Danny Dyer: the man who would be king

The EastEnders star is a direct descendent of royalty – but then he's an actor who's learnt from Harold Pinter and Mark Rylance

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Shortly Danny Dyer will don a suit of finely wrought chainmail, pull a scarlet cape over his head and pick up a broadsword. For now, though, he’s waving a Mexican beer bottle around a very small dressing room and explaining what makes a good interview. “It’s about being interesting,” says the star of EastEnders, friend of Harold Pinter and one time presenter of Bravo’s I Believe in UFOs, before giving me a list of television and film stars who are not, in his opinion, interesting.

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If Dyer is cocky, and he is, then it’s with some justification as the 39-year-old is about to cause a bona fide television sensation. The new series of Who Do You Think You Are will open with the extraordinary revelation that Dyer is related to two kings of England, William the Conqueror (who’s inspired today’s transformation) and Edward III. “I know,” says Dyer, taking a swig of beer. “It’s crazy. But the fact of the matter is that I am a direct descendant of royalty.”

And not just royalty. Who Do You Think You Are?’s experts also found an English Civil War Cavalier colonel, exalted company for a boy from Canning Town, a particularly disadvantaged part of the East End of London. “We lived in a very, very working-class sort of slum,” he says. “It was a dangerous area.”

Given that background, you’d expect him to have, as they say in Canning Town, a bit of previous. It turns out Dyer has far more previous than we could ever have imagined. As well as the kings, colonels and the expected crop of East End proletarians, researchers established a blood link with Thomas Cromwell, the Tudor statesman advanced to greatness and then executed by Henry VIII, played so memorably by Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall.

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Danny Dyer takes to the throne in Who Do You Think You Are?

Being royal is “massive”, Dyer says, but it’s the Cromwell connection that really pleased him. “He came from a slum, I come from a slum. Cromwell left the country at 14, I started acting at 14. He was a self-taught lawyer. I’m a self-taught actor. Cromwell had two daughters and a son. I’ve got two daughters and a son. Cromwell wrote his last letter to Henry VIII begging for his life, on July 24, which is my birthday… And I drink in the Anne Boleyn pub.”

Naturally, Dyer watched Wolf Hall again when he found out the connection. “I cried for most of it,” he says. “Just for its sheer brilliance. Rylance was my mentor when I was 17 [they both appeared in the BBC2 romantic comedy Loving in 1996]. I felt invincible at the time. I thought I knew it all. Then I met Rylance and I went, ‘I know bugger all.’ He’s not somebody you ask questions. You just watch, soak it all up.”

Later Dyer would appear on stage in Harold Pinter’s Celebration, No Man’s Land and Homecoming, forming a close relationship with the Nobel prize-winning playwright. Yet these remarkable high points – pals with Pinter, learning at Rylance’s feet – led not to further acclaim but to a string of increasingly poor Brit films culminating, in 2012, with Deviation, described by the Daily Mail as among “the most pathetic films of the decade”.

“It’s my own fault, really,” Dyer says. “There’s only so many times people are going to forgive you for making a s*** film. I got really hot at one point and said yes to everything.” This included Pimp – “a grotty stumble through Soho’s sleazy brothels”, as The Guardian sniffed in 2010. Dyer owes his recovery from such low points to EastEnders. “It has saved me,” he says. “I would never have been looked at for stuff like Who Do You Think You Are? otherwise. I’d become a laughing stock. I had no money. I couldn’t get work. I was on my a***, but the show was on its a***, so it was a perfect marriage. They said, ‘Danny, we want you to save EastEnders.’” Did it work? “I won eight awards in my first year, I’d never won an award before in my life.

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The EastEnders actor grew up in a “working-class sort of slum” in Canning Town

“I’m a brilliant actor,” he continues. “Before I came [to EastEnders] it was ‘Shout, shout, shout.’ But you learn from making films that any movement of the eyebrow says so much. I brought that to EastEnders. Out of every soap actor I’ve got the most experience.”

As you can see, Dyer has a high opinion of his own talents, after all, he points out, “Pinter trusted me as an actor.” Nobel laureate Pinter died in 2008, so never saw Dyer behind the bar of the Queen Vic. “Doing soap is the hardest discipline there is,” Dyer says. “I’d love to see a snotty-nosed actor who says, ‘I’m too good for this,’ come in and be exposed.” So, you don’t think Benedict Cumberbatch could do EastEnders?

“He would be useless. Could he do a cockney accent? Of course he couldn’t. But then I can’t do what Benedict Cumberbatch does. We all do what we can do, whether you’re Idris Elba, whether you’re me. No one else can do what Damian Lewis does, which is why he’s got a career. And no one can do Danny Dyer like I can do Danny Dyer.”

When he started EastEnders in 2013 the BBC wanted Dyer to drop his Twitter feed, a blend of sentimentality, East End slang and bravado that attracts 1.22 million followers. “I went, ‘I’m not doing that, but give me a list of things I can’t say.’” Was it a long list? “More of a scroll.”

Perhaps the BBC underestimated just how popular Dyer would be – although the man himself certainly didn’t. “I get a lot of love on the street,” he says. “People look up to me. I’m an idol to them and I find that a lot of pressure because, really, I don’t deserve that. I have young kids saying, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done. I’ve never met you but everything you do for me, I couldn’t live through life without you.’ And I think, ‘Wow, I’ve touched them in a way that will make them feel strong,’ and I feel blessed for that.”

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Who Do You Think You Are? is on BBC1 tonight at 8pm