Danny Dyer on the explosive Christmas EastEnders: “Justice is served. Beautifully”

The actor on growing up in Canning Town, Mick Carter's "nuclear" festivities and how he'd play Sherlock

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A year ago we wouldn’t have thought it possible that lads’ lad Danny Dyer, icon of the Loaded generation and one- time star of hooligan drama The Football Factory, would be reborn as the head of soaps’ first family. But what a year it’s been for Dyer, who has reinvented himself to critical and popular acclaim as the loyal and caring Mick Carter, landlord of the Queen Vic, in a rejuvenated EastEnders.

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Traditionally, Walford’s men are either womanisers (Max), weasels (Ian) or hard men (Phil). But Dyer has taken Mick in another direction: an alpha male who is in touch with his feminine side, a diamond geezer who is also a decent family man. Where did that come from? For an actor whose previous image both on and off the screen has been that of a working- class hard nut, it must have required all his thespian skills.

“Mick Carter is very close to me,” he says in a cockney accent so extreme you might think it could only have come from a Rada dialect coach. Except it didn’t. For the 37-year-old who grew up in Canning Town, the East End accent is real. “Without my family, I’m screwed. Me and my missus Joanne have known each other 25 years and it hasn’t been easy. But, because of the fame, my family unit has become my world.”

Dyer as Mick Carter, patriarch and Queen Vic landlord

To talk of Dyer’s thespian skills is not to mock. The man is the real deal. He became a protégé of playwright Harold Pinter (“He directed me in three plays and gave me instant credibility. He was a massive part of my life”) and performed at the National Theatre. But the swagger and bad- boy image ended up eclipsing the acting ability.

“I became a parody of myself and my own worst enemy,” he says. “I was working at the National, so you can’t get more credible acting work anywhere in the world. But I was earning £350 a week. I was skint. So I ended up doing All Star Mr and Mrs and some series about hard men. I had children to feed, but I cringe at those documentaries now.

“Also, you had my films being sold on this image of me as a working-class gangster, even when I was trying to do something different. I did a film called Borstal Boy about a homosexual male in the 1940s and they repackaged it with a picture of me in The Football Factory on the front to make people think it was like Scum. There’s only so much the audience will take before they feel cheated. And who’s the face of it all? Who’s the brand? Me. But I allowed all that to happen.”

Parachuting a whole family into a soap is a fraught business and the history of EastEnders is filled with long-forgotten dynasties like the Millers, the Di Marcos and the Ferreiras. But fans have really taken to the Carters, with the moment of acceptance being that pivotal episode over last New Year that saw Mick react to son Johnny coming out as gay with compassion and understanding rather than his fists. As Dyer recognises, that key scene challenged viewers’ preconceptions of him.

“Some people may have heard things about me, all that bulls**t about me being a misogynist or whatever. They would have made their minds up about what I’m like. So that episode shocked them. But I would react just as Mick did if my own son told me he was gay. I’d give him a hug and tell him to crack on. I love him.” So does the actor now have a new fanbase? “Yes, I get the lovable nans who want to give me a cuddle. Children write letters to me. It’s not just White Van Man any more.”

Having been burnt by press criticism in the past, thanks to an ill-judged spell as a lads’ mag agony uncle, Dyer is sceptical about fame. 

“It’s strange when you’re at an awards show with other famous people and everyone’s making a beeline for you. Fame turns you into a cartoon character in some people’s eyes – you’re either a hero or a disgrace. And sometimes, I do get paranoid that I’m being mocked.”

Then there’s the troubled childhood. Mick, as viewers know, had a bad time of it in care – a trauma that has made him determined to give his kids a better start than he had. And Dyer himself doesn’t want a repeat of his own formative years for his three children – Dani, 18, Sunnie, seven, and Arty, one.

Of growing up in Canning Town, he says: “My dad was a bit s**t. He wasn’t someone I looked up to. I love him to death now, but he wasn’t really in my life as a child. He left when I was nine, so suddenly I was the man of the house. My mum didn’t ask me to take on that job, but I felt like I had to, and I resented it. I just wanted to be out climbing trees, but I had a younger brother and sister to look out for. So I was a lost soul – I went off the rails pretty quickly and I was seeing counsellors. I just didn’t have any guidance. So I’ve used all that history when playing Mick.”

