Martin Kemp: Naughty but nice

Once upon a time Martin Kemp was a New Romantic. Now he makes a career out of playing gangsters and psychopaths, from Reggie Kray to EastEnders' Steve Owen. But his favourite role, he tells Brian Viner, is devoted family man. No, really...
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Michael Palin, as everyone knows, is officially the nicest man in showbusiness. But Martin Kemp is muscling in. "I've heard he's lovely," says the person I know who knows someone who did the make-up on EastEnders. "He's soooo nice," says someone else who has worked with him at ITV. "Delightful bloke," says a musician friend who knew him in his Spandau Ballet days.

These are positively Palinesque endorsements, but the difference is that Kemp's on-screen character, unlike Palin's, is invariably at odds with his off-screen reputation. He made his name as an actor by playing Reggie Kray, became even more famous as duplicitous Steve Owen in EastEnders, and is currently playing another gangster, Joey Cutler, in the ITV six-parter, Family. Next up, he's playing a murderous bigamist in a drama based on a notorious real-life case from the turn of the last century. It can only be a matter of time before someone casts him as Hitler, or Saddam Hussein.

We meet on a lofty floor of the London Television Centre, and spend a few minutes cooing over the view. He is, I can report, nice, lovely, delightful even. And resolutely unneedled when I suggest that by playing gangsters both real and fictional, he is imbuing deeply unpleasant people with a spurious glamour.

"But gangsters are glamorous," he counters. "Frank Fraser, Ronnie Kray, guys like that... they are, or were, filled with charisma. When I went to see Ronnie in Broadmoor (prior to starring in the 1990 film The Krays), he was sat in the dining hall wearing a silk suit. He stuck out like a sore thumb. That was an odd day, actually. In the morning Gary [his brother and fellow Spandau Ballet star] and I did Saturday Superstore, and a few hours later we were in the dining hall at Broadmoor, just along from the Yorkshire Ripper, talking to Ronnie Kray about the day he murdered George Cornell."

Screen violence, he asserts, is objectionable not when it is too realistic but when it lacks realism. "The violence in EastEnders is a lot more dangerous than the violence in Family. It becomes dangerous when it is softened, like in The A-Team. No one dies, no one bleeds. I used to struggle a lot with the depiction of violence in EastEnders. I had more meetings with producers about that than anything else. Because it's kind of cartoon violence, and I worry when my little boy watches it. When he sees more realistic stuff it scares him... and that's better."

Kemp himself might easily have been led into a life of crime. As he says about meeting numerous East End gangsters in preparation for playing Kray all those years ago: "What struck me was how similar their backgrounds were to mine. I was brought up in a council flat in Islington with only an outside lavatory. And there were plenty of kids I knew who later ended up in prison. But they took one path and we took another. My parents were honest, hard-working people, and the thing they were proudest of in their whole lives was Gary and me. We didn't ever want to hurt them. That's what kept us straight."

Surely, at the very least he did a bit of childhood shoplifting? I know I did. Assuming that the statute of limitations has been lifted, I confess that, until I embarked on the path of righteousness when I was about 15, I pinched more than the odd Mars Bar from the Spar supermarket at the bottom of our road.

But Kemp is shaking his head. "No, never. My parents taught us respect for other people, and for other people's things."

Kemp is far too nice for there to be any reproach - or indeed piety - implicit in this comment; it's just the way it was. His folks now live in Bournemouth in a house he and Gary bought for them. They have revelled unashamedly in their sons' success.

"My dad was a printer, who would do every hour of overtime he could get, and in the early days of Spandau, when Gary and I each had a Porsche, he would take them to work on alternate days when we were away." A grin. "He said it was important to keep them running. A lot of the pleasure I've got from what I do is to see the pleasure it's given mum and dad."

I don't suppose even Palin has been quite as dutiful a son as Kemp has been. And needless to add, he's a model husband and dad as well. His marriage to Shirlie (formerly one half of Pepsi and Shirlie, Wham!'s backing singers), who nursed him when he was found to have two brain tumours in 1995, since successfully removed, is often described by the tabloids as that scary phenomenon, "the most solid in showbusiness".

Perhaps provocatively, I tell him that every time a showbiz marriage is described by a tabloid as rock solid, I am reminded of the football club chairman's vote of confidence in his manager, which is frequently followed by the manager's dismissal. He smiles, unperturbed.

"Shirlie is my best friend. Some guys find release by going to the pub to see their mates, but my mate is Shirlie. We've been through a lot together. And everything I do is for my family. In some so-called celebrity marriages, the celebrity becomes bigger than the marriage. In our house, celebrity is the little card you use to get yourself a better job."

It was his celebrity that propelled him onto EastEnders, and his celebrity that then landed him a lucrative deal with ITV. He had to be able to act, of course, but he was never about to elbow Michael Gambon out of a job. Still, nobody on the telly does blazing eyes better, and he offers an interesting insight into the business of acting in soaps.

