Submitted by Birthe
Charles Dance hates being described as debonair, or suave, or even handsome. Even though he was born to wear a blazer and bowl over maidens with that glitter of cruelty around his hooded eyes, he correctly guessed a long time ago that being pushed into a box labelled "sex symbol" would limit his acting career. "There are only so many ways to play a romantic leading man. And after a while, it gets boring," he says.
Impatient with his lightweight image, he has tried to do other things - action adventurer, villain, psychopath - but none has proved the breakthrough role he needs to become a major Hollywood contender. This has left him in the position of having, more or less, to take whatever comes along. "I would draw the line at a child molester. But I have no power at all in this business. I only have the power to say no."
So he dusted down his cravat and said yes to playing Maxim de Winter in a new Carlton television production of Daphne du Maurier's 'Rebecca' (starting on Sunday). "Have you seen it? It's OK. Well, it's not bad," he says candidly, a rare admission from an actor supposedly engaged in promoting his product.
In fact, Dance acquits himself well, donning a variety of (whisper it) debonair accoutrements and breezing through with his customary polish, even when he has to utter lines such as: "I'm asking you to marry me, you silly little fool."
Of course, his central career problem seems to be that he is effortlessly dashing and cannot - or will not - stem the smooth gush of his patrician manner. Even today, when he is dressed down in navy wool trousers and a cotton shirt, nursing a blister on his thumb from raking woodchips over a barn floor at his Somerset home, he exudes the kind of certitude that would befit a senior politician. Indeed, as he moves around the hotel suite booked for this interview, he looks rather like a groovy version of Paddy Ashdown.
As he pours out coffee and charm in equal measures, I take a quick glance at my notebook. It is at this point that I realise with panicky horror that my blouse has somehow come adrift and my bra and midriff have been exposed for the past 30 minutes. "Oh dear, I am so sorry, excuse me," I say, snapping shut the buttons, noting that even my stomach has turned pink with embarrassment.
"That's all right," murmurs Dance, amused. "I just thought you were a little warm."
He combines a dry sense of humour with the type of self-lacerating candour that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. It is a pity, then, that he has never quite lived up to his "British Robert Redford" hype.
Has his coppery hair - still blazing undiminished - had anything to do with this? "There is," he admits, "a terrible prejudice out there about ginger hair. People seem to have a very peculiar aversion to carrot-tops."
Indeed, after he was cast as Maxim de Winter, there was one final ignominy to endure. "Some TV executives," he spits, "said I would have to get my hair dyed because they couldn't possibly have a ginger Max. I mean, good God, why not?"
Nevertheless, for two weeks during the summer, Dance trotted along to a London hair salon to test out a variety of suitably Maxy shades. He glowered under his plastic cape as glops of Autumn Brown and Nearly Black were ladled on to his handsome head, and felt vindicated only when the final results were unveiled at a meeting.
"Thankfully, they saw the error of their ways. With my pale skin and freckles, you just can't have dark hair," he says, stubbing out his cigarette with vigour.
He seems to forget that he did turn black once before - when playing Ian Fleming in the film GoldenEye - although on that occasion, he was plastered in so much compensatory fake tan that he looked oriental. "Well, this time I looked like a bloody corpse," he says.
As a boy, Dance endured predictable playground taunts about his blaze of hair ("I longed to have ordinary hair"), but even these pale beside the blanket bleakness of his early life. He was born in Worcestershire and grew up in Devon, where he nursed a glowering resentment about his mother. She came from the East End of London and had gone into service as an under-parlour maid when she was 14. For much of her working life, she was a "nippy", rising eventually to the "dizzy ranks" of Lyons tea shop manageress.
She had met Dance's father in one of these establishments, but he died when their son was four, leaving the family in penury. "My mum had 10 bob left in the world," he remembers. Their lodger, a civil servant, "did the decent thing" and married her, though he had little to do with his stepson.
Mrs Dance brought him up in an atmosphere of snobbery and pettiness, according to her son. "She had a rather simplistic outlook on life: she was a woman who did the best she could and was always saying she did the best she could; a bit of a martyr."
Until his late teens, Dance had a bad stutter; its gradual disappearance seemed to coincide with his widening horizons outside the family home.
He went to art school to study graphic design and began going out to dinner with his new, interesting friends. On his return, his mother would question him about what he had eaten. "I could cook that," she would say, before bursting into tears. She died of a heart attack 12 years ago and, at her funeral, Dance wept copiously, then laughed hysterically, upsetting all the other relatives.
"She had a hard life, but she was hidebound by claustrophobic suburbia," he says. "She clung on to those she loved too much, and she was too needy. I was lucky. I had the good fortune to meet extraordinary people who expanded my vision."
His flight from this background was extraordinary and total. He worked hard to get rid of his accent, studied drama in his spare time and married Jo, whom he met at art college, when he was 23 years old. "Marriage stabilised me," he says. Jo was by his side during the 15 years of pantomimes, provincial rep and the Royal Shakespeare Company before he finally made his breakthrough in 1984 as Guy Perron in "The Jewel in the Crown" (to be repeated on Channel 4 from February 16).
A slew of film offers quickly followed; he starred opposite Meryl Streep in Plenty, ravished Greta Scacchi in White Mischief, and traded quips with Eddie Murphy in Golden Child. There were roles with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver and, although most of the movies were not well received, he did well financially. With his success came a series of house moves to bigger and better homes in north London, culminating in the purchase of a 17th-century manor house in Somerset, complete with paddocks, stables and his own flock of geese. It was as far as he could run from his roots; the under-parlour maid's son was now the lord of the manor, his class leap complete.
"It wasn't class," he protests. "Not at all, not at all. I just had to get out of London; living in the city was choking me. In fact, now that the children are getting older [Oliver is 22, Rebecca 16], we will probably sell it rather than have Jo and me rattling around in it like a pair of peas."
He has an unusual relationship with his home. He loves it - although he bought at the height of the property boom and fears he will never recoup what he paid for it - but when he is there, it is because he is not working, which he hates. Although 1996 was a good year - alongside "Rebecca" there was a "tiny cameo" in Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins and a role with Dennis Hopper in an "oddball comedy" called Space Truckers - he had not worked for the previous 16 months.
"I get angry. I get riddled with insecurity and paranoia and I am not easy to live with. Everything can change with the offer of a job - and then I am fine, the nicest person in the world. I'm even nice on the telephone. Otherwise, I get very restless."
And his next project? "Nothing. I've got absolutely nothing lined up,' he sighs.
This state of affairs must be difficult for his wife. "She is long-suffering but extraordinarily tolerant, she really is," he says, with the kind of nervous laugh that usually betrays some tension on the home front. "She has never suggested I should go and get another job. Anyway, she knows what the answer would be. I cannot, I simply cannot do anything else."
It was Jo who insisted on a big party to celebrate his 50th birthday last October, an event he would have preferred to slip by unnoticed. They fired off a rocket at midnight. He thinks he had a good time, although he admits to suffering from the male menopause. "It does exist. In the head. And aches and pains in the body take longer to go away, which irritates me hugely. I am not wild about turning 50. I don't like it at all."
So does he feel, in any way, that he is in the twilight of his acting career? "God! I hope not," he says, suddenly leaping to his feet, striding across the room and pouring a glass of water from a drinks tray. For a few moments, he seems to be struggling to keep something - temper, emotion, fear? - in check.
"Twilight?" he mutters. "I bloody well hope not."
© Jan Moir for The Daily Telegraph