When Bradley Walsh was nominated for a National Television Award – the Radio Times best detective gong for playing DS Ronnie Brooks in Law & Order: UK – his wife Donna couldn’t quite believe it. “She said, “Brad look who’s on this list!’ ” He grins and shakes his head. “I was up there with Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant and all these actors who’ve done their bit with the RSC! My son, he’s 16, he watches Luther and Sherlock and all those shows and he said, ‘Wow, Dad, Ronnie’s there.’” He pauses, amazed to have made his boy proud. “I honestly, hand on heart, had no idea people saw the show in that way…”
In part this is because, for most broadsheet TV critics, Bradley Walsh and Ronnie Brooks are not fit to be bracketed with Cumberbatch/ Sherlock. And for the uninitiated, Brooks is an anomaly in this era of the super sleuth and the troubled genius. Where Luther wrestles human devils and Sherlock outwits masterminds, Brooks plays things by the book, offering good old policing the way it used to be, coupled with the uncanny ability to see major crimes as a symbolic critique of his life to date. (As a recovering alcoholic with two ex-wives, two estranged daughters and a string of dead ex-colleagues, he’s got quite a life and quite a lot of guilt.)
Mark Gatiss argues that Sherlock Holmes set the template for all other detectives – he certainly provided the blueprints for House MD, Hercule Poirot and even Batman. True fans of detective fiction who have tuned in to Law & Order: UK, however, know there’s another, older story: Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Petrovich appeared more than 20 years before the first Sherlock story was published and served as inspiration for Columbo, whose shabby raincoat, stubborn adherence to procedure and ability to seem insignificant until the last minute prepared the ground for Brooks: 35 years covering east London for the Met’s Murder Investigation Unit, burdened by a love of his beat, West Ham United and junk food. Where Sherlock delivers gnomic one-liners, Brooks is more likely to make tasteless jokes – something Walsh picked up from his mates who are real East End coppers.
“They’ll be in the middle of something ghastly and they’ll be, like, ‘So he had his legs blown off… what’s for lunch? Get me a mocha and the pasta,” he shrugs. “They have to treat it as a job. They have to distance themselves.” But he loves the Columbo/Petrovich theory – “I reckon that’s true for Foyle’s War, too, especially now they’ve gone all Cold War and MI5.” He’s suddenly coy. “Michael Kitchen is my favourite actor. We were at the same table at an awards once and I was so thrilled I had to go and sit next to him… he’s mesmeric. Really low key but you can’t take your eyes off him.”
Walsh delivers Brooks with a similar low-key brio, playing against his natural jokey, cheeky type as seen on quiz show The Chase, which he hosts, or in Coronation Street, where he played equally upbeat factory boss Danny Baldwin from 2004-6. It’s partly down to his mates, who even told him where to go in Epping to get police-issue glasses, and partly down to a lucky accident…
“Normally if I’ve got an audition I’m punctual, I’ve learnt my lines and I’ll go looking smart,” he begins, sitting upright and precise in an office high in ITV’s South Bank tower. “The Law & Order audition was so last-minute, I was already in a shabby suit, the journey was a complete disaster, my train stopped early, it was raining and I had to show the cabbie the way… I rushed in apologising, gave this terrible reading and ended up telling my whole journey to them. I must have bored them to tears. So I was shocked when they offered me the part. But the producers told me that dodgy brown suit and babbling talk about cabbies got me the part.”
“Bradley’s very real and grounded,” explains Jane Featherstone, the show’s executive producer and chief executive of production company Kudos – home of Spooks, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Broadchurch. “So many detectives are aloof and distant. Brooks has some typical detective tropes – his damaged personal life and addictions – but he keeps them in the background. He’s an ordinary DS; you hope there’s one in every station but I fear there may not be.”
In real life, Walsh is about halfway between Brooks and his madcap quiz- show host personality. He tends to be quietly enthusiastic – about his family, his mates and his work – and still doesn’t seem entirely convinced that he’s safely working in two long-running TV shows. He won’t even allow himself a credit card. “It frightens me,” he admits.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not a rich man, but I can afford a meal out here or there, and I can take my family to the theatre, which is too expensive quite frankly for a family of four. But when you’ve been – when you are working class – you know the value of a pound. You’ll work and work. You live in fear of not knowing when the next job is coming along. Sometimes you end up taking on too much, but that’s better than not working.”
He speaks from experience. Aged 18, Walsh joined Brentford FC as a centre forward, until ankle fractures benched him permanently in 1982, aged 22, just as his daughter Hayley (from a previous relationship) was born. Needing to earn, he signed on as a Bluecoat in Pontins then, as the summer season ended, he took to the road as a stand-up comic. He entered his dark years – all- night journeys, loneliness and coming home some- times with £5 spare after all the bills were paid.
“The great thing about playing football was the team,” he smiles ruefully. “I enjoyed the dressing-room camaraderie – I loved it, I seriously loved it. When you’re a Bluecoat you’re part of a team, but when you get into stand-up comedy, you’re on your own. My mates came to four or five gigs before they got bored so then I was on my own – up and down that bloom- ing M6 or up and down the M1… it gets a bit soul-destroying.
“I used to pray for summer season and panto to come round so I could be part of a team again. The working men’s clubs where you follow the bingo and they couldn’t have £80 final house because they had to pay a comic from London.” He shakes his head. “I got put on as Dudley Wells one night – “Here he is, all the way from London, Dudley Wells!” I told my mates that and for years they called me Dudley Wells.”
The luck changed in the mid-80s when he turned pro, getting booked as warm-up man by singers like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow. “You see these comics now doing the arena tours and stuff like that; I’d be doing five nights at the Albert Hall in front of 7,000 people who had paid to see someone else entirely,” he grins. “You had to keep moving, use panto skills, do Mexican waves – anything to get them going.” He seems to have stuck with these skills, co-stars tell us. “He’s always pulling little tricks and stunts,” says Ben Bailey Smith, aka rapper and comic Doc Brown, who stars as Brooks’s new sidekick DS Joe Hawkins and says Walsh was both mentor and tormentor. “I’ll have this intense scene, and I’ll be getting in the zone and he’ll have his glasses upside down, cracking gags, making everybody laugh, and the second they say, ‘Action!’, he’s completely straight-faced. I’m getting the giggles and he’s suddenly really profound.” “I like people to have a bit of a laugh,” Walsh grins. “Life is too short to not enjoy what you’re doing…”
In the 90s, making people laugh got him a job presenting the National Lottery show and started his TV career – around the same time he met his wife in the very building we’re sitting in, and the couple got together during a summer season in Torquay where she was a dancer and he was the comic turn. They’ve stayed solid despite one or two lurid headlines, and he delights in a story about how they went stealing soap when Law & Order’s US creator Dick Wolf flew them out to Monte Carlo.
“The hotel he put us up in – my God, it was the most wonderful place,” he laughs. “All you’d hear is, ‘Look at this soap. Oh my God, look at the shampoo.’ So we brought it all back – just not the dressing gowns. They charge you for those.”
Technically speaking, I point out, that’s theft. What would Ronnie Brooks say? “I think he’d be OK with it,” Walsh says drily. “When we’re filming on the street a lot of police – the real police – come along, realise it’s us and jump out and want to chat. I suspect they wouldn’t mind me having a bit of Hermitage soap about my person, you know what I mean?” Bradley, I say, I think I do.