When I speak to Gary and Martin Kemp on the phone, there are – if I’m honest – three things I most want to talk about: True (still a spine-tingler of pure Eighties excellence), Gold (a sumptuous pop banger by anyone’s standards), and The Krays (whose extreme violence I once coveted from way below the 18s shelf in the local video shop).
As seen in their new BBC Two documentary, The Kemps: All True, Gary Kemp doesn’t want to be reduced to a handful of retro cuts.
“We’re not mentioning Spandau Ballet,” he says on the hour special, with the kind of self-importance that's typical of music documentaries. “It’s just my current projects and charity works, right?”
Gary’s pompous demands are, mercifully, a joke. The Kemps: All True is a send-up of themselves, the silliness of celebrity, and the need for artists to be taken seriously beyond their greatest hits. Unlike Bros – who got in a mini strop with me last year for asking them about, well, Bros – Gary and Martin Kemp see the humour in themselves.
“Musicians have this space where they take themselves so seriously,” says Martin. “When somebody takes themselves seriously that’s fodder for comedy. I think every musician goes through certain periods of their career where they’re all guilty of that – Spandau Ballet included.”
“Martin didn’t think I’d bite on it,” says Gary about doing the comedy. He is, by reputation and on the phone, the more serious of the pair. “To the take the piss out of yourself like that so publicly… who knows if that’s a good idea? I think you’ve got to have knowledge of failure to do something like this. You’ve got to experience failure.”
Comparisons between the Kemps (Gary, now 60; Martin, 58) and Matt and Luke Goss are inevitable, following the nerve-shredding, hilarious cringe of last year’s Bros: After the Screaming Stops. Occasionally, the Kemp comedy looks and sounds like a direct spoof. But All True was in development before they knew about the Bros film.
“When the Bros documentary came out someone told me it was really funny,” recalls Gary. “I s––– myself thinking, ‘Oh god! They’ve done a mockumentary before us!’ And then I realised it was real.”
That it shares some of the same beats as the Bros film is a testament to how shrewdly All True lampoons the genre of earnest music documentaries. Writer and director Rhys Thomas (who also plays the on-screen interviewer) knows music docs well. He directed the Emmy-winning Freddie Mercury documentary The Great Pretender and co-created fictional prog-rocker Brian Pern (played by Simon Day).
Developed by Thomas and Kemps together, All True puts ridiculous twists on the brothers' real lives – “It’s Laurel and Hardy meet Martin and Gary Kemp” says Martin – told through talking heads, madcap schemes, and hilariously wrong archive footage (a trademark of Thomas’s mock-doc work). As Gary says, it's about making them "more pretentious and ridiculous".
“It’s very meta thing to be doing,” says Gary. “I’m never quite sure if it’s me, or if it was the character."
It follows Gary and Martin as they produce a new album of their greatest hits, this time sung by contemporary artists (all of whom are promised they can sing True, which lands the Kemps in trouble with a vengeful Little Mix). They also bungle the management of some not-quite-successful entertainment companies and creative projects: Gary wants to be taken seriously as an artist; Martin tries to get a time-travel gangster movie into production. The doc also stars Simon Day, Lucy Montgomery, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Mays, Tony Way, and Martin’s wife, Shirlie Kemp.
It’s an interesting trajectory for the Kemps. Just six years ago the serious version of their story was told in the Spandau Ballet documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World.
“There’s an arc in most bands that you see in documentaries, including our own,” says Gary. “It’s rags to riches. They highlight the rags and play down the riches, and tell you how management shunted them from here to there. They argue and fall apart because they’re exhausted, because they’re so committed to the grand work of pop music. Eventually they get back together and what a beautiful story. We thought we’d take the piss out of it.”
All True pulls at some of the raw nerves exposed by Soul Boys: Gary’s admission that he was a control freak in the band (“I wrote all the songs,” he says in All True. “On my own. With no help”); and on-off tensions with singer Tony Hadley.
“That's true for so many groups,” Gary tells me. “The guitarist versus the lead singer. We just thought we’d make that more ridiculous than it was."
Also in the firing line is Martin’s film career – particularly his low-budget gangster movies. “That’s me ripping myself apart,” Martin laughs. “Some of the gangster films I made – not so much the Krays, because I’m really proud of that – but some of the films I made after that… There are a few of those movies I wish I’d never gone near. I’m proud of about 10 percent that I’ve ever done. If I never see the rest again I won’t mind.”
