Airing tonight at 8.30pm on BBC One, William Ivory’s Bert & Dickie sees Doctor Who star Matt Smith play a real life sporting hero, Bert Bushnell, a brilliant English rower who won gold at the 1948 London Olympics in extraordinary circumstances.
Just six weeks before the Games, Bert, a champion single skuller, was shocked to be told that he was going to row in a two-man boat with another rower Dickie Burnell. The working class, slightly ‘chippy’ Bert and the Oxford Blue Old Etonian Dickie came from very different backgrounds. Yet despite their differences – in and out of the boat – the pair delivered post-War Britain an unlikely boost when they won gold at Henley-on-Thames.
In many ways their make-do-and-mend partnership summed up the Austerity Games, an Olympics that was being run on a shoestring in cash-strapped post-War London.
Matt admits that he took on the role to stretch himself beyond the role of the Doctor.
“I’m still learning about acting from job to job,” he says.
In this case, however, it stretched him physically as well as mentally.
Matt and his co-star Sam Hoare, who plays Dickie, had even less time than the real life Bert and Dickie to prepare for the role. Matt was at a distinct disadvantage, however. Unlike Sam, who rowed at university, he had never taken the oars in a boat before.
“It was pretty daunting,” admits Matt. “I’d never set foot in a boat before.”
Matt went through an intensive training programme, overseen by members of the world-famous Leander Rowing Club in Henley-on-Thames. Each day he and Sam would get up at 7am and join the Olympic rowing team preparing for this Summer’s Games.
“It was hard work. We’d get up about sevenish and train as they were doing,” he says.
In all, Matt and Sam had four sessions at Leander during the space of eight, intensive days before filming began.
“It was nowhere near the six weeks Bert and Dickie had. Everyone at the Leander club welcomed us and helped us greatly and we couldn’t have done it without them,” he says.
Learning to navigate the specially-designed two man skull on the choppy waters of the Thames was far from plain sailing.
“We had three or four duckings,” Matt laughs. “The boats that we were rowing in were similar to the ones that Bert and Dickie rowed in so were much harder, even the Olympians were saying that. They were not easy. It’s to do with how they are weighted and balanced, and the types of oars, which were very thin.”
In many ways, it was the perfect role. Matt was a talented sportsman himself, running 400 metres at school but more significantly, playing football at a high level first for Northampton and then Nottingham Forest and Leicester City until a back injury denied him his dream of becoming a professional sportsman.
The story of Bert and Dickie resonated for Matt in another way too. It is also the story of the relationship between two fathers and sons. Dickie Burnell’s attempt to win at Henley in 1948 was an attempt to step out of the shadow of his father, Don Burnell (played by Geoffrey Palmer) a gold medallist in in the 1908 Olympic rowing regatta. Bert, on the other hand, was being driven on by his stern and ambitious father, John (Douglas Hodge), who saw his son as a way of achieving something that eluded him as a young rower.
Matt’s father, David, was a huge influence on him when he was young, especially when he was an aspiring footballer. He instilled in Matt many of the principles that he lives by to this day.
“I can’t underestimate the influence he’s had on me as a person. He is from Blackburn, he’s from a place called Darwen and he believes that if you are going to do something then do it properly. So my boots had to be clean to play. They had to be. He also made sure I was on time and that I got a good night’s rest. All that stuff, which is what Bert’s dad is about. But when you look back on it you think well that’s a good discipline,” he explains.
“My dad always used to say ‘you’ve just got to work harder than the bloke next to you’. And he’s right. If you think to yourself ‘if I work harder than everyone else in the room, then I’ve got the best start’. Some people don’t need to work hard because they are so talented. But I think for me it’s about preparation being key.”
His father was a much less authoritarian figure than Bert’s father, however.
“I am very fortunate he’s a wonderful man who allowed me a sense of freedom that perhaps Bert’s dad didn’t. For four or five years of my life he would drive me around every day. In my last year he drove me to Leicester every single day. And for three or four years before that he drove me up to Nottingham three times a week, which is an hour and twenty minutes from Northampton. And he was doing that while doing a job, a good job. He sacrificed a lot. On Sunday I could be playing in Leeds or Portsmouth. We got very close because we spent so much time in the car together and I look back on it with great fondness actually,” he smiles.
Throughout this period, however, Matt didn’t feel any pressure to live vicariously for his father, as Bert does in the drama.
“There is a history of footballers in my family, my grandad played for Notts County and my dad played at county level. But there were no expectations because my dad’s a wonderful man and he would never put that pressure on me.”
Bert & Dickie is also the story of how the resilience and spirit of the Second World War generation made a success of the 1948 Games.
“The fact that it went on at all was a bit of a miracle. There was such camaraderie and determination to do the country proud. I hope we’ll see some more of that same spirit this Summer when the Games begin here,” he says.
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