Before he hit the big time in cable TV, Damian did some smaller, lesser known roles in British television. The role of Adam Weston in a feature-length episode of mystery drama Touch of Frost may not be a role that Damian is particularly proud of, given how disdainfully he spoke of it at the NY Times Talk in May 2014.
Nonetheless, I’d say the role begs remembering, if, for nothing else, to give us a picture of Damian at 25. According to Damian, roles such as this one were the few available to British actors in television in 1996. It was either Merchant-Ivory-esque period drama or stories of the struggles of the underclass left in the wake of Thatcherism, both “classes” of roles Damian would have been uniquely qualified to play, but only later. First, he had to build up a resume with things like Touch of Frost. So here’s Damian at 25, a Shakespearean trained thespian and, they ask him to get down to his skivvies. Okay, he’s still doing parts that get him into his skivvies some 20 years later, but, hey, who’s counting. As Bobby Axelrod would say:
Those who can, do.
For the Yanks reading this, Touch of Frost follows the formula of a lot of mystery/crime drama. We see a crime done in the first few minutes and the next hour or so is devoted to a detective solving the crime. The show is very focused on showing that one detective at work and the rest of the cast are shown as either adjunct hangers-on, obstructions to the investigation, ornery bosses, and/or victims and suspects. Thus, the formula is more Columbo than Law & Order . The series is widely available, and I saw the episode featuring Damian, “Deep Waters”, both on You Tube and on Hulu. Strangely, the two versions are different: the version on YT has been converted in an odd way that makes everyone appear as if they speak very very fast, and, more importantly, it’s missing a pivotal scene featuring Damian, while the version on Hulu is missing another scene, somewhat smaller, but still quite pivotal, also featuring Damian. Thus, since he was only in like three or four scenes, it’s worth seeking out and watching both versions!
The premise: A woman is killed. She’s an Asian woman working as a cashier at the family bottega. Then a blond college student, a swimmer, is hobbled. The two crimes are connected, but, this being 1996, the show seems to care a bit more about the blond college student and characters related to her. Damian, as a fellow college student, is one of the characters in the blond girl’s orbit. The first we see of him is a speedo-clad lad, very confident in his speedos, coming out of a pool. Learning of Adam’s crush on the blond girl, the detective on the job waits to question him in the locker room.
I don’t know enough about the various dialects in Britian, but I take it that the accent Damian speaks at first is not a posh accent. As the conversation progresses, we learn that he is putting on that not-posh accent and is in fact a rich kid attempting to slum it up in Denton. By the end of the conversation, he’s speaking as an entitled posh kid, who looks all kinds of guilty. Inspector Frost (David Jason) understandably suspects an association to the crime and starts trailing him.
Frost follows Adam to a pub. Now here’s where I sort of indulged in a personal little Throwback Thursday in my head and imagined myself in my 20’s strolling into a pub with my college friends and seeing a table full of young men, with Damian holding court among them. I’ll tell you right now, he wouldn’t have caught my eye. My eye, in my 20’s and well beyond, always went to the beefed up guy, a bit on the short side, dark-haired and dark-eyed. That was always my “type.” In my 20’s a Tom Hardy in the crowd would have caught my attention immediately and held it as long as he wanted it held…so to speak. So, yeah, my eye wouldn’t have stopped immediately on Damian in a pub downing pints with his mates, but, I have a feeling, it would have kept going back to him, despite itself. Something about him, maybe the confidence, maybe the irreverence and the easy goofiness, would have drawn my eye back and, in my 20’s, I would have had no idea why or what to do with it. Heck, I probably would have chided myself for looking at him when there were Tom Hardy’s in the room that could much more easily, and requiring much less thought, hold the gaze. Let’s just say, seeing Damian, even as a gangly mop-headed 25 year old, leads one to believe that he most likely had no problem at all getting the attention of any girl (less myopic than I was back then) whose attention he desired.
Back to the story: Frost follows Damian out of the pub back to his dorm. The bloke Damian left the pub with goes in to the dorm with him and then exits again, leading Frost to follow him instead.
Somewhere in the sequence of events…I’m not sure where because both copies of the episode I saw had scenes out of order…Adam Weston visits the blond girl and questions her as to why she sent the detective his way. He’s not happy about it, and makes some sinister Soames Forsyte-esque (but way before Damian birthed Soames) motions towards her. It’s a great scene in which Damian goes from hot to cold, imploring and weak in one shot to scarily sinister in another, back to apologetic and sweet in the next. It gives a nice microcosm of the emotional range he would grow to hone and develop throughout his career. While most of the other kids were delivering run-of-the-mill performances befitting the small roles they were given, Damian’s performance was anything but flat.
There’s another scene (again not sure where in the story it originally came) of Inspector Frost’s assistant visiting Damian in his dorm room and questioning him further on another clue they found. The perpetrator of the crime apparently had a thing for the writing of Oscar Wilde. So the assistant inspector asks Adam Weston if he’s familiar with Wilde. Damian scoffs and delivers this great line:
Oscar Wilde? Please, I’m strictly medieval.
It was pretty darn funny.
And that’s it, that’s all we get of Damian Lewis as Adam Weston in Touch of Frost, “Deep Waters”, circa 1996. That makes it four scenes, right? Unless there exists another version somewhere that has even more Damian. Did he turn out to be the murderer? I know we’re generally free and easy with spoilers on this site, but since the sole raison d’etre of a whodunnit, is, um, who done it, I’d be remiss in giving that bit away. Suffice it to say, Damian made a mark in this role for British tele. A mark that, thankfully, lead to many many more marks, increasingly indelible, in the years to come.