When it came to playing Bushnell, he did not strive for an impersonation. The oarsman died at the age of 88 in 2010, and is survived by his three daughters. His family and that of Burnell have supported the drama, but there was little newsreel footage of him, or even radio interviews. “I’ve had to use more artistic licence,” says Smith. He sees Bushnell as someone with an axe to grind, a working-class hero with an oar in his hand. “Without causing offence to people who are close to him, the story goes that Bert was chippy. But my grandad, my dad’s dad, was a bit like that. He’d been in the war and he was a bit chippy, too. I think there was a sort of toughness to people in England at that time but I think that was because you had to be. There was no nonsense,” he says.
Given how little he knew of the real Bushnell, it was all the more important that Smith understand the sport that dominated his young life. Along with his co-star, Sam Hoare, Smith spent six weeks being taught the basics of boatmanship by members of the Leander rowing club in Henley-on-Thames, including members of the Olympic team training for the upcoming Games.
It was a voyage of discovery. “I had never been in a boat before and there wasn’t much time to prepare,” he says. “So it was a daunting but also exciting challenge. We d get up about seven-ish and train as they were doing.”
A part from the effort of training, Smith found that the biggest shock to his system was the huge amount of food the Olympic rowers eat. “They burn off three or four thousand calories a day, so they eat enormous breakfasts of porridge and fry-ups, then go back for a mega lunch after that. I didn’t eat as much as them, but I still ate way more than I would normally because I was burning it all off,” he says.
Manoeuvring their custom-built boat around the temperamental waters of the Thames was tricky, he admits. “It’s a law unto itself. I didn’t appreciate how difficult it was to stay steady and level. We’ve had our duckings,” he grimaces.
As a teenager, Smith was a talented 400m runner and a useful footballer, before his sporting career was cut short. “The thing that worried me was my back. I had a very bad injury playing football as a kid so I was quite concerned,” he says. “But in a weird way rowing actually was good for my back. You are using your arms and legs as a pulley, not your back.”
His spine may have stood up to the test, but he admits the rest of his body took a beating. “Look at my hands, look at my legs,” he says, displaying his war wounds. “I’ve got blisters on the hand, cuts and bruises everywhere. Calluses. Your bum is the worst thing because those old wooden seats are pretty grim,” he smiles. “It is like everything, it is the tiny details. I loved it, although it s taken its toll physically.”
His injuries, however, haven’t stopped Smith regretting the fact that he can’t play in the football kick-around the cast and crew organise during filming of Doctor Who in Cardiff. “I’d love to play football now. Everyone at work plays on Tuesdays, but they won’t let me. I guess it’s the insurance companies and, realistically, if I turn my ankle over and we can’t shoot, then we’re screwed, aren’t we? You just can’t. It’s a small price to pay,” he says, a little ruefully.