Stopping Traffic

Damian Lewis' role as a detective in a new drama opened his eyesto crimes against children which happen right under our noses

• Anthony Carter (Damian Lewis) attempts to track down and rescue three children in the new BBC1 drama Stolen. Photo: BBC/Open Door

CHILD trafficking has become one of the world's fastest growing crimes, Unicef putting its value at $12 billion (7.5bn) per year globally. These are frightening statistics, so when actor Damian Lewis read the script of Stolen, BBC1's new one-off drama about child trafficking, he says it stopped him in his tracks: "The subject matter left me reeling."

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"The sheer scale of the trafficking of little children is overwhelming," says Lewis, when we meet in an office at the BBC in London. "It's absolutely heartbreaking. What's worse is that it's going on right under our noses. It's happening all around us in suburban streets. God knows, a few doors down from me there might be a marijuana factory staffed by illegally trafficked children. In big cities, people keep themselves to themselves. You just never know."

Written by Stephen Butchard - previously responsible for Five Daughters, Vincent and House of Saddam - Stolen gives a human face to some overpoweringly bleak statistics. Lewis, best known for his roles in Band of Brothers and The Forsyte Saga, plays DI Anthony Carter, a detective working for the Human Trafficking Unit, where snapshots of unknown foreign children stare down at him from the wall.

With increasing desperation, Anthony attempts to track down three of the thousands of children who are spirited illegally into the UK every year, arriving in search of a better life but forced into slavery in the hidden corners of Britain where no- one bothers to look. Eleven-year-old Rosemary (Gloria Olewumi) travels from West Africa hoping to be educated. Instead, terrorised by juju threats, she is sold as a house servant. Kim Pak (Huy Pham), a 15-year-old from Vietnam, is smuggled into the UK locked inside a crate in a lorry, kept alive only by an oxygen tank. He is then imprisoned and forced to work at a marijuana factory in a suburban semi. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Georgie (Inokentijs Vitkevics), 14, is enslaved in the food industry, making sandwiches for no pay.

In one memorable sequence, Anthony picks his own young daughter up from school, lifts her up and envelops her in a heartfelt embrace. At that moment, Lewis - who is 40 and has two young children with the actress Helen McCrory - says: "There is a lovely image of a lone plane in the sky. As he walks down the street with his daughter, Anthony looks up and wonders who might be in that plane. It makes you see a plane and ask yourself, 'Who's in there and what will become of them?'"

"Stolen has made me look at the world differently. I hope people who watch this film will feel the same. What is going on in the shadows right next to us?"

He says Stolen is an intensely human story: "I'm very keen to emphasise that this is not a procedural cop show about one good policeman trying to bring the forces of the law to bear against the bad guys. The heart of the story is about parents. Mums and dads will recognise that. They will take their own small children to school and carry them to their beds at night.

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"The tenderness with which parents do that and constantly make sure their kids are OK is in stark contrast to the way the three children are treated in Stolen. It becomes a story about all our children and how we treat them. It also reinforces how lucky we are that, by an accident of birth, we have been born in this country."

Lewis played Detective Charlie Crews in the NBC drama Life, and is heading back to the US to make Homeland. "It's a cable show and is only 13 episodes, like The Wire or Mad Men - hopefully it'll be as good as those shows." he says. "It's a political thriller made by the guys behind 24. I play Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a US Marine found in an al-Qaeda safe-house after being presumed dead for eight years. He is discovered looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway.

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"They bring him home, and it's seen as a great victory for US intelligence - they're hoping to make him the poster boy of the American war effort. But at the same time, a thrusting CIA operative played by Claire Danes has information that a captured US soldier has been turned by al-Qaeda and represents a serious threat to a major US city. Cue credits …"

Lewis is also contemplating a return to the theatre - he last appeared on stage two years ago in a London production of The Misanthrope, opposite Keira Knightley - but he confesses to mixed feelings: "It is still the most terrifying thing, no question. There is always the thought that you might forget what you're supposed to be doing and blank entirely. That's my fear."

For all that, he says: "I do have plans to go back on stage. I can't tell you what the show is - except that it's a musical. It's not 'al-Qaeda The Musical', but it's something equally improbable. It could be the end of my career!"

Eager to return to the subject of Stolen, Lewis says he has a passionate belief that drama like this can change people's minds. "If it can provoke and stimulate and prod us out of our slumber and complacency, it can absolutely make a difference. It can work very subtly into the fabric of who we are."

• Stolen is on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday.

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