Aches and pains?
Matt Smith: Yeah. It got us fit, didn’t it? And I thought I should buy an ergo (indoor rowing machine) for my flat. But I haven’t as yet. Those guys…there were four rowers really who helped us. Two particularly. And how they row at that level for six minutes is extraordinary. It’s like your body is just a lever, really. And it’s a mechanical process almost. But the courage and the will and the barrier of pain that you have to get through, which I hope is all present in the film, is wonderful. And that is what our story was about.”
Austerity Olympics 1948 v now?
William Ivory: “I’m hoping it will do a similar job. It’s interesting, there’s so many parallels really. The austerity of then and the austerity of now. I’m hoping that there will be a similar coming together of people and a uniting of spirit. That was one of the things that was most interesting about the ’48 Olympics, was how much it was about nations rebuilding after so many horrors that had gone before. And lots of the nations that came, there was a real desire to put the past behind them and for it to be a period of rehabilitation and rebuilding. So with a bit of luck it might be similar this time. I hope so.”
Sam Hoare: “Essentially, yeah. What I love about the Olympics and any sporting event is that it manages to transcend differences. It’s really about nations coming together. And I think already there’s lots of evidence with the Olympics, hopefully, that it creates an incredible sense of of patriotism and unity in countries because whatever part of the kingdom of country you’re from and however you’ve come to be there, you hopefully have a chance to cheer on your country along with everyone else. And I think that’s something that every country could use.”
Father and son relationships? How much of that was fictionalised?
William Ivory: “It was a mixture of the two. The relationship between Bert and his dad was quite a tough relationship at times. And I was lucky enough to meet Bert just before he died – he was in his eighties – and he was an amazing bloke. But really…he was not going gentle, let’s put it like that. And quite right too. And it was interesting because I spoke to other people who knew that relationship between the father and the son. And they said that what we’d got on screen was very like their relationship. That it was very loving but it was quite tough. And in terms of Don and Dickie, they were kind of rowing royalty and there was that tremendous weight of expectation on Dickie. Everything I found out about him, he was such a modest man. He covered rowing for The Times. In fact he wrote about them winning the gold medal. A beautiful entry. It said something like, ‘Bushnell and Burnell overcame the day.’ Four lines. Very modest. So in terms of the dad there it was just about contrasting.”
Matt – presumably there’s only a short space of time in each year when you’re not filming Doctor Who? Do you have to pick and choose your other projects more carefully?
Matt Smith: “Oh, yeah, I mean there’s loads to pick from. I’m inundated. (smiles) Yeah, of course, you have to be selective. But I love Bill’s writing. He’s got a great filmic history and I responded to the script. It’s made by people I know at the BBC and people that are of great repute. And that’s important. There was a good director attached and I always thought it would get a good, strong cast. But it just has to start with a script and I guess I just responded to that.”
Can only do one other project a year?
Matt Smith: “Kind of, yeah. Because we shoot for nine, ten months, really, all in all. And you get about a month to do something else.”
You spoke earlier about a crash course in rowing. Did you have any particular incidents with other traffic on the river. And secondly, have any of you got Olympic tickets?
Matt Smith: “No! Well. If anybody’s listening…if ever there was an opportunity, me and Sam would love to go to the rowing. But the guys that we met…even the guys rowing in the four, who were actually going to the Olympics…we’d walk in in the morning and they’d all be busting their balls off in the corner…”
Sam Hoare: “We’d be training alongside genuine Olympic athletes…”
Matt Smith: “But even they can only get a ticket each for their family. I couldn’t believe it. I’d love to go. And then traffic…there was the odd boat wasn’t there? Just even to stay in the boat, it’s a very hard skill. Because it’s all about balance. If you’re not a team, then you’re dead. Because the moment one of you tips, you’re dead and buried. Or the moment one of you breaks a stroke and breaks the rhythm of the stroke, then you’ve lost a length, two lengths. And me and Sam had to really develop on all of those ideas.”
Any favourite Olympic heroes?
Matt Smith: “I think that Redgrave and Pinsent were a pretty extraordinary pairing.”
Did you have to bulk up in the gym?
Matt Smith: “Well, actually, if you look at pictures of Bert Bushnell, he was a slight warrior. We did try and train. But we keep generally fit. We’re not unfit. But, yeah, absolutely, there was some gym time. Does it show?”