This year, Dyer has mainly let his acting do the talking, but he’s well aware that when he’s booked to go on panel shows, his cockney accent has been mistaken for stupidity. “I know they’re thinking, ‘We’ll get Danny Dyer on and make him swear and look thick.’ But they learn pretty quickly that if they go toe to toe, they’ll lose.”

Search YouTube for “Danny Dyer, Postman Pat” and you’ll find a too-blue-for-RT joke from Dyer on 8 Out of Ten Cats that reduced Sean Lock to tears of laughter. “I don’t think anyone’s made him laugh like that before. And it’s the kind of thing that earns you respect in the eyes of hosts like Jimmy Carr.”

Respect from his peers was something that came early in Dyer’s career, thanks to hits such as the 1999 rave-culture movie Human Traffic. At the time, Dyer was just 22 and had three- year-old Dani to support. “She gave me the drive to learn my trade. Acting was what was going to feed my child. I can’t do manual work – most of my friends from school are painters and decorators. I can just about paint a railing. I had to convince the casting directors that I was worth the ten grand a week and they shouldn’t bother seeing the other mob.”

It seems now that the geezer image has had its day on the big screen, with public-school- educated actors taking the place of working class icons like Dyer. So what does he make of the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch?

“I love Benedict. The Imitation Game looks amazing. He couldn’t play a kid from a working-class estate, but I couldn’t do what he does either. I think that I could play Sherlock, though, if I did it my way. Benedict’s brilliant and the lines roll off his tongue, but that role is about being highly intelligent rather than posh. I think I could do Doctor Who as well.

“But there is a niche for what I do. And there’s a demographic for Benedict. But it means that he’s more likely to get roles in Hollywood and I’m more likely to stay living in Debden [he has a house in the Essex footballer belt]. In this country, he has got utmost respect, but if he walked into a pub, he’d get annihilated by geezers. He’d be bullied.” 

As for Dyer’s own career, media controversy and the critical mauling for 2013’s Run for Your Wife – an ill- fated comedy outing with Denise Van Outen that was a complete flop at the box office – meant that, by the time EastEnders came calling, he was ripe for reinvention. Now, after a pressure-cooker year for the Carters in which long-held secrets have been held back from Mick, Christmas is set to see emotional explosions detonate. Will Mick find out that wife Linda was raped by Dean? Or that Dean is really his brother and not his nephew? Or that Shirley is Mick’s mum and not his sister?

“The audience will know that the bomb is going to go off – but they’ll be asking themselves: ‘How big is that bomb going to be?’ And let me tell you, it’s nuclear,” Dyer teases. “I’ll put the question out there: how would you react if someone you loved dearly was raped in your house by a person you’d been looking in the eye for the past three months? Whether you’re a violent man or avoid violence at all costs, you are going to go insane. And I take insanity to a new level. Justice is served. Beautifully. And I get to show every bit of range I’ve got as an actor.”

Of course, there is the danger with soap characters that their personalities are changed to suit the demands of the storylines. Ronnie Mitchell started out as an Ibiza party girl, but within a couple of years was disposing of a dead gangster in a car crusher. Jim Branning came in as a diehard racist and ended up best friends with Patrick Trueman.

So does he fear that Mick could lose his peace-maker persona as a result of all the anguish being heaped on him? “It’s always the worry. I’m honoured that Christmas is revolving around Mick’s unravelling. But where do we go from here? I don’t know. Will Mick have an affair? You have to keep it exciting, but I wouldn’t believe it if Mick cheated. I’d fight against it because I’m not in it for all that clichéd b******s.” 

Is he confident that EastEnders can maintain the high quality of 2014? “It’s so easy to break the spell. One bad storyline and the viewers switch off. But we’ve come back with all guns blazing this year. The show couldn’t be in any better place and I think the competition is scared. This is old-school EastEnders, the kind of programme that gives you a slap across the face. Which is exactly how it should be.”

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EastEnders is on BBC1 at 7.30pm tonight (16th December)