Tom Chambers: Derbyshire's Holby City and Strictly Come Dancing Star
PUBLISHED: 13:21 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013
Derbyshire's star of Holby City and Strictly Come Dancing
At Yuletide the most talked-about figure in the land used to be Santa Claus. However, once television entered our lives all the talk was about Morecambe and Wise, then Del Boy and Rodney. In more recent years, the nation's attention has focused on the winner of BBC TV's Strictly Come Dancing which means that the most notable national celebrity this Christmas could be Derbyshire lad Tom Chambers.
Born in Darley Dale, raised in Parwich and educated at Foremarke and Repton, the 31-year-old actor has already made an impression on eight million viewers as the likeable Lothario Sam Strachan in BBC TV's Holby City. Come Christmas week over 13 million viewers could see Tom two-stepping his way to fame and acclaim as this year's Strictly Come Dancing winner.
As Derbyshire Life went to press, Tom had performed a dazzling quick-step with partner Camilla which set audiences' hearts aflutter and left all four judges delighted, each one brandishing scorecards showing 9 out of 10. He's a hot favourite for the final and, having married his long-time sweetheart in the middle of the show, and boldly leaving Holby City for fresh challenges in the New Year, Tom Chambers couldn't be happier with life.
Ironically it was a dance routine that enabled Tom to take his big step into TV drama. With his acting career going nowhere, Tom asked his old drama teacher at Repton, Guy Levesley, if he could hire the school stage to film a Fred Astaire tap dance routine from the film Damsel in Distress. On the strength of this showreel the producers at Holby City offered him a role. Three years later Tom is now ready to foxtrot into a new phase in his career, possibly in a West End musical.
One wonders if Tom was destined to be in the limelight: at the age of two he was in the national papers for driving off in his dad's car. His quick-thinking sister Sarah managed to pull on the hand brake seconds before smashing into the family greenhouse.
Although Tom revealed to me other early pranks like letting off a stink bomb at Parwich Primary and smuggling his pet mouse into class, his young boyhood was largely quiet and typically rural. 'My abiding memory of Parwich is the beauty of a simple life and the nature around us,' he recalls. 'I particularly remember riding my bike around the village and on the Tissington Trail, as well as through Dovedale, Thorpe Cloud and Milldale, which I especially loved. At other times, I and my pals would go off to pick apples and damsons, play tig, or go down to the dam with the ducks and the swings. Most Sundays, whole families used to attend the village cricket match and have a picnic. It was quite idyllic, the best upbringing you could have.'
Tom also has fond memories of his teachers at Parwich Primary: Mrs Birch - 'she read story books to me as I sat on her knee'; and Mrs Davison - 'she was bubbly, enthusiastic and so knowledgeable, relishing the information she imparted.'
It was the name Richard Theobald that took Tom to Foremarke: 'My father, Stuart, had attended Ranby House School and was part of this old boys' union who all talked about this incredible teacher Richard Theobald. He was something of a legend and so when he was appointed Headmaster of Foremarke, it was thought that was the best place to go.'
Foremarke seemed quite an adventure for Tom. 'I didn't know of any existence outside the village - Parwich was like Brigadoon,' smiles Tom. 'When I saw this grand school with a big sports field and all the activities, it felt as if I was going to Alton Towers. But I hated the first year. I was a lad rooted in village life and I got homesick, stuck in this posh place with boys who had different materialistic values to me. I struggled at first but what I came to appreciate and love were the extra-curricular activities. In later years, when I was an out-of-work, actor I was a lorry driver and I found out that a lot of my co-driver buddies, who were all good blokes, had been in prison. When I asked how and why they turned out as they did, I got the same answer: boredom, whereas I was able to get totally engrossed in music, art, drama and all kinds of sport - canoeing, fencing, football, tennis. I get rather depressed when I think: "Why some and not others?" Everyone is given a clean slate at the beginning and it's all about opportunity. It's a big concern for me. In fact, one of my pipe dreams is to set up a national chain of youth groups for after-school activities.'