Martin’s marriage to Shirlie – of Pepsi and Shirlie – gets some comic reinvention too. Here he’s married to both Pepsi and Shirlie. Pepsi, it turns out, is his favourite. “I like you, I love her," he tells Shirlie. "I can’t help it!”
Rhys Thomas says the main influence was Alan Yentob’s high-falutin arts series Imagine (for which Thomas produced his Freddie Mercury documentary). The most obvious Imagine riff comes when the Kemps return to the house where they supposedly grew up – a standard part of the journey in rags-to-riches documentaries. Bros did exactly the same. “It comes from those documentaries where they go back to the childhood home and it’s always a right s–––hole,” laughs Thomas.
Revisiting their childhood street, Martin reminisces that they were so poor growing up, the toilet, bathroom, cellar, living, and attic were all outdoors. “The only room that was indoors was the shed,” Martin says.
Thomas – part of The Fast Show team and the alter-ego of the award-winning Gary Bellamy in radio spoof Down the Line – ranks the Kemps alongside the best comic talents he's worked with. “They don’t play things for laughs,” he says. “And the straighter they play it, the funnier it is.” After 40 years of collaborations, All True is new creative territory for the brothers.
“This was like working on something that’s almost a French and Saunders mickey-take – it was completely new for us," he says. "It's ridiculous, but the wonderful thing about working with Gary is that you have this truth between the two of you. It’s like you’re not acting – you look into each other’s eyes and find a part of the storyline that’s true. There’s something that happens when Gary and I are together that just makes it work.”
“There are times where it gets you,” says Thomas about their bond. “When you see them together it’s actually quite moving. There’s something about the fact they’re brothers and they have come full circle.”
Gary admits that he hasn’t always taken himself so lightly (“Probably in the Eighties I took myself a lot more seriously!” he says) and that’s certainly how he’s portrayed in Soul Boys of the Western World: intensely serious about his songwriting and self-perception. Gary admits that things have changed even since the release of that documentary. “That was six years ago,” he says. “I feel like I moved on a lot since then.”
“The nicest thing about making this show,” says Martin about All True, “was seeing Gary take the mickey out of himself like I’ve never seen before. That was such a beautiful thing for me.”
Gary acknowledges his rep. “The PR’d version of you is not necessarily who you really are,” he says. “Maybe that’s because of mistakes I made in my own interviews. But I wanted to be larger than life. We lived in a council house. My dad was a printer, my mum was a dinner lady. Of course I wanted to be someone else. We wanted to be people that we weren’t when we got on stage in the Eighties. I suppose we were partly to blame for creating those images in the first place.”
From Islington, North London, the Kemps were child stars: Gary acted in the 1972 film Hide & Seek and played in a band with Phil Daniels; Martin appeared in various TV shows, including The Tomorrow People. (Though they weren't, as All True claims, Daleks.)
Gary formed the band that would become Spandau Ballet with his school friends Tony Hadley, Steve Norman, and John Keeble in 1979. Martin was enlisted as bass player because, as recalled in Soul Boys of the Western World, he was “easily the best looking bloke we know.”
(Martin says a key demographic of his fanbase is middle-aged ladies still sweet on the Spandau Ballet days. This comes just minutes after my mum texts me to tell him “he’s gorgeous”.)
Fusing the now-bonkers-looking new romantic fashion with post-punk riffs and offbeat synth, early Spandau Ballet is more obscure than the later commercial sound – more like rivals to Joy Division than Duran Duran. Their big commercial success began with True, which hit No. 1 in April 1983. I ask Gary how pleased he was with himself after writing True – a dreamy piece of pop magic.
“When you write something like that you’re happy for a little while,” he says. “But mostly you’re terrified you’re never going to do it again. But I can’t complain about writing that song. It came together quite well that day.”
There are other great tunes, of course: the thunderingly brilliant Gold (“That’s the one the kids love now,” says Martin); new wave anthems To Cut A Long Story Short and Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On); the relentlessly catchy Lifeline; and heart-punching ballad Through the Barricades.
Gary tells me that arguments with Martin were like a pressure valve for the band. “That was a great way of the band letting off steam," he says. "Bands can’t really argue without splitting up. Me Martin could argue with each other and be friends the next minute.”
