Ex-EastEnder Nigel Harman joins the cast of Hotel Babylon for the show’s fourth series as Sam Franklin, the hotel’s charismatic new boss and saviour.
Nigel’s first day on the set of Hotel Babylon was a reunion of sorts between him, Dexter Fletcher and Ray Coulthard who plays James, Food & Beverages Manager.
“Dexter and I did a show together called Abracadabra at the Lyric Hammersmith and he will kill me for saying this but I was 10 and he was a much older 17 or so… we were three school kids in detention – me, Dexter and Jenna Russell who is Ray Coulthard’s partner,” he reminisces.
“And Jenna and I later worked together in Guys And Dolls in the West End which is when I met Ray.”
However, it was a random ride on Dexter’s motorbike that ignited Nigel’s passion for bikes.
“Dexter was the first person to give me a ride on a motorbike and one night after the show we razzed up and down an alleyway behind the Lyric Hammersmith. So it’s kind of weird that we have come full circle when the irony is, at my age, I should know better,” he laughs.
Nigel’s first day was somewhat daunting, not least because he was joining an established cast and a popular prime-time show but also because he had great swathes of dialogue to deliver.
“I was really nervous on my first day because the show is really established now but the cast and crew were fantastically warm and welcoming and what you see on screen is how it is on set,” he says.
“There are two kinds of Babylon lovers – the out-and-out fans who unashamedly love it and the closet fans for whom the show is a guilty pleasure. I got a really warm reaction to coming into it from my friends and family; and when a show is as established as this is, with a strong fan-base, then make no mistake, the pressure is on.”
“Add to that the great chunks of dialogue that Anna and I had to deliver on day one and believe me I was nervous.”
Despite not having worked with Anna Wilson-Jones before they immediately established a rapport from their first reading together.
“You can’t force chemistry and you can see what on paper should be great husband-and-wife teams but if the camera doesn’t pick it up then it is over. Hopefully, Juliet and Sam have that chemistry. It’s not front and centre with those two – it very much bubbles under the surface and by the end of the series hopefully it becomes more prevalent. However, you can’t go and have chemistry workshops… but Anna is a brilliant actor and the chemistry feels very natural for us.”
“Furthermore, you can’t rush it because it’s that usual phenomenon in television – we want them to get together but as soon as they do it’s all over… just like in EastEnders, if you got given a baby in the script that was it – all over! That would always make me laugh.”
When he finds himself in the midst of a terror alert with the airports shut down he goes in search of a hotel for him and his fellow passengers.
“He is stranded in the hotel purely by accident in the middle of a terror alert and when his flight is grounded he takes people from his cancelled flight and offers to get them all a hotel room for the night – Babylon is about the fourth hotel he tries,” he explains.
“He turns up at Babylon to get everyone a room and finds that there are none available. He then tries to schmooze the manager but discovers that the person in charge is in fact his ex-wife, Juliet. So that’s how events transpire and over the course of the episode various things happen and he falls in love with the hotel and staff and begins to question his position with Juliet.”
Following Sam’s natural lead the staff soon adopt the spirit of the Blitz and muck in to make the best of the situation. Having experienced the camaraderie of the hotel team, Sam makes a rash decision and buys the hotel.
“With the terror threat over, Sam wakes in the morning to find that the stock market has crashed and he has lost all his money. The only asset he has left is Hotel Babylon. He urges Juliet to stay on as General Manager of the hotel, promises to be a ‘hands off’ owner and they end up being thrown together, which Sam secretly likes.”
“In the deep recesses of his heart seeing her again re-kindles some emotions and he likes being around her. He isn’t necessarily trying to woo her again at this stage certainly, but there is chemistry between them and she is clearly flustered at his arrival,” he comments.
Juliet initially declines Sam’s offer of a job running the hotel. She doesn’t think they can work under the same roof but he begs her to stay and she eventually agrees.
