Martin Kemp: All my early parenting was done over a fax machine
Musician and actor Martin Kemp tells Luke Rix-Standing about working with his son, how Live Aid is still a career highlight, and why exercise helps him stay sane
MARTIN Kemp is a bit of a showbiz Renaissance man. Bassist in New Romantic pop sensation Spandau Ballet; Steve Owen in long-running soap EastEnders; and now a rising star of reality TV alongside his 27-year-old son, radio DJ Roman Kemp(he also has a daughter, Harley, with wife Shirlie).
Kemp has teamed up with Specsavers to find the UK's ‘smile-makers' – people whose everyday acts of kindness lit up an otherwise gloomy year (winners will get £1,000 plus a video call with Martin and Roman).
We caught up with Kemp (59) to talk about staying positive mid-pandemic, his very varied career, and why above all else he's a family man…
:: Have you struggled with cabin fever during the pandemic?
“Definitely during the second lockdown. During the first lockdown, I kept myself busy and it was kind of new and bright and sunny, which made it easier for people with gardens. The second one I found really difficult, staying indoors while it's grey and rainy. You need something to cheer yourself up.”
:: Do you have any coping strategies?
“Yeah – to try and get to the gym as much as possible. When they closed, I set one up on my patio, with a bike, some weights and a bench, just to get my adrenaline going. The older you get, the more you realise that the gym isn't just physical, it's about mental wellbeing too. That's my strategy with everything – when I find myself in a hole, go to the gym and work it out.”
:: Is there anything else you do to try and stay positive?
“I love music – I write a lot of songs when I'm at home, and play piano and guitar. I also wrote a book during lockdown with Shirlie that came out recently, and I'm working on another.
“My job is all stops and starts – you're full on or full off – so you need a way to keep your brain working in the meantime. When I'm writing, I don't think, ‘This is for the shops in 2022', I write because I love it and it's for me. Even if no-one reads it, I'm happy.”
:: Professionally you've done so many different things – do you have a spiritual home?
“Acting, I think. It was the first thing I ever did, and I grew up in a drama club – two nights a week when I was 10. Everything I do relates back to that, even when I was in the band, because it brought my imagination to life.”
:: Have you ever struggled with stage fright?
“Not stage fright exactly, but everybody gets nerves. If I haven't acted for a while, I can feel my heart beating faster than it should. I've never had stage fright to the point that you can't go on, I just get a bit of adrenaline until I'm used to it again. But the more you do it, the more the nerves disappear.”
:: What was it like working with your son Roman recently?
“Oh, it was wonderful. We did Gogglebox and Sunday Best! – and those two shows kept me sane really, because we were in lockdown while filming them. We created our own bubble, so Roman would come over and we would shoot, but it was obviously more than work for me. Like a lot of people, we didn't see most of our family, but I could see Roman because of this bubble.
“I love working with Roman. He's a complete professional who knows exactly what he's doing.”
:: He must have learned many things from you – have you now been able to learn things from him?
“Oh my goodness, yes. The older he gets, the more confident he becomes – he just relaxes into it and everything is so natural. We're an entertainment household now, and I've learnt a lot from Shirlie too. My daughter runs a production company and we talk about entertainment all the time.”
:: How big a part of your journey has Shirlie been?
“I wouldn't even regard it as my journey, it's a shared journey. We've been together over 40 years, so I don't think there's much I could have done without her. I think when you're together that long you become one person, and I'm as proud of Shirlie when she achieves something as I am of myself. I'm sure she would say the same.”
:: Roman always makes you sound like a ‘cool dad' – are you ever the embarrassing parent as well?
“No matter how cool you are or what you've done in your life, you will always be the embarrassing dad at some point. Secretly, I like to live up to it, because it's all part of the fun of being a dad. I'm very proud of Harley and Roman, not because of what they've achieved but who they are. They're really nice people, and every now and then they need to be embarrassed.”
:: Looking back over parenthood, what would be your advice to prospective parents?
“My main advice would be to listen. Listening is just as important as teaching, and you can learn a lot from your children. Don't just shut it down if you disagree with your kid, because their side of the argument is important to them. Sometimes they might be right.”
:: How did you manage parenting when you were on the road?
“When I was away with the band, it was difficult. All my early parenthood was done over a fax machine, as we didn't have mobiles in those days. I used to send Harley puzzles and jokes and drawings to keep in touch. More recently, I've found that going away can sometimes be a good thing, because it makes everybody appreciate you when you come back. Absence can make the heart grow stronger.”
:: How do you look back on your time with Spandau Ballet now?
“I loved it, and it was an incredible way to grow up. I was 17 when I started, and on my 18th birthday I signed our first record contract. We spent 10 years at the top of our game – probably one of the biggest bands in the world. I will always be thankful for what Spandau Ballet gave me.”
:: What's been your career highlight?
“Probably being involved in Live Aid in 1985, on that sunny afternoon in July. Most things become historic in retrospect, and that was the only time I knew something was going to be historic, even while I was doing it. Two billion people watched that show. It would take some going to beat that.”
:: What advice would you give your younger self?
“It's advice I give to a lot of young kids, and to Roman and Harley when they were growing up. Breathe in the good moments, because when you're younger you're in such a rush that you can miss the really good bits.
“When Spandau started, we wanted to play to 3,000 people in the Hammersmith Odeon. But by the time we got there, all we wanted to do was play to 10,000 people at Wembley. Stand back, and take the time to enjoy your successes.”
:: Martin and Roman Kemp have joined forces with Specsavers to find the UK's unsung local heroes – people who have been doing amazing, selfless things for people in their community during 2020. To nominate someone you think deserves recognition, visit Specsavers.co.uk/smile-makers