Sam Hoare: “Obviously modern day rowers are considerably bulkier than they would have been in those times. And I think both Matt and I were pretty close to the actual weights of Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell at the time. I managed to put on half a stone in the month’s preparation time that we had. People might look at this and say, ‘They look a bit skinny to be rowers.’ But actually I think it was very method. Very authentic.”
William Ivory: “It was completely different then. You look at pictures of them – even the big guys…they haven’t been down the gym and got big. They’re just big. Bert was really slight by comparison. They didn’t train in the same way. And also they were coming off the back of a war. They looked slighter, they looked different.”
You’re an Olympic torch bearer. Did you spare Bert a thought when you were doing that? And what did it mean to you?
Matt Smith: “It was a wonderful experience and one of the rare occasions in your life that being associated with the part that I currently play, I’m very fortunate to get that opportunity. It was wonderful. I bought it. I’m going to get it mounted on my wall. (Matt also indicated that his friends have been coming round to pose for photos with the torch) I wish I had thought about Bert, to be honest.”
Olympic amateurism v professionalism in the modern day?
William Ivory: “It’s ironic that it’s on the BBC. I’ve grown up watching all these fantastic sporting events which we’ve had free. And so there’s this continuum there. I want that to continue forever. I personally think that in certain areas, modern sport and the modern Olympics, we are where we are. It’s very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Some of the principles have been diminished. They’re not as strong as they were. But within our film we see Matt’s character saying – we’re amateurs but then it’s about winning by any means possible.
“I’m writing something about professional cyclists and the way drugs came into their sport. You’re taking vitamin pills and carrot juice one day and then suddenly something else pops up. So I think progress is a hard thing to manage. But I hope that this film reminds people about those main principles – battling honourably, doing your best, giving everything. And it not being necessarily about the money.”
Sam Hoare: “I find this issue of professionalism fascinating as well. We live in the modern day and I think there’s a fair variety between…if you look at, say, David Beckham, who may or may not be playing for the UK football team…or Ryan Giggs or whoever it might be, who obviously had earned quite a considerable amount of money through their profession. And then some of the lesser known athletes…the runners or possibly some of the aspiring rowers who probably earn very little and work incredibly hard. I think if you’re an Olympic athlete…we had a small insight into exactly how much that commitment that requires, and are compensated for it relatively meagerly.”
Matt Smith: “What’s incredible about them is they do it for the love.”
Sam Hoare: “Some of the rowers, they’re up at five o’clock doing training. They literally eat, sleep, live it. Their diet is totally restricted. Their entire lives are spent on the river and around training and fitness and their regime. And they do it, clearly not for the money because it’s not fantastic, but because of the joy in the sport and the desire to represent their country and the passion and honourable intention that I think was present in the film.”
Did you notch up any respectable times on the river? And if you were in the Olympics, is there a country that you might have beaten?
Matt Smith: “No and no, I’m afraid. Even to get halfway down the course without…it’s terribly hard. But what was wonderful was feeling the sense of improvement every day. And actually to come back to your (previous) question. I think the Olympics for Britain is brilliant. I think the spirit, the energy, I think the build up to it, I think seeing the city transform and I think as a focal point and as a uniting thing, I think it’s wonderful. I mean, people go, ‘It’s going to be really busy.’ So what? Who cares?”
If you could compete in any Olympic event, what would you choose?
Matt Smith: “Maybe either the football or the tobogganing. It’s the most mental sport.”
Sam Hoare: “I’d go for beach volleyball.”
William Ivory: “Boxing.”
How much input did the families have into it and what was their reaction to the family tensions on screen?
William Ivory: “They’ve had a lot of input. We showed them the scripts very, very early on. I was lucky enough to go and meet Bert. And then obviously we dealt with the family. They’re big families as well. It’s been very interesting to see. In the case of Dickie there was Don and Richard and then a grandson who rowed as well, very successfully. And they’ve all had a big input into the making of the film. We had a screening just for the families and it was absolutely terrifying. And they were really pleased. Which was thrilling.”
How much did you have to change on location to depict 1948?
Matt Smith: “It’s obviously progressed from where it was. So there was a bit of CG in there, a couple of clever shots to take us back to Leander as it was. Like anything in film, it’s all a bit of smoke and mirrors. You paint a picture with different areas and locations. But a lot of the stuff on the river is…that’s just all on the river. So where we could we just used what was there. But some of the buildings, obviously, you have to get rid of.”
The wooden boats used in the film?
