Article from 23 January 1999 Daily Mail
It's hard to imagine Charles Dance as the son of a parlour maid. But the actor with the image of suave sophistication is not the upper-crust smoothie he seems. He tells Alice Fowler how his latest film role brought back memories of his disturbed past Not such a proper Charlie

There is no shortage of adjectives to describe Charles Dance: suave, patrician, debonair, devastatingly handsome even, in an upper-class, colonial sort of way. It comes as a surprise, then, to see Dance in his latest film, Hilary And Jackie, playing a man weak of will and shorn of charisma.

His role may be, in Dance's words, 'no more than a telling cameo', but it takes him far away from the image that still dogs him. 'It's not that I object to playing suave and debonair leading men, but I am not by nature suave and debonair,' he explains. 'I get introduced as "the suave Charles Dance" and I think, "Oh, come on. There's a lot more to me than suave and debonair."'

The film opens with a wonderful evocation of a Forties childhood -- the drab interiors, the hidden strains and cruelties, the desperate need to keep up appearances. For Dance, it brought back vivid memories of his own upbringing. 'It made me think very much of my stepfather. At one point I'm wearing this maroon, sleeveless pullover, and I can remember my stepfather wearing exactly that.'
Charles Dance with Celia Imrie in 'Hilary and Jackie'
Charles Dance with Celia Imrie in 'Hilary and Jackie'

His childhood, in Plymouth, was difficult -- 'deeply disturbed' is how he describes it, only half joking. Ironically, the actor invariably described as 'posh' and 'patrician' grew up in a household extraordinary only in its ordinariness, and from which he longed to escape.

His father, Walter, died when Dance was four. Nevertheless, the figure of the man whom his mother Nell referred to as WD, loomed large. After his death she married again. 'My stepfather had been the lodger and married my mother because, as she often said, when my father died she'd been left with ten bob in the world. Edward, my stepfather, was "a good man".' Inevitably, Charles, and perhaps the hapless Edward himself, sensed he was second best. 'She often made him feel that way. She was always banging on about WD.'

Nell was not a happy woman. 'My mother was from the East End of London, the youngest of four children. She went into service at 14, worked all her life and married above her station when she met my father. He came from quite a well-off family of confectioners, I'm told. She was always going on about bettering herself. I don't think she was ashamed of what she was, but she certainly wanted to get out of it and be something other than that. Her life was very much about work, and always working for somebody else. There was no music in the place, very few books. My brother, who's ten years older than me, joined the Navy at 16, so he wasn't around very much. And I couldn't wait to get out.'

Charles, a quiet, introverted boy, failed the 11-plus but sat it again at 13 and was sent to grammar school. There, for the first time, he began to see a different way of living. 'Then my horizons began to broaden. Suddenly different doors were opened. I hadn't even been aware the doors existed, let alone what was on the other side of them. I was embraced by different sorts of people, for some reason, though I didn't think I had anything in common with them. And then I used to go home and, in a rather inept way, tell my mother about the time spent in other people's houses, which only made her feel more inadequate.'

Did he, perhaps, deep down, want to hurt her? 'No, not in the slightest. It was just a sense of enjoyment. If I'd been taken out to a restaurant I'd come back and say, "We had this, this and this," and mother's reaction, bless her, would be, "Well, I can cook that." That reaction in itself is quite cruel, because it's a put-down. And that then provokes a reluctance to tell you about it: "All right, well next time I do something that's exciting, I won't tell you." And you then become rather secretive. You don't intend to be secretive, but you don't want your wrist slapped when you put your hand out and say "Look what I've found." You don't put your hand out any more, you know.'

Was his mother aware of what was happening? 'I honestly don't know. When my mother's brother died not so long ago, my cousin found a photo of my mother as a little girl with her three brothers. And you think, well, your life was mapped out by circumstance. Her father had gone off to the First World War, managed to come back, was a bit of a drinker, apparently, and they really had no money at all. They were scruffy East End kids.

