Leslie Grantham, best known to the world as Dirty Den from EastEnders, is a Londoner but not strictly an East-Ender although he did support one of the football teams. ‘I was born and brought up in South London and I was West Ham supporter and I used to go every Saturday. But then I got hooked on the theatre and I used to tell my Mum I was off to football and to sneak off to the theatre in Bromley. When I came out I’d get an evening paper so I knew the result of the game and know what happened so I could talk about it when I got home. One day I picked up a first edition of the paper and it only had the half-time result and didn’t realise until it was too late.’
Growing up in London in the grim post-war years, it was the movies and the Hollywood dream that fuelled the ambitions of those youngsters who were desperate for a way out. I asked Leslie who were his early heroes. ‘I really grew up on a diet of Bogart and Cagney and John Wayne they were the only actors I knew, they were my heroes. I loved those old black and white movies, it was fascinating to watch. I used to go to the cinema a lot. The very first thing I remember seeing was the cartoon of Peter Pan. In those days there was a continuous programme at the cinema and you’d just walk in at any time. After a couple of hours you’d recognise a scene and say this is where we came in and leave. But my brother and I would sit there all day. On one occasion my parents called the police because we were missing.’
But what about theatre, do you remember your first visit? ‘Like most people, my first experience of actual theatre was pantomime. The first pantomime was in either Streatham or Lewisham, I can’t remember which. It was Treasure Island with Ted Ray and Vic Lewis. There was a lot of water on stage with the ship sinking and 3D effects, it was phenomenal. Another thing that really impressed me was a film of the Bolshoi Ballet that we take to see at school. It was Giselle and I couldn’t believe it all these people dancing around.’
Classical ballet seems a far cry from the image that you have. Did you never have the ambition to play romantic leads? ‘I enjoy playing baddies. It’s more interesting than leaping through the French windows shouting anyone for tennis. It’s also to do with the way I look and the way I sound, I suppose, I’m suited to playing villains.’
In 1967 a tragic event took place that would change your life forever. You had joined the army as a career but it didn’t all go to plan did it? What happened? ‘I’d been bullied and badly beaten up in the army and that effected me. That’s no excuse for what I did. I took a man’s life so I’m not putting any defence up. I was going to make a career in the army, I had rank and I’d been earmarked to make a future regimental sergeant major. But I was badly burned with an iron and beaten up by a load of thugs. There are nasty people in all walks of life but in the army perhaps they’re even more dangerous. They gone to beat up a half-cast lad but when they couldn’t find him and they were all fired up they picked on me.’
After the beating he picked up a revolver and you went into Osnabrück and got into an argument with a taxi driver. In the ensuing struggle the gun, which you claim you thought was not loaded, went off and the German taxi driver, Felix Reese, died of gunshot wounds to the head. You were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment which he was top serve in the UK. How do you feel about that episode now? ‘I can’t alter that. I’ve been very lucky to get where I am with that on my back. The public seem to have digested it and accept it. They’ve not forgotten it but it’s no longer such an important factor. If it hadn’t been for all that I probably wouldn’t have got into acting. I got into acting in prison.’ And the rest, as they say, is history.
Leslie Grantham was talking to Michael Hasted
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