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Dexter Fletcher tells Graham Keal what it was like to play a living war hero

A TV war series to beat them all; Band of Brothers is not so much a series, more of an overwhelming exercise in heroism, passion and violence that will move viewers to tears and have them on the edge of their seats.

As the New York Post put it, 'War is hell but Band of Brothers is terrific. It will leave your heart pumping.' And for British actor Dexter Fletcher, the emotional impact of playing a quietly heroic American soldier is still spilling over into his life off-screen.

'When you're playing someone who is still alive, you know you've succeeded a bit of the way when you meet their family and they cry and they hold you and say 'We're so proud that our father has had a chance to be represented,' says Dexter.

'It kind of overwhelms you in a way you could never have imagined.'

Just watching the ten-part, $120m production is overwhelming enough, especially once the Normandy landings get underway and the fighting starts in earnest in episode two. It is heart-stopping stuff.

Playing these men was an incredibly intense experience for the huge cast - 500 speaking parts, 10,000 extras. God only knows what it must have been like for the men who did it for real but this series will give you a better insight into that than any war film or TV series ever has. Co-produced by Steven Spielberg and movie star Tom Hanks, the most expensive TV series ever made tells the story of Easy Company, crack paratroopers dropped inside Normandy to attack the Germans before they had a chance to wipe out the British and American troops landing hours later on the Normandy beaches.

The series is based on the book of the same name by US historian Stephen Ambrose, a meticulously researched account of Easy Company in action, from the camaraderie founded under their sadistic trainer (a very un-Friendly David Schwimmer) to the unbreakable brotherhood formed in the heat of battle.

Too many war stories have been turned into flag-waving American propaganda vehicles but this is different. As Dexter Fletcher says: 'This is an American story made by an American company. It's a bonus that they made it over here and used a lot of English talent. If the English want to make a drama of the English side of it, then the English will have to make that.'

For Dexter, best known for his teenage appearances in Press Gang and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, playing Sergeant John W Martin looks like the kind of role you get once in a lifetime. But like a patriotic youth trying to enlist before his time, Dexter had to lie about his age to get on board.

'I'm 35 now and I was 33 when I went up to audition for this. All the other guys were in their early 20s. Tom Hanks said to me 'How old are you?' And the casting director said 'Don't tell him!' So I said 'Well that's classified information Tom.' He said 'OK, well you're 27-28.' So I said 'Yeah, I'm 27-28.''

Dexter looks young enough to get away with it but he didn't always feel that way when the Easy Company actors were sent off to boot camp for ten days of intensive training.

'We had to do an assault course on the first day and the last physical work I'd done was like ten years ago, running around playing football and stuff.'

Five am starts followed by five-mile runs and a punishing exercise regime got his body in shape for the role. To get his mind round it too, Dexter would phone the real John Martin, now 80 years old and the multimillionaire boss of Martin Construction in Arizona. Their conversations brought home to Dexter what WW2 really meant to the men of Easy Company.

'Being able to call the veteran I play was a rich vein of research but it quickly dawned on me how upsetting it could be for John Martin.

'I would say to him 'Do you remember a guy called Private Julian?' And he would start crying and say 'He was 18 years old. I'm sure we could have saved that guy.' So suddenly you realise that what was an interesting bit of business for my character is still a living tragedy for him, 50-odd years later. He sent someone somewhere and he got shot.

'John was convinced they could have saved him but they couldn't get to him because a machine gun nest was covering the spot. The Germans would wound a man so the rest of the guys would try to rescue him, then they'd shoot the rest of the unit.'

'Playing someone who's alive and lived through all this is a unique and emotional experience. It really brought it home to me that they're still crying for these men now, not just because of the moment when they died, but because of the life they missed, the families they never had.'

Did Dexter feel guilty at prompting such heart-rending memories? 'No, not guilt. The first concern is to understand how this man feels about the whole experience, so that you can at least portray him with some sort of dignity and honour.'

Dexter must have succeeded. The two men met at a special preview and have become firm friends. Dexter and his wife have been invited to spend Thanksgiving with the Martin family in November.

Other Easy Company survivors were equally impressed, including rough diamond Bill Guarnere, who first lost a brother in action and then lost a leg. 'He's a really gnarled, grizzled old man who smokes and drinks and swears like a docker. You ask him 'Is it realistic?' And he says 'Aah, it's Hollywood you know - but I love it!''

Source: Birmingham Post
Date: 3rd October 2001