'And not long after this photograph had been taken, she was an under parlour maid, below stairs, blacking stoves. She actually did quite well to rise to the dizzy heights of a waitress at Lyons Corner House and then be head cook and bottle washer for one or two of the landed gentry, and, in her terms, I suppose, she was a success, but it was all to do with work. She didn't have much fun, and I always got the impression she resented my having fun. I was made very aware, continually, that perhaps I shouldn't be having this fun because she couldn't have it, which is an inappropriate burden for a child to be asked to bear.'

A glimpse back When I ask about his happiest memories of childhood, there is a pause. Eventually he says it was his brother coming home from the Navy. 'Every few months my big brother would come home, like a Martian who'd landed. He'd come from another world: he even smelled different. He was out there: he'd been out of the compound, and would come back.

'He and my mother used to fight rather a lot. She used to do the same thing to him too. I can remember him coming back with a leg of pork once, trying to make a contribution to a weekend at home, and her reaction was, "Isn't our food good enough?" And I'd think, "Come on, give a guy a break."'

Dance's escape came through a bar called El Sombrero in Plymouth -- 'the first espresso coffee bar in the south west of England,' he says proudly. (His mother, rather wonderfully, insisted on calling it The Old Sombrero, much to the teenage Charles's annoyance.) For the first time, Dance had found a place where he could be himself.

'It was terribly risque, full of Beatniks, and people with very long hair and Levi's and cigarettes that smelled peculiar. Then I ended up getting a job there, so I became very much part of the in crowd. I met people who were behaving in a totally different sort of way.

'I had this friend called Henry who was a big, tall, mean guy -- his father was a Polish pilot in the war -- and we used to go up into the attic of Henry's house and listen to Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker. He'd play you something, and half way though he'd say, "But you wanna hear this," and put something else on. All that, and going to parties that were that generation's equivalent of raves.'

He also discovered girls, although, surprisingly, he claims he was only moderately successful. 'I don't think I had any idea of women at all. My first relatively serious girlfriend was when I was about 16. I'd had crushes before then, but I was forever being rejected, pursuing girls who didn't seem to be interested in me. I started to meet girls at El Sombrero. Then the fun started; the adolescent fumbling.

'It was typical of life in a small provincial town -- a lot of hanging around. My mother would say: "What do you do all day in the Old Sombrero?" You'd sit around listening to the Rolling Stones and Manfred Man, and drinking endless cups of cappuccino, thinking you were rather clever and putting the world to rights.'

Another local haunt was the Minerva pub. 'There was a back room, and you gravitated towards it because that was where you got news of parties. I can remember a whole bunch of us trying to gatecrash a party one night. We got kicked out and the police were called, and I was arrested. Two or three of us were charged with unruly behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. I was arraigned before the magistrate and pleaded guilty. My mother knew nothing about this until a piece appeared in the local paper. She was convinced I had one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder that led to the gallows. I had a letter from the father of my then girlfriend, forbidding me to see his daughter ever again. It was horrendous.' Secretly, though, you sense he is rather proud.

Distracted by life at the El Sombrero, Charles did little work at school and left with two O-levels. He went on to Plymouth School of Art (where the students went on strike and again made the local paper), and then to Leicester College of Art and Design to study graphics and photography. At art school, however, he rediscovered an early love of acting.

'I'd had this adolescent stammer, so the fun I'd had as a child in primary school plays I'd had to forget about, because I couldn't be seen to be a stammerer. But at 18 or 19 the stammer started to go, and I got involved in art school theatre groups. And then I met two wonderful old men, retired actors named Leonard and Martin. Suddenly I found kindred spirits.' The two men had coached friends of Charles for RADA, and agreed to teach him too. 'They taught me what I would have learned had I gone to drama school. They were like gurus to me. I spent a couple of years with them, two or three evenings a week. We worked our way through Shakespeare, Shaw and Beckett -- a crash course, really.'

For Charles, it was as though the sun had suddenly come out. By day he would work as a labourer or plumber's mate, and then, in the evenings, study drama. Even his mother was proud.