At Foremarke Tom soon became engrossed in acting and eventually sank his teeth into the lead role in a school production of Dracula Spectacular. 'That was the real dawning,' recalls Tom. 'I vividly remember lying in bed after the first night thinking I've just found the thing I'd like to do for the rest of my life. I was 13.' His drama teacher Guy Levesley gave him the role and became his mentor - 'he had continual faith in my ability' - leading to parts in the Rep Theatre Company promenade productions. Repton drama head Mike Charlesworth also brought Tom to Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company, though he was still working his way up from walk-on parts as spear carrier and water bearer when Mike introduced him to the National Youth Music Theatre, an invaluable training ground as well as an opportunity to tour the world, performing everywhere from the Edinburgh Festival to Broadway.
Throughout this time, Tom's parents, Rosemary and Stuart, offered continual, albeit discreet, support. 'Mum and Dad were wonderful,' declares Tom, 'because they never once said "you must do this". All they did was quietly to encourage and never force.' Rosemary told me she could see Tom's future from his first stage appearance at the age of 11. 'He looked so comfortable,' she recalls. 'Before Dracula, I remember seeing him in a chorus part and even there you could see his acting ability.'
That ability won him a place at Guildford School of Acting but, after graduating, Tom became the archetypal struggling actor, not helped by his signing up with a fledgling agent. 'I took a risk because she was just starting out and I went two years without a single TV audition,' he recalls. 'I appeared in Crimewatch UK and a KitKat commercial in Spain and that was about it, save for a few fringe productions in London. I then got an audition for the Bob the Builder arena tour. I got the job but found out it was seven months just driving a vehicle in the arena, so I turned the job down, telling my agent: "This isn't acting - anybody could do this". So she fired me.'
After long spells of unemployment, Tom's uncertain acting career saw a flirtation with film in 2004: a moderately received British picture called Fakers for which he helped raise funds, even persuading his parents to take a second mortgage out on their home. 'I even went with the director to America to sell the film but we got ripped off and taken for a ride,' says Tom ruefully. 'I came back with my tail between my legs. I was now 26 and it was make or break time, so I decided to do my own thing for a change in true Sinatra "Do It My Way" style.' Actually, it was more Astaire Putting on the Ritz style. This was when Tom decided to recreate the tap dance and drum sequence from Astaire's Damsel in Distress with a view to performing it at the Royal Variety Show. 'I had written a letter of proposal to the Variety Show,' recalls Tom, 'and they said "get it ready". I spent nine months in my dad's shed recreating the routine frame by frame and the Variety Show people pulled it, without even seeing it.' Undeterred, Tom filmed the routine at Repton and sent out 1,000 copies. If you see the routine on You Tube - a precise and intricate sequence of superlative tap mixed with dextrous drumming on two percussion kits - it's astonishing to discover that after three months Tom had received only two replies. One was from Holby City. The irony of a TV hospital drama taking an interest in an actor tap dancing proved even greater when he showed up at the Holby City offices. 'Although there was no dialogue in this routine, the producers thought it was an unusual showreel,' explains Tom. 'However, the other reason they saw me was that they were looking for an American actor and because Fred Astaire was American, they assumed I was! In spite of that, they told me to come back and audition for a bigger part - and that was Sam Strachan.'
Described on the Holby City website as 'a compassionate, decisive adrenaline junkie' and 'a hugely volatile person whose emotions can land him in hot water', Sam Strachan has proved a popular character on the series. 'Yes, he is a bit of a maverick who bends the rules because he doesn't like them, but I believe he has a heart of gold,' states Tom. However, Holby lovers need to make the most of him: Tom is leaving after this current series and storywise he says it will be an emotional finale. The reason Tom doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in Holby City is because of that very possibility: 'I wrote to the producer saying "I would love to stay here forever but that's why I have to go."'
