In 1875, a 28-year-old former merchant seaman, Captain Matthew Webb, became the first person to swim the English Channel, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated for 36 years.
Don’t be worried if you’re not familiar with his name. Neither was Luther star Warren Brown, who plays him in the film Captain Webb, premiering on Drama on Friday, December 18.
What did you know about the first man to swim the English Channel?
“I was completely unaware of Webb and the part he played in history. He’s not totally forgotten – a couple of older people I’ve spoken to said, ‘Oh, yes, his picture used to be on matchboxes years ago.’ But he really is one of those great British unsung heroes and that’s what made me want to play him.”
How difficult was his challenge?
“Our knowledge of swimming, of the tides, of the science involved is much more advanced now. They didn’t have any of that at the time and, because of the tides, Webb ended up swimming a zig-zag course and a longer distance.’
(Webb, in fact, swam 39 miles (the shortest distance is 21 miles) after strong currents off the French coast prevented him from reaching the shore for hours. Using breaststroke, as crawl was considered too new-fangled then, the crossing took him nearly 22 hours.)
His training methods were a little primitive compared to those today, and included smoking, drinking salt water and stuffing himself with food!
“In comparison to training methods today, people might think that was absolutely absurd. But it was the Victorian era. They did the best with what they had and what they knew.”
Did you actually train for the role?
“It was absolutely brutal [training in Kent]. It was in the summer but our waters, as you can imagine, don’t heat up that much. So I was able get into Webb’s mindset for that period of time!”
You’re a former professional Thai boxer. Did that help you identify with the pain and injuries Captain Webb endured?
“It’s pushing yourself to find out what your limits are and what you are capable of. Webb had set his mind to do something and was going to do it, regardless. You have to admire that grit and I could draw on my experience as a former fighter for that.”
But you had one problem Webb didn’t…
“I am terrified of the sea! I didn’t tell the director until we had finished filming because it was something I had to overcome myself. Very often we were really quite far out in the Channel and, although there was a support boat and a filming boat, they were often quite far away, so it was just me. You don’t know what’s beneath you. You can’t see land in front or behind you. But by the end I discovered that I actually enjoyed swimming in the sea.”
In fact, you’re now in the Bahamas playing a fisherman in a people-smuggling film…
“You could say it is another water-based film. I will be in the sea, but not quite as much as I was in Captain Webb and, thankfully, the water here is very much warmer.”