Cops And Robbers: Interview With Law & Order: UK's Jamie Bamber

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Kudos/Wolf Films/NBC Universal

Jamie Bamber as DS Matt Devlin in Law & Order: UK

For five years Jamie Bamber risked his life as Lee “Apollo” Adama in an ongoing battle against a race of robots determined to wipe out what was left of humanity in the futuristic sci-fi drama Battlestar Galactica. Not long after that series wrapped production, the actor took to the streets of London to help keep its citizens safe from the criminal element as (Junior) Detective Sergeant Matt Devlin in Law & Order: UK. From a professional as well as personal standpoint, the chance to work on a British version of the long-running U.S. franchise was something he could not pass up.

“I was intrigued with the concept of taking an iconic American TV show and remaking it for a British audience,” says Bamber. “This was also an opportunity for me to return home [to the UK] with a big splash and work there for the first time in five years. Personally it allowed me and my family to reacquaint ourselves with London life as well as family over there and gave our kids the chance to get to know their roots.

“So I sent the producers a couple of [audition] tapes and was then flown to New York to meet with them. We had a friendly and very positive chat and it sort of all fell into place. By the time I had finished work on Battlestar the deal was done and I had a month to get myself back to London with my family.

“Character-wise I liked that Matt was from the opposite side of London from where I’m from. He’s a bit more working class and from an immigrant Irish family. Matt was also outspoken and slightly impetuous. I’d just been playing a very sort of buttoned down character on Battlestar who was the opposite of impetuous, mulled everything over and saw complications in almost every situation. It was nice to play someone who didn’t see life as so complicated. Matt just believed he was doing right and good in his chosen profession as a cop on the streets of London. He was pretty quick to assign blame to things and didn’t lose any sleep over it.

“So those were the initial attractions for me, and then gradually as we shot, the biggest attraction was working with Bradley Walsh [Senior Detective Sergeant Ronnie Brooks,], who has become a great friend and is a tremendous energy to bounce off of all day long.”

Like their fictional American counterparts, Matt Devlin and Ronnie Brooks investigate crimes that are ripped from the headlines. In the case of Law & Order: UK, its stories come from original Law & Order U.S. scripts that are adapted to the UK justice system. The storytelling also follows the format of the original Law & Order, with the first half of each episode focusing on the actual crime and subsequent police investigation as well as arrest, while the second half follows the legal and court proceedings in an effort to convict the suspect. With all this work, the characters have little time for play or much else.

“The biggest acting challenge on Law & Order is to imbue life into these characters where you’re not fed character details or dilemmas,” notes Bamber. “We’re really kind of the narrators of a moral dilemma and moral breech in every episode and we try to sort out who’s responsible. As you’re sitting there talking about case files, though, the trick is to also bring as much life as possible to the work as well as relationships amongst all the officers.”

How has Bamber seen his character grow as the series has gone on? “You develop a body of previous cases and throughout all of them, the characters inevitably learn something,” says the actor. “I think you see Matt go from a very eager youngish detective who’s keen to get out there and just get stuck in [to the job], to someone who comes to realize that situations are actually more complicated than they look, and sometimes you have to stand back, rethink and reconsider.

“My character’s relationship with Ronnie Brooks gets deeper and deeper, too, as the show goes on. As actors you inevitably try to come to the screen with an already matured and established relationship so that the audience buys that these two characters have been together for a while. However, in the course of three years of working on Law & Order, Bradley and I really have generated that type of history together. So I think the performances always get deeper in TV and that’s part of the joy of doing it, is the fact that you actually do end up developing a history. It’s not an imagined or created back story - it is, in fact, real.

“The show’s original writer, [executive producer] Chris Chibnall, did a great job of creating the groundwork for our characters and made them a pleasure to step into. Matt is sort of quick and shrill and Ronnie is sort of slow and measured and they just fit well together. That’s a very fun relationship. I always enjoy catching glimpses of episodes and little exchanges between the characters that I’d forgotten about.”

Back at the police station, Detective Inspector Natalie Chandler oversees all the cases being investigated by Devlin and Brooks as well as the rest of her team. Intelligent, a strong judge of character and sensitive to a victims’ situation, DI Chandler is played by Harriet Walter, of whom Bamber is extremely complimentary.

“I really didn’t know Bradley prior to doing Law & Order,” he says. “His reputation in the UK was more as a comedian and all-around entertainer as opposed to a dramatic actor, whereas Harriet is a legend in the British theater. She’s a dame now and we still called her dame before she received her official ‘dame hood.’ So that was a terrific moment for us to finally have that confirmed.

“Harriet has a huge reputation as far as the stage, and I’m still in awe of the theatre, primarily when I see great theater. There’s something so immediate about that ability to present a character and captivate an audience of 1,500 people who are actually there in front of you and you can gauge whether or not it works. I find something mesmerizing about a theater actor who is really up on his or her game, and it’s always fascinating to see someone who you admire on so many levels in the flesh day in and day out. Harriet is a lovely lady, great fun, smart, has a good sense of humor and a pleasure to work with. She’s a fantastic actress and it’s a real privilege for us to have her on Law & Order.”

