Interview: Jamie Bamber Talks Sky1’s ‘The Smoke’, ‘Monday Mornings’, ‘BSG’ & More

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A doctor, a fighter pilot and a detective. These are just a few of the roles actor Jamie Bamber has portrayed in his career thus far. His list of credits in television alone would be the envy of any actor in the business today. You can now add firefighter to his growing list of characters as he will be starring in the new Sky1 series called The Smoke which hails from writer Lucy Kirkwood and Kudos Film & TV – the production company behind Spooks and global hit Broadchurch.

Jamie was kind enough to sit down with TVWise and discuss his new role on The Smoke, his time on the short-lived David E. Kelley series Monday Mornings, how Battlestar Galactica is still is a big part of his life and more.

WARNING – The following interview contains some mild spoilers from The Smoke that our UK readers may wish to avoid until after viewing the first episode.

TVWise: What was it about the script for The Smoke that prompted you to take the role?

Jamie Bamber: Well, it was an extraordinary thing that the writer did with the lead character. There is a big revelation; basically the story is that we open with a big fire and my character gets very badly burned and he is physically and mentally broken by it. He’s trying to put his life back together as he returns to work, but you don’t really know what’s wrong with him. At the end, Lucy Kirkwood, the writer, has this extraordinary scene where he sort of loses control after his first day back at work and he reveals in quite shocking fashion exactly why he’s not the man that he was and I’ve never really read a TV script like that before, so I was intrigued. It just lifted the whole thing to a new dimension and peeled back layers on what could have been a run of the mill precinct drama, but turned it into a very psychologically traumatizing, interesting, sort of character journey and I couldn’t say no from that point.

TVWise: Being a firefighter is a physically demanding job, what kind of training or preparation did you do for the role?

Jamie Bamber: Well, I have to be honest, I didn’t do much specifically in terms of physical training. I keep fit and I’m always in pretty good shape, but we did a lot of training once I got to London. We did several days in the classroom getting the terminology straight and working out procedures and stuff. We did training with the breathing apparatus. We also worked out the protocols of going in and out of buildings and things like that; running the entry and exit boards. Then we went to Gatwick Air Port and did a full day of training with container fires and they also started fires and we watched how they developed. We were sent in to simulate an apartment block which was smoked up; you couldn’t see anything and we had to bring in the fire-fighting equipment and drag out the pretend bodies we found in the building.

It is extraordinarily tiring because not only are you carrying a lot of equipment, but your freedom of movement is impaired; you are carrying oxygen cylinders and the hoses when they are full of water are ridiculously heavy! You then are carrying out a body from the building but you also have to carry the hose you brought in at the beginning and everything else. So, it is incredibly demanding and I didn’t really appreciate just how demanding but luckily I do keep in shape and I hadn’t done anything specific with regards to my own personal fitness before I got there, but I realized pretty quickly that it was going to be extremely demanding and it was. We shot some set pieces that would take really lengths to shoot. The result was you might be shooting the same sequence 3, 4 or 5 days at a time and it was pure physical work. There was one sequence in a car wrecking yard were Taron Egerton’s character and I had to carry Allan Ford, who’s an older actor, across a salvage yard that was enormous and we had to climb over and under cars carrying him and carrying our gear. It was incredibly tough and we did it again and again and again for about 3 days and at the end of it, we were exhausted! It’s a job I have huge respect for. Not only do they put themselves in harm’s way and the emotional stress that entails, but the physical aspect of the job is demanding. Also, just the amount of dirt and water and the heat, the discomfort you experience as a firefighter, there is nothing glamorous about the actual work, and it’s pretty dirty.

TVWise: Firefighters deal with high levels of stress and danger in their job. Did you feel any of that while filming The Smoke?