'My father had involved himself in am dram at some point, and used to do music-hall recitations. My mother spoke to Leonard on the telephone once and got very excited because he sounded like WD.' After meeting him, she quickly changed her mind. 'He was a big man, in tweeds, a bit like Samuel Beckett, and he could be quite outrageous. He used to drink quite a lot; he smelled a bit of drink sometimes, and dog, and there was cigarette ash on his tweeds. He was rather soiled, according to my mother, whereas my father was always well turned out. Leonard was rather louche, which was what I liked about him.'

He and Martin were clearly also inspiring teachers. After two years' study, Charles moved on to provincial rep before his first significant break with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975. Then, nine years later, he became a household name with the award-winning TV series, "The Jewel In The Crown". His mother was alive to enjoy his success, but died soon afterwards of a heart attack. 'I think she was very proud. Of course she was. That was my break, and it happened just before she died. Perhaps she died a happy woman.' How did he feel when she died? 'Sad, sad -- I cried at her funeral. It was a life spent trying to reach a goal, and never getting anywhere near it. But it was reaching for the wrong goal. She spent her life being discontented and frustrated. It's good to feel that way some of the time because it spurs you on. But in her it was all to do with feeling sorry for herself, a life devoted to the service of others.'

After her death, Charles went on to make films, including Plenty, White Mischief and Pascali's Island. Some were successful; others, as he says with un-actorly frankness, 'have gone straight down the pan.' At 52 he still seems driven and restless, keen to make other, more successful, films. He admits that, like his mother, he is sensitive, but I wonder, too, if, in a different way, he has inherited her need to strive for something better. With Meryl Streep in 'Plenty'
With Meryl Streep in 'Plenty'
Through it all he has been supported by his wife, Jo, a strikingly beautiful artist and sculptor whom he met at art school in Plymouth and married when he was 23. The secret of their long marriage, he says rather caustically, is 'continual separation. I think people stay married because they want to, it's as simple as that.'

They have two children, Oliver, 24 and Rebecca, 18, and one wonders how Dance has managed to avoid repeating the pattern of his own childhood. 'By checking myself, and not always succeeding,' he says honestly. 'You say things that come instinctively, that you've absorbed from your own parents. There are moments when you're taken unaware, and those unplanned things happen.'

Home is a 17th-century pile in Somerset, set in five acres 'of what estate agents call an area of outstanding natural beauty.' Dance clearly loves his home, though the time he spends there sounds a little fraught. 'The only time I'm there is when I'm not working, and then I'm not the easiest person to be with because, like most actors, I have doubts and fears that I'm never going to work again. After 30 years it's still very much hand to mouth.

'We've been there for ten years and I don't think we'll be there for another ten, partly as it's huge -- it's ridiculous actually. The children are in the process of flying the coop, and Jo and I can't rattle around in it for much longer. There's a time of change coming up, but I don't know what, yet.'

For now he hopes to make more films -- 'really good films, which people can relate to and not necessarily use as a means of escape' -- and would like one day to try his hand at directing. So much of his early life sounds like an Alan Bennett play that I wonder if he would like to try some of Bennett's work. He almost jumps out of his chair with enthusiasm, but accepts that, by a huge irony, it will almost certainly never happen.

'I absolutely adore Bennett's work. But he doesn't write for people like the me I am perceived to be. He writes for people like me, though,' he says, with pained precision. 'Because of the way my career has gone, which is to do with the way I look as well, people think I have had the benefit of a public-school education. I have this suave and debonair label, but really I'm as common as muck, with a deeply disturbed childhood.'

Perhaps, in escaping his roots, Charles Dance has simply done too good a job. Does he see the irony of his position as an ordinary man, perceived as too posh to play ordinary roles? 'Yes,' he says, a little crossly. 'But I like to think that's because I'm good at my job.'

As Derek du Pr� in 'Hilary and Jackie'
As Derek du Pr� in 'Hilary and Jackie'
Hilary And Jackie is in cinemas nationwide.

� 1999 The Daily Mail
Photos � Steve Poole, David Appleby/Intermedia

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