Doctor Who star Matt Smith has said that one of the best things about being an actor is having the chance to pick up random skills for the parts he plays.

The actor recently learned to row for his role in the BBC1 drama Bert and Dickie, in which he plays 1948 London Olympics oarsman Burt Bushnell.

And he admitted, “That’s one of the great virtues of being an actor – you get to learn these skills along the way. It was a wonderful way to spend a week.”

The film focuses on two very different characters – Bert, who came from a working-class family who worked on the Thames building and repairing boats, and his rowing partner Dickie Burnell was an Old Etonian and Oxford Blue.

“Bert had a very particular take and view of that world and the class divide was very apparent back then,” Matt said. “But that wasn’t the overriding facet of his personality. He could crack on with it but it sort of irritated him.”

Both Matt and his co-star Sam Hoare prepared for the six-week shoot by spending time with Olympic contenders at the Leander Rowing Club in Henley-on-Thames – and the actor said he was in awe of the athletes he met.

“How they row at that level for six minutes is extraordinary,” he pointed out. It’s kind of like your body is just a lever and the courage and will and barrier of pain you have to get through is what our story is about really.”

Bert and Dickie will be screened on BBC One on July 25.