Jamie Bamber: You do, because you use your imagination and you imagine what it would be like to be in the real situation, but of course we are on a set and surrounded by health and safety people, stuntmen and people with fire extinguishers, so we have it pretty easy. There is no real danger and if anything does goes wrong, it’s probably our fault; having said that, we went out of our way to create the most realistic set of circumstances to create these fires. I mean, we actually used toxic black smoke for at least the very first fire we shot and we intended to use it all the way through. As far as I know, no film crew has ever used it before; normally they use the very safe white smoke. We were really intent on trying to create that vision deprivation that you get with proper toxic black smoke, so the entire crew had to be in breathing apparatus and it was extraordinarily painstaking and difficult. The net result was that you didn’t see very much and we wised up as to why people don’t use it, but that was sort of the bench mark of what we were going for. We tried to get it as realistic as possible. So, there were instances where you felt quite isolated and we did have some big explosions. I was set alight at least once in the opening fire, my character suffers very bad burns, so I had about several feet of flames coming of my lower half and not much acting is required because you kind of respond to the visceral elements around you and it doesn’t take much imagination, but I always felt very looked after, so I can’t compare to what it must be like to go into an unknown quantity.

TVWise: What can fans look forward to and what do you want the fans to take away from watching The Smoke?

Jamie Bamber: The series is very psychological and character driven. It’s about the personal relationships; it’s about the recriminations that happens when something goes wrong and the attempt to move on. It really is an 8 hour story, but we do have individual stories each week where fires or road traffic accidents take us out of the fire station and we have to confront and fight them as a team. It’s really an unravelling of layers that everyone is trying to get back to the way they were before the first big fire that so affects my character and by extension affects all the guys and girls underneath him at work. It’s personal relationships, it’s friendships and it’s an attempt to really find out what went wrong in that fire and who is responsible and the whole thing sort of unravels over 8 hours. It’s almost a family drama; these people love each other and they try to do right by each other, they think the world of each other, but as in life, people with good intentions can often hurt the people they are trying to help. It’s a very complex, character driven piece, but there are also these big spectacular set pieces every week that will take these people out of the situation with regards to that initial fire and have them confront new situations. It’s got a bit of everything and I think it’s a really strong piece and I think people will be surprised at how funny it is at times, there are some very funny moments and very funny characters. The nature of the fire services is that you spend a lot of time cracking jokes and waiting for things to happen. So, we have all that balance and I think by the end of it, they will have a good impression of what it is to be a modern firefighter in the modern world and yet also there are very high stakes here; there is this hugely traumatic event that they can’t quite move beyond and that they are trying to move beyond.

As a friend of a firefighter, there is also that element, the people surrounding them; their loved ones and what they have to deal with and how difficult it is at times for them to understand and support them. The central relationship in the piece is my character and his girlfriend Trish. She’s very supportive, but fundamentally she can’t help the guy so it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation at times, but there is tremendous joy and fun within the fire service. All of our background artists were off duty firemen in London and on their days of they would come to set and be extras on the show. We have that added layer as well and we got to know a lot of them and they are really good, fun people to be around and that is the thing that I take from them most of all.

TVWise: Another of your recent roles was that of Dr. Tyler Wilson on Monday Mornings. Can you tell us a little bit about working on that series?

Jamie Bamber: Yes, absolutely. It was one of the high points of my career. I just loved everything about it. Again, an insight into another world; a world of these extremely cutting edge teaching hospitals. I played a brain surgeon and I loved the opportunity to get to know a bit about what a brain surgeon does and the responsibilities and the stresses of that job. I thought it was a great show with a great cast. There was a really nice blend of humor, moral dilemma and personal intrigue. It was a fascinating world, something like firefighters but in a very different way, a less sort of physical way. These people are grappling with the cutting edge of science to save people on a daily basis and the moral and practical dilemmas that come with that. There is a physical element to the show because these people are working with their hands. I thought it was a fascinating creation that David E. Kelly came up with and in my opinion I think it was cancelled too soon and I was devastated by it. The show has been received well in every country it has played in and I feel something just went wrong with the scheduling at TNT and unfortunately we were the victims, but that is the nature of the beast.

TVWise: The most intense scenes on Monday Mornings were the morbidity and mortality conferences. As an actor, what was it like to shoot these extremely intense scenes?

