Charles Dance has been such an intense, often glowering presence on our screens for so many years, in films like White Mischief and television classics like The Jewel in the Crown and Bleak House, that you would think the man himself is a bit of a grouch in person. But not at all. The 69-year-old actor is as sweet as a pussycat.
A few years ago fellow Londoner and journalist Giles Coren took to mocking Dance in print for looking miserable whenever he spotted his near neighbour in Kentish Town. But Dance’s daughter Rebecca was so outraged she wrote to Coren telling him her dad was “not grumpy”, which (Dance also reveals) in turn facilitated a jolly meeting between the two men. And his daughter is right – he is sweetness and light. Also Dance (who laughs at the story) is not, despite appearances, a posho either. In fact, he characterises his early life as working class.
“I don’t come from a wealthy family. I pretend to be aristocratic because of the way my face is put together, but there is nothing aristocratic about me at all. My mother [a former parlour maid called Nell] came from the East End of London. My father [an engineer, Walter Dance] died when I was four, then she married again to a man who became my stepfather [Edward, Nell’s lodger]. I have not inherited any money. I have not benefited from a will or a trust fund. I do a job that is quite well paid… and I am very lucky in that regard. And I value every penny that I earn.”
In fact when he appeared as Lord Stockbridge in Gosford Park, he told director Robert Altman that he should really be downstairs with the servants. The great auteur replied: “Not with that face, Charles.”
Despite this, Dance has no gripes about the preponderance of posh younger British actors making successes of themselves. But he does admit that the current crop of working-class actors is probably not getting the chances he did when he started out, largely because of the decline in repertory theatre.
“It seems to me there are fewer opportunities now for people who come through the state education system. I didn’t go to a public school but I know from people who did that there is a great drama department at Eton… and they have such charm and confidence. I think of people like [War and Peace star] James Norton [who went to Ampleforth College], he with the cheekbones. There are more opportunities than in the state system, if there is talent there to be developed at that stage. And Old Etonians have enormous charm, Dominic West, Eddie Redmayne… they’re all delightful guys.”
Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones
Partly as a consequence of occasional money worries, he says, he works constantly (he hasn’t really rested in the last three years). And this can present problems. “I’m not as choosy as I perhaps should be, but I don’t like not working. I’m lucky enough to do a job that I love doing. And even if the work is not of great artistic merit I will try to find a way to give it some, if it hasn’t got it.”
Does he feel he takes on things that aren’t as good as they could be? “Yeah. I am not going to be specific about it. But there are one or two things, probably more, that I have done when I’ve thought, ‘Mmmm, I shouldn’t do that.’”
He has also not forgotten the experience “many years ago” when, living with his ex-wife Jo [Haythorn] and H their two children, when he deliberately took some pre-planned time off but found that the work dried up.
“We were living in Somerset and I found that I didn’t get any offers for a winter, spring, summer and autumn – a whole year. It scared me. The phone didn’t ring. Horrible.
“I get a lot of fulfilment [from acting]. If I’m not working I feel as if I’m waiting to work, which is a rather sad admission really. And in between acting jobs if I’m not trying to write I’m trying to keep myself fit and healthy because [points to his body] this is all actors have. It also depends on how much money there is in the bank. I’ve not had an overdraft in a while but there was a time when I had a frightening overdraft.”
Fortunately his latest acting project is far from bad. Deadline Gallipoli (above) is a new two-part World War One drama based on real events about three journalists’ struggles to tell the true story of the horrifically botched campaign in Turkey in 1915.
There is Joel Jackson’s prim Aussie Charles Bean, Hugh Dancy’s privately dissolute but professionally quite principled and talented aristocrat Ellis Ashmead Bartlett and Sam Worthington’s grizzled Antipodean Philip Schuler. Dance plays the campaign commander General Hamilton.
Hamilton is not the typical buffoonish donkey leading heroic lions to slaughter, and Dance fleshes him out expertly with warmth, intelligence and understanding.
But let’s not get carried away. Dance is perhaps not always sweet. His work on Game of Thrones as the ruthless Tywin Lannister (who met a grisly fate on the toilet in Series 4) has made him even more recognisable in the street. And this has meant more requests for selfies, which he regards as a modern scourge.
“I am bothered by it sometimes. ‘Can I have a photograph?’ It depends on what kind of mood you’re in and people’s reactions… as if it’s obligatory. ‘Can I have a photograph?’ No!”
There are limits after all.
Deadline Gallipoli is on Drama tonight (Saturday 16th January) at 9.00pm