Jamie Foreman vividly remembers telling his father, Freddie Foreman, the notorious henchman of the Krays, that he wanted to be an actor. “It was across a table at Wormwood Scrubs [prison], where he was doing bird.
“He thought for a moment and then told me I needed to go see Barbara Windsor – she was then married to another great friend of my father’s, Ronnie Knight [later jailed for armed robbery].
“She told me to go to stage school and then gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. She said, ‘After that, you’re on your own. If you want it, go get it.’ So that’s what I did.”
And how. In his 35-year career, Foreman has accrued an impressive CV that reads like a list of characters you definitely wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley: from the brutish Mark in Gary Oldman’s harrowing Nil by Mouth (1997) to Bill Sykes in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005).
Foreman attributes his work ethic to his dad: “My father was a professional criminal. Everything he did was of the highest standard, even though it was nefarious.”
And there’s a certain serendipity that his latest role should be in EastEnders, the soap that was home to Barbara Windsor for 15 years. He plays brooding Derek Branning, who’s returned to Walford after years in prison.
Indeed, Foreman says that he based Derek on “chaps” he knows. Or gangsters, as others might call them. “I draw so much from the world of the old chaps,” he says. “Not the would-be gangsters but the proper people. Derek’s style, his walk, his ability to inhabit any space he walks into. That menace but also that charisma.”
Foreman says that his father is “a very charming man and he was a very dangerous man. More than anything, people are now shocked when they meet him. They say he’s lovely and cuddly. When he was in his 30s and 40s, he was living a very different life.”
Foreman says firmly and fondly, “I love my father and would do anything for him,” but didn’t want to follow in his criminal footsteps. “I was lucky that I had another world to go to because I could very easily have fallen into that one. It’s where I came from, what I knew, and all my mates were at it.”
But he resisted and now looks forward to enjoying his experience on EastEnders, a show for which he has only admiration – even if he’s a south London boy born and bred. To what does he attribute the soap’s appeal?
“It harks back to an era of community spirit that doesn’t exist any more. I’m not going to say everyone was better in the days the Krays were around because you could walk down the street safely – because that’s nonsense, frankly – but there was a sense of community and that you didn’t s*** on your own doorstep. Now you watch those riots and they’re tearing up their own streets, setting fire to their own shops...”
Foreman is as passionate a Londoner as you’ll find, though he worries that the city has lost its way. “London has become too much of a metropolis. We’re used to taking people in and them becoming part of the fabric of the city. Now the city is furnishing them and that’s leaving true Londoners, whatever their ethnic origins, disenfranchised.”
Polite and softly spoken he may be, but don’t doubt Foreman’s steely fortitude. He’s his father’s son, after all.
EastEnders continues tonight at 7:30pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 1 December 2011.