Matt Smith: “We had them made. They’re very hard to row in comparatively to the boats now. After all the training that added an extra…we were like, ‘Oh balls.’ But they looked great.”
Was the weather on your side for filming?
Sam Hoare: “I wouldn’t say the weather was strictly on our side. No. As ever, the blessed British summer provided a little bit of both. There were times when scenes which were meant to be outside were moved inside. Such as the need to cater for the weather. Obviously we filmed it in August in the expectation of a month of glorious sunshine. And we had some sunshine.”
William Ivory: “Actually it mirrored the 1948 Olympics very well, the weather. Because the Opening Ceremony in ’48, it was in the nineties and people passed out during the Opening Ceremony. And then the next day the cinder track was waterlogged. Welcome to Britain! But I hope this time round it’s a bit brighter because it gets everyone’s spirits up more.”
Does the original film still exist of them winning in 1948?
William Ivory: “It’s a very short clip of it. It was hard to get. It’s extraordinary footage…I went through all the footage from ’48 and there’s amazing stuff. Like the competitive tandem racing in the cycling, which was interesting. But of the rowing there’s not a great deal. But there was just a little bit of them.”
Sam Hoare: “There was a couple of newsreels of the Olympics as a whole, which would have bits and bobs…there was a shot which we replicated in the film of them receiving the gold medal. And a little bit of them rowing. But very much snippets.”
William Ivory: “It was extraordinary to see, in terms of taking on the characters of Bert and Dickie. There’s footage of them being interviewed, and meeting people that knew them. And it is quite eerie. And actually that’s what the families said. They found it quite eerie, just the mannerisms and the look as well. So I think they’ve done an extraordinary job of bringing these two amazing men to life.”
Has this nurtured an interest in the sport of rowing for you?
Matt Smith: “Yeah, it really has.”
Sam Hoare: “You can’t do something like that and not let it touch you in some way. I definitely will be watching the rowing very closely. Either on the TV or possibly there…(laughs). I’m very keen. Every rare day that the sun has come out this summer I’ve thought, ‘I’d quite like to go down to the river and have a little scull.’ The trouble is, rowing in a single scull, as we found out, is really hard for amateurs. So we’ll see.”
Just how tricky was their relationship at the start? Was the class divide a huge problem?
Matt Smith: “That isn’t the overriding divide of this story. I think it’s about people. But undoubtedly they were from different classes and Bert had a very particular take and view upon that other world. And the class divide was very apparent back then. But that wasn’t the overriding facet of his (Bert) personality. He could crack on with it and get on with it. It just sort of irritated him. He thought it was a bit silly.”
William Ivory: “He was exactly that. I think at the start he felt that he was the main man, really. And I think to a certain extent he was being shunted over to accommodate the establishment figure. But as Matt said, I think he just though it was all a bit ridiculous. He had this thing – a balanced man could have a chip on both shoulders. He was just a chippy bloke. It was fantastic. He could have a row in a phone box. Just a chippy bloke. And I like that about him.”
What happened to them afterwards?
Sam Hoare: “I don’t think Dickie had huge success. They definitely didn’t row together very much again. I think they remained friends but not rowing partners. I think Dickie may have won a couple more Henley medals. But certainly didn’t have any more success in any sort of Olympic events.”
Matt Smith: “Bert went on to be a really successful businessman. Restoring boats and stuff.”
Sam Hoare: “He took over his dad’s boatyard.”
Matt Smith: “Once he’d won Olympic gold, he wasn’t really that interested any more in the sculling. We met the families and they were all terribly proud of Bert. As you would be. Actually they brought his actual gold medal down. Which was exciting.”
Did you work hard at replicating their mannerisms?
Matt Smith: “Yes. But different actors have a different take on these things. From my perspective, in a similar way with Christopher Isherwood, it was about trying to find a similar essence in there between me and him. Taking the bits that work for both of us and the commonalities and trying to harness them. But I think if you spend all of your time trying to imitate someone then I don’t see how it lives on the day.”
Sam Hoare: “I think it’s fair to say that probably David Blair (director) saw a fair amount of Dickie already present in me. Obviously you do as much research as you can and find out as much as you can. And then it’s about finding a balance between him and you.”
Matt…Doctor Who…how long are you staying?
Matt Smith: “Forever. 50 years. I’m loving making it. I think we’ve got one of our strongest seasons yet coming up. I really do. We go into the 50th year all guns blazing. And I’ll be around. So…that’s it, really.”