After 10 years together – including six albums, a performance at Live Aid, and world tours – Spandau Ballet split up in 1990, amidst tensions over ego, Gary’s songwriting control, and the distraction of The Krays movie.
“I’m at an age now where I can look back and criticise myself for the way I behaved at certain times,” Gary says. “It wasn’t like I ruined anyone’s life. I was just trying to control the situation within the creativity of the band. I believed in what we were doing and I believed in my opinion as far as creative stuff was concerned. Sometimes it was probably extreme. But we succeeded, so it was irrelevant.”
Martin recalls that he knew The Krays, directed by Peter Medak and released in April 1990, would be the springboard to the next part of his life. It's still the best film about the Kray twins: Gary as the more unhinged Ronnie, Martin as slightly less-unhinged Reggie. The roles, Gary tells me, were never up for debate.
“I think it was obvious from the very beginning that I was the Ronnie character in our relationship,” he laughs. “Reggie was the better looking one and Martin is the better looking one out of us two. I’ve lived with that and accepted it for a long time. I’m the more earnest, slightly gloomy of the two of us. All brothers have the Ronnie character and the Reggie character.”
Martin recalls controversy over the film's violence. “It was even more violent when we shot it – there were scenes we took out," he says. "They were really worried about the censorship of it and not glorifying anything. The week before we even started in the film it was spoken about in the House of Commons, about whether it should be made. They really came down hard on us.”
Both brothers went to work in the US: Gary would appear in The Bodyguard, The Larry Sanders Show, Killing Zoe, and Dog Eat Dog; Martin starred in a handful of B-movies and TV series, including Highlander and The Outer Limits. After recovering from the removal of two benign brain tumours, Martin joined the cast of EastEnders in 1998 as ladies' man-cum-ashtray swinging killer Steve Owen.
In 1999, Tony Hadley, Steve Norman, and John Keeble sued Gary for unpaid royalties. The case went to the High Court, but they were unsuccessful. Overcoming any animosity, the band reformed in 2009 and released the album Once More.
Martin continued his film career: in 2011 he wrote and directed Stalker, a low-budget but under-appreciated thriller. In 2014 he directed the gangster film Top Dog.
"What I learnt from that second film is that if you take something on as director you have to love it," Martin says. "Working on any film is easy to start – to get going and get everyone excited – but two months in it’s like dragging a dead body across the line."
In 2017, Tony Hadley announced he had split from Spandau Ballet. He was briefly replaced by Ross William Wild, who also quit in 2019. Now Gary performs as singer and guitarist with original Pink Floyd member Nick Mason in Saucerful of Secrets, playing psychedelic songs from Pink Floyd’s early years. Gary says that Spandau Ballet are now “as estranged as it could be” but moving on has given him the creative freedom to make All True.
“It feels like a lot has changed for me in the last few years,” he says. “I think accepting that Spandau Ballet was not going to happen again, that it’s my past and not my present, was a real relief. Getting out and playing with Nick Mason gave me greater confidence. People were surprised I did it, but the Pink Floyd community have now sort of embraced me. That and doing [All True] has given me a sense of freedom and confidence and desire to take more risks – to break the past but smile with it again.”
Forty years on from Spandau Ballet, Martin says that he doesn’t recognise the twentysomething he sometimes sees in old music videos (“It doesn’t feel like me at all, it feels like a different person”) but he’s never consciously tried to redefine or distance himself from early succes, as some artists do.
“I had 10 wonderful years in Spandau Ballet,” he says. “It was an incredible way to grow up, to hang out with your best mates, discovering the world, discovering who you are. Whether it was The Krays or EastEnders or the songs in Spandau Ballet, if you do a good job or make something that people enjoy, that’s not something you want to move away from. I was never in a rush to get away from what people enjoyed.”
He calls making All True “the funniest week of my life” and tells me the first time it was screened, the audience was belly laughing from the off. “I’ve never been in a room where we’ve shown anything of mine and people belly laughed,” Martin says. He already hopes to make a follow-up. I concur that this could be the next stage of their careers: Gary and Martin Kemp really are funny enough to be comedy stars. It’s true.
The Kemps: All True is on BBC Two on Sunday July 5, at 10pm