In the first four years of Law & Order: UK, the judicial process was overseen by George Castle (Bill Paterson), Director of Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) London while the actual court cases were researched and argued by Senior Crown Prosecutor James Steel (Ben Daniels) and Junior Crown Prosecutor Alesha Phillips (Freema Agyeman). At the end of season four, James Steel resigned and George Castle was later appointed Director of Public Prosecutions. In the fifth season opener, “The Wrong Man,” the new senior crown prosecutor, Jacob Thorne (Dominic Rowan), was already hard at work, while Henry Sharpe (Peter Davison) took over as CPS director.

“I actually haven’t had a scene with Peter Davison,” says Bamber. “I’ve always been an admirer of his and we’ve met a couple of times on other shows. I was thrilled when he joined Law & Order but, again, I haven’t as yet worked with Peter.

“As for Dominic Rowan’s character of Jacob Thorne, I thought it was a pretty cool new direction to go in. I’m also a huge admirer of Ben Daniels and I thought he had an incredible focus and singular sort of stoic, resolute approach to his character’s task in Law & Order. However, one of the things I think Dominic brings to the show, which I enjoy, is a bit more of a problematic and slightly grumpier relationship with Freema’s character.

“Ben and Freema are great friends and they get along really well, so their characters were rarely at odds. However, I think when you have a male/female relationship on TV, friction is much better in a way than harmony for the drama and for the characters to be really intriguing. So although Ben Daniels and Bill Paterson, whose work I’m a big fan of as well, are both missed, we were fortunate enough to get two wonderful replacements.”

When asked as both an actor and a viewer if he has a favorite Law & Order episode, there are two that immediately come to Bamber’s mind. “Acting-wise, there’s an episode from the third season called ‘Confession’ with an abusive priest from Matt’s past,” he recalls. “It had a little more to do with my character and involved a personal relationship from his past. There was a journey of sorts in it for Matt and a realization that maybe he hadn’t done what he needed to do and his behavior wasn’t strength but weakness. There was more to get my teeth into as an actor in that one and I enjoyed that hugely. So from a personal fulfillment standpoint that’s the episode for me. I really like my character and I like getting to show off a little more of who he is.

“In terms of a viewer, there’s a great one coming up this [fifth] season which I think is really good called ‘Tick Tock’ and it has a couple going on a rampage in a nightclub. There's an incredible energy to it as well as a real Law & Order pace. The episodes I tend to like the best are most traditional to the original Law & Order New York format where it’s very quick with quick cuts, quick scenes, information flying in, characters being appraised, etc.”

Along with Law & Order: UK, Bamber guest-starred not too long ago in the opening episode of the short-lived British sci-fi series Outcasts, which was produced by the same people who worked on Law & Order. His character of Mitchell Hoban was head of the Expeditionaries and among a group of human colonists that left a dying Earth in order to establish a new civilization on a planet called Carpathia.

“I was actually offered one of the lead regular roles on the series,” says the actor. “However, having just done Battlestar I felt that this show was going to retread some of that same territory. I didn’t think it was the wisest thing for me to go straight back into something like that, having done it on Battlestar to sort of the max as it were.

“So I applauded them on their script and told them how good it was. What I then went on to say, quite cheekily, is that once I started reading the script, I thought the character they originally had in mind for me was another one called Mitchell Hoban. I told them I would be thrilled if they’d consider me for that. I liked that he died at the end of the first episode and I also told them that that might bring a bit of Battlestar-type intrigue to the story.

“It took them about four months to come around to my way of thinking and I’m so glad they did. I fully expected them to go elsewhere because the character wasn’t necessarily a natural for me. Mitchell was kind of a simmering threat and I don’t necessarily see myself in that sort of role, although I had a blast doing it.”

The actor speaks with great enthusiasm about the upcoming feature film John Doe, in which he plays the title role of a serial killer. “I was sent the script over a year ago and was just blown away by it,” says Bamber. “It’s so controversial and I found myself reluctantly drawn into moral as well as intellectual positions that I don’t hold. I thought it was a slightly incandescent and inflammatory piece about the inadequacies of the judicial system, the way we deal with criminals and how we try to take the law into our own hands. The script ticked a lot of boxes for me and gave me the opportunity to play yet another different type of character. It was a challenge and one I thoroughly enjoyed.”

A French movie that Bamber filmed last summer, Un jour mon pere viendra (One Day My Dad Will Come), has its Paris premiere this December. At the moment he is back in the States and busy working. “I’m doing a few guest-spots on TV shows including CSI: Miami, which was fascinating after having recently shot Law & Order,” says the actor. “So I’m just enjoying walking onto other peoples’ sets and looking for the next exciting role.”

Law & Order: UK airs Wednesday nights @ 9:00 p.m. EST/PST on BBC America.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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