Jamie Bamber: They were great scenes. We had the great Alfred Molina out front doing what amounted to a two-hander with another actor each week. If I wasn’t involved, I would try not to read those scenes so that at least the first couple of times I could experience them completely fresh. Obviously, if you were involved you had to do a bit of work on them, but there were a couple of them were I didn’t have anything to do so I would just listen and it was just a great privilege. I hadn’t seen anything like that on TV before, I mean, we’ve seen it in courtrooms before, but to have doctors and medics and surgeons call each other and stuff without the procedure that we are familiar with the courtroom. I just thought it was really original and really strong and Sanjay Gupta brought it to light with his novel. I thought it really captured something that was interesting for viewers and a great sort of theatrical set piece within a medical drama. Not a day goes by were if I see a Monday Mornings spill or something or a friend rings me and brings it up, I have pang of regret and incredulous nostalgia because I can’t believe we only got to do it for one season. It’s a mass market medium and if the mass market doesn’t come, then we unfortunately don’t get to do it.

TVWise: What did being on Battlestar Galactica mean to you personally and professionally?

Jamie Bamber: You know, it was a revelation that changed everything for me. It gave me opportunities professionally that I wouldn’t have had and it definitely moved me on in terms of my profile in my career. More than that, personally it has meant a family of friends and colleagues that I worked with that I will never lose. Some of my very closest friends I met during Battlestar Galactica and those bonds will never be broken. Also personally, I’ve met so many people all around the world that love the show and that are discovering it on a daily basis. That means that show is still part of my life, even though it’s long in the past. I was actually cleaning my garage the other day and finding old scripts and scraps of paper and those memories flood back about discovering it all for the first time back then and not realizing quite what the journey was that we were on, but the real truth is that I am still on that journey because I still meet people on a daily basis that shed new light on the show for me. I am sort of waiting for the day were I can watch it all again with my kids when they are old enough and relive the whole thing. It’s a very special part of my life which will always be with me in many different respects.

TVWise: Battlestar Galactica was definitely ahead of its time and unfortunately, science fiction still doesn’t get the true mainstream acceptance that it should. Would you agree with that?

Jamie Bamber: I think unfortunately a lot of science fiction goes for the lowest common denominator. It goes for the base elements. I do agree that good science fiction is often too easily dismissed. Often times because there is a goofy element to science fiction, it can be lumped in with that and dismissed. I think there are great science fiction writers out there and it would be nice to see more of it on TV. I think TV itself has departed from the Battlestar model and gone to the easy to please, sort of action based science fiction stuff which doesn’t really challenge. Battlestar was a revelation for me, when I realized how serious Ron Moore was about it gradually with every episode that came in, it just became more exciting. I don’t think I had anticipated that it would have that depth of relevance politically, socially, religiously and philosophically. Good science fiction has always done that and it would be nice to see some more of it on TV.

TVWise: You also had a great run on Law & Order: UK. What does it feel like being part of that legendary franchise?

Jamie Bamber: It was really wonderful. For me, what made it wonderful was going back to my hometown and making the version that is based in London. That felt very empowering for British television and it was lovely for me personally after spending almost 6 years on the West Coast to get back home and do something for mainstream British TV. I think it’s the first time and only time actually that we have remade an American product for ourselves back in the UK. It’s great to know that show is being shown all over the world. The UK version is still going, so we are probably the last one I think still out there. I am very proud to have been involved with that series.

TVWise: Is there a role or a project that you haven’t done that you would like to do?

Jamie Bamber: I came at this from the angle of doing theater and that was really my focus. I’ve neglected that for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed the classics and I suppose the classics are the things that never go away. I would really like to attack a couple more of them. For me, to appear on Broadway or in the West End or do a new play that people would sit up and take notice, I think that would be something very special. So no, there is no specific role that I am desperately trying to get off the ground right now, but I would love to do a play in the near future because I haven’t done one in about 8 years.

TVWise: Any upcoming projects you can talk about?

Jamie Bamber: I have a movie coming out in the US on March 21st called John Doe: Vigilante, which is an Australian film that I shot a couple of years ago in Melbourne. I’m really proud of it. It’s a little film but it has a good sized release in the US. I hope people do go out and see the film. It’s different from anything else I’ve done before; it’s a pretty scary, cautionary tale about the mix of the media and personal justice. It’s pretty dark, but it was a script that I read and felt absolutely whacked around the head by. It made me assume positions that I don’t assume in terms of my outlook and the way I look at justice and the way I look at the role of the individual within the justice system. I was shocked by it and thought it was a really challenging piece. So, I am excited to see how that does.

Jamie Bamber stars in Sky1’s new original drama series The Smoke, which premieres tonight (February 20th) at 9pm.