His decision to leave was one of the main reasons he agreed to take on Strictly Come Dancing: 'Holby City is asked to put someone forward for Strictly every year but usually it's "No" because of the hard work schedule,' explains Tom. 'As it is, this last series was already recorded, so my name was offered.' What Tom also reveals is that Strictly is strict about the celebrities it takes on: 'You have to go through a gruelling interview process where your character is assessed. It's to make sure they don't get a spanner or a diva who could mess the whole thing up.' The Strictly team also warns participants about the relentless grind of rehearsals. Tom found the first few days of practice with his partner Camilla Dallerup 'a bit like joining a boot camp'.
Although Tom only briefly dabbled in ballet at acting school, his love of dancing and his tap dance ability have made him a leading contender for this year's title, enhanced by an evident chemistry with Camilla. 'I have always loved movement and so to receive tuition from a world-class professional is a gift,' states Tom. 'I feel very compatible with Camilla and, better still, I didn't get a female partner oozing sexual prowess and draping herself over me because, after all, I was getting married in a few weeks' time! Camilla is very straight and down the line, and ballroom dancing is very much like a game of rugby - you're constantly grabbing shoulders and arms and limbs, but it's just part of the physicality of dance.'
He speaks of his new wife Clare as being 'incredibly supportive', especially as there was the tricky problem of their wedding to negotiate. However, Clare's grandparents Peggy and Denis Dalton proved to be the deciding factor. 'Clare is a TV researcher so she understands this world and we've both sacrificed things for each other,' explains Tom. It was actually a "No" to Strictly at first because the wedding was on a Saturday. Then we realised that Clare's grandparents, who are in their late 80s, were huge fans of the show and they said they would love to see their grandson-to-be on Strictly Come Dancing, so we thought how lovely it would be for them to see me stepping out on one of their favourite shows. We simply changed the wedding to a Sunday.'
Tom's mother Rosemary, who had watched neither Holby City nor Strictly Come Dancing until Tom's involvement, couldn't be more proud of him, adding with even more pride that all five of her children - Tom's brother Giles and sisters Nicky, Danni and Sarah - have done well in their respective lives and careers.
There seems little doubt that Tom's career could now involve an element of dance, especially as he gives every indication that he's having a ball, so to speak. 'Yes, I am absolutely loving every second of it,' confirms Tom, 'and yes, it's also nerve-wracking. You think you're getting used to it and then Saturday comes. When they announce your name it's like being a deer in the headlights. It is quite terrifying - it's 30 hours rehearsal a week - and even when you're not rehearsing, you're thinking about it before and after.'
If Tom does win how does he feel about the prospect of being the most famous figure in the UK on Christmas week? 'Gosh, I haven't thought about that,' admits Tom. 'Like Holby City, it's difficult to get your head round the fact that so many million pairs of eyes are on you because if you did think about that, you'd implode, so there is some mental detachment involved. Actually, I'm not that keen on a live audience because I'm not one for applause - I'm more comfortable in front of a camera and crew - but if I do win Strictly Come Dancing, the most important thing would be giving the audience the entertainment they love, delivering the goods and making it something to remember.'
Tom mentioned that a honeymoon is planned 'we hope after Christmas' and I asked what would he like to have accomplished by this time next Christmas? 'My absolute dream is to recreate a Singin' in the Rain type film one day,' reveals Tom. 'I have actually been writing my own ideas for one which has elements of Billy Elliot and Forrest Gump as well as Singin' in the Rain. More realistically, it would be good to do a West End show for a few months. More than anything, though, I would like to get into film. That way you get to see the world, and after all, you're only here once.'
I reveal to Tom that one of his biggest fans - my wife - fell into a discussion with her work colleagues as to who the next Dr Who should be, and they all agreed that Tom Chambers was the perfect choice. 'Now that would be amazing,' responds Tom. 'That would be such an iconic, legendary role. Mind you, I'll be happy just to continue to work in this industry.'