"If ever there was a crying scene in EastEnders, they'd bring out some Vaseline to get the tears going. I used to call it the award stick. Whenever you cry you get an award. But the hardest scenes to play are when you're supposed to be relaxed. When you're playing angry your heart pounds because you're nervous and you use that. But if your heart's pounding and you have to come across as calm, that's tough."

Like more than a few EastEnders stars, Kemp enrolled as a child at the Anna Scher drama school in Rotherfield Street, N1. Among his contemporaries were Pauline Quirke and Phil Daniels. "But I was the shyest boy you could imagine. Anna got rid of that shyness. For her, everything was about giving confidence. Everything you did, it was 'well done, that was fantastic'. And she taught me improvisation techniques which for me were the key not just to acting, but to life."

He has improvised his way to considerable wealth, fame and manifest happiness. And the starting point was a flat, also in Rotherfield Street, without an outside lav. Does he ever worry, I wonder, that his own children - 14-year-old Harley, and Roman, aged 10, brought up with a choice of several inside lavs - might not have the drive or hunger to succeed as he has done? That in providing them with the affluence he was denied, he might be denying them enrichment in other ways?

After all, he has already told me that his childhood home was next door to a pub, and that the walls "used to literally vibrate every Saturday and Sunday with 'Roll Out The Barrel' and 'Mother Kelly's Doorstep', which is how Gary got his earliest musical influences." And from Gary's interest in music sprang Spandau Ballet; from Spandau Ballet sprang Kemp's life today. Obviously I'm not suggesting that he sells his handsome home in Hertfordshire and moves back into the old gaff in Rotherfield Street (it's still there; he passes it frequently), but...

"Yeah, I know what you're getting at. But not everybody who's done well has come from a working-class background. I do often wonder whether I'm giving them too much. But it's difficult when my son says 'I want that new game', especially if I want that new game too... and when I take him to school, I often think that it's worlds apart from the school I went to. But at the end of the day, thank God it is."

He is teaching his son to play the bass guitar - their repertoire is T-Rex and the Who - while cheerfully acknowledging that he was never much of a bass guitarist himself. Still, tell that to the kids who worshipped Spandau Ballet.

"But it was never really me," he says. "People say that 'True' is part of the soundtrack of their lives, and it's part of mine, too. But when I hear those songs they don't trigger memories of making them, just of being around when that music was around. Do you know what I mean? It's so far away now it doesn't seem like me. As I say, Gary was always the one into music. We shared a bedroom and he had guitars on his wall, while on mine I had posters of Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Steve McQueen... people with charisma. I love people with charisma, love them."

It doesn't take psychoanalysis to work out that there is something vicarious in his admiration of charisma; that he feels, perhaps, it is a quality he lacks. Which brings us back to gangsters, and why he so enjoys playing them on screen. Does he never get fed up with being the baddie? "Did anyone ever ask Jimmy Cagney that?" Fair enough.

He thinks he has met virtually all the leading underworld figures of London in the Fifties and Sixties, all except Reggie Kray himself. "I had the opportunity, but I thought it might hinder my performance. But a lot of guys who'd been in their firm were extras in the film. And they'd all come to lunch on the set and tell you what you were doing wrong. 'You can't be Reggie unless you do this, or do that.'

"One guy used to say: 'You can't be Reggie unless you sniff after every sentence.' Apparently, he had this sinus problem. So in the middle of a scene I'd look over to the edge of the set and see this guy standing there sniffing, going 'more, more'. Even cab drivers would share their theories. One cab driver said to me: 'Do you know how the twins got their special powers?' Special powers, that's what he said. 'Their mum used to make them drink the greens water,' he said; the water the greens were cooked in. Everyone thought they owned a bit of them. They were part of London folklore."

And murderous thugs, let's not forget. "Yeah, of course."

After The Krays, both Kemp brothers found to their surprise that the phone never started ringing. "The film was critically acclaimed, but we couldn't get arrested over here. I think because in Britain you're considered to be either a pop star or an actor. You can't be both. But in America, entertainment is this one big bubble and you can move around inside it."

He and the family duly moved to Los Angeles, and moved back two days after the LA riots, which from his house in west Hollywood looked like a vision of hell. He was there for three years. "And there, the casting doors were open. But I was always seduced by bigger parts in smaller films, not the other way round. I made a whole bunch of terrible B-films." Which was the worst? "Oh, man. Probably one called Lost in Time. I played Dr Frankenstein, and the monster turns on me and squashes my brain out. It goes flying across the room."

Kemp gives a merry chuckle. "Funnily enough, out of everything I've done, that's my little boy's favourite."

'The Family' continues on ITV1 on Wednesday at 11.30pm