“Sam has never had a proper job in his life and when he and Juliet were together he was always losing all their money – going off and investing in some weird scheme somewhere. After they split up, Sam hit the jackpot and did well in business which is another bugbear of Juliet’s.”
The directorial style of the show means that, at various points during a take, the director will shout freeze and the cast and crew have to stop mid-expression and freeze on the spot for around ten seconds while a steadycam operator moves through the set, something Nigel had some initial problems with.
“In my very first scene I had to come striding through the revolving door and freeze everything from my expression to my briefcase which believe me is hard to do when you come swinging through a revolving door. Objects have their own momentum and I felt like a real plonker,” he laughs.
“I had to hold position for about eight seconds which doesn’t sound like a long time but in telly terms is quite substantial because the steadycam is tracking around the lobby and around you and it is hard not to blink and keep your balance. My motto now is ‘don’t try to be too ambitious in your first freeze!'”
When he started filming on Babylon, Nigel was working in theatre and had just finished a long shoot on Plus One, a new series for Channel 4.
“When I started this job I did six weeks filming Babylon where I would finish at 4.00pm, get home around sixish and start work at 7.00pm on stage. I was absolutely knackered in the beginning but I’m not complaining. What actor can complain about being in work?”
Having spent a number of years working in theatre Nigel was pleased at the reaction of his friends when he told them he was joining the cast of Babylon.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to come back to television. But when Babylon came around and I started watching and falling in love with it I couldn’t say no. I was offered quite a bit of work in TV over the years that didn’t really tick any boxes for me. Plus I loved being on the stage and working in musical theatre and I really enjoyed doing something different” he explains.
“I spent so much time in theatre and learnt so much from it that I was happy challenging myself in that respect. And when you come back to television you bring those skills with you, plus I got to wear lovely suits and great clothes on Babylon.”
Nigel’s most famous role to date remains Denis Watts in EastEnders.
“Most people still recognise me from Eastenders but they tend to call me Nigel now instead of Denis which is a breakthrough,” he laughs.
“I don’t mind it that much and I’m really proud of my time in it. It’s part of my life and it presented me with so many great opportunities – I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for EastEnders, but I don’t think I’m ready to sit down and watch it back just yet. I will do at some point,” he adds.
“When I think back to the storylines I was really fortunate and had a lot of opportunities. I was a ‘mockney’ for a while and during and afterwards I think I did talk like Denis. I remember taxi drivers were really upset when I told them I was from Surrey… they’d always ask me whereabouts in the East End I was from.”
Working on long-running shows inevitably means the cast spend a lot of time hanging around the sets and green room but the Babylon boys found various ways to keep themselves amused.
“Dexter and I played poker a lot and he took quite a wad of money off me. He’s got that cherubic little grin but he is a lethal poker player. We were also madly into Scrabble and played Risk now and again. You have never seen four grown men [Dexter Fletcher, Ray Coulthard and Martin Marquez] fight so vehemently over bits of territory but Ray generally emerged victorious!”
Between filming Babylon and going into theatre in January Nigel plans to take time off for some well-earned R&R.
“I’m hopefully going to get a holiday in, then hit the golf course after this… I’m trying not to answer the phone at the moment to any work offers and obviously we are hoping Hotel Babylon goes again next year. We’d all love to come back and do another series but we have to wait and see. I’m looking at a few stage plays and I’m on stage in the New Year.”
Having performed in Guys And Dolls and the stage version of the hit musical Mamma Mia!, Nigel has definite leanings towards musical theatre.
“I would definitely go back to musical theatre… I have an un-nerving desire to sing and every couple of years I feel the urge to get up on stage and sing something.”
Nigel didn’t leave his nerves behind him on the first day of the shoot. “I will be really nervous on the first transmission night of Babylon and I’ll have to watch it three or four times before I get used to seeing myself again on screen,” he explains.
“And I will always find fault with my performance in some way or other but then nothing is ever perfect. If audiences enjoy the show that will make me happy.”
BBC One, Friday 19th June 2009