Spiv – that’s a word you don’t hear much nowadays. Wide-boy, that’s another. They both mean the same thing – small time crooks always trying to sell you something that had fallen off the back of a lorry or they’d bought off a bloke down the pub. They would always wear flashy clothes with a kipper tie and have the prerequisite pencil moustache – think Arthur English, Max Miller if you are old enough. Private Walker in Dad’s Army was a spiv and Dirty Den in Eastenders was certainly a latter day wide-boy.
The name of Dirty Den is forever linked with that of Leslie Grantham who played him for exactly twenty years - including a 14 year gap when he was Dead Den. Private Walker was a harmless, less threatening character, a part that Mr. Grantham has taken on for a touring stage version of Dad’s Army which opens at the Everyman on 12th April.
I met Leslie in his dressing room and we chatted for an hour or so about this and that. I started by asking him if he enjoyed touring or was it a chore? “I actually quite enjoy it. I enjoy meeting people. Living the sheltered life of television you rarely meet members of the public and you don’t get an instant response to what you’re doing.”
Leslie has been touring continuously for the past 4 or 5 years - this will be his fourth visit to the Everyman in the past couple of years – I suggested that must be hard work. “Yes, but I manage to get home quite often. The problem is, when you’ve got teenage children they say, ‘Dad, when you coming back?’ and then when you’re at home they say, ‘Dad, when you leaving?’ But I’m doing what I want to do, I’m in the theatre and hopefully I’m doing OK at it.”
Of course Leslie is best known for his work on television. I wondered how it compared with acting on stage. “The stage is much more immediate. With television you can film something that comes out three months later. Somebody’ll stop you in the supermarket and say ‘Hello Les, saw you last night, it was crap.’ When you are on stage they’ll let you know straight away. But it’s the theatre I love; it’s what I trained for. Television’s a sausage factory, you do everything out of sequence, you’re always up against the clock, scripts arrive late.”
And what about Dirty Den; was he a millstone or an asset? “It’s a combination of both. If it wasn’t for Den I wouldn’t be in this position. He’s an iconic character that the public still seems to love. It doesn’t annoy me when people shout out ‘Alright Den?’ because it’s good to be known for something. There are a lot of far better actors than me who don’t get recognised in the street. But it’s a bit of a double edged sword really.”
It’s no great secret that Leslie spent ten years in prison for murder. We’ll come to that later but I wondered had he been interested in the theatre before then and how did he get started? “I’m a West Ham fan and used to go when I was a kid but then I discovered the theatre. I used to tell my mum I was going to the match and sneak off to the theatre in Bromley. When I came out I’d buy the evening paper for the result and report on the game so that when I got home I could talk about it.
“I actually started acting in prison; I joined the theatre group in Wormwood Scrubs and later, just down the road from here, at Leyhill Prison at Wotton-under-Edge. In fact, it was while I was there that I wrote a play which won the new one-act plays competition in Gloucester in 1976.”
I wondered who he had liked when he was younger, who were his role models? His answer was not altogether surprising. “I grew up with Bogart and Cagney and John Wayne. They were my heroes.” Did he see himself in similar roles? “No, not really. Funnily enough I remember the first film I ever saw. It was the cartoon version of Peter Pan. In those days you didn’t have separate performances, you’d just go in any time. People would say ‘This is where we came in’ and leave. But I would just sit there all day. I’ve always been in love with films.
“My first experience of theatre was pantomime. I think that’s the same for everyone. That’s when the theatre hooks you. But for me it was more film.”
This is the second time Leslie has been on tour with Dad’s Army. “Yes, we did one a couple of years ago. We actually recreate the original shows. This time we are doing a play based on four of the old scripts. It’s great, people dress up in their 40’s clothes to come and see it.”
Before I finished, I did want to talk about his time in gaol and the events that led up to it. I was curious. I don’t want to sound facetious, but I’ve met lots of actors, but never a murderer before. “It’s fairly well documented in my book,” Leslie said rather wearily, but was happy to continue. “I was 18, in the army in Germany and I’d been bullied and seriously beaten up on one occasion. It affected me rather badly, but that’s no excuse for what I did. I took a man’s life.
“So I went out into town, got into an argument with a taxi driver and unfortunately he died. I thought that writing it all down in my book might exorcise it, but it didn’t. Just writing it down doesn’t rid you of the monkeys on your back. So, I’ve been very lucky to get where I am; having to wear that overcoat all my life.”
Killing a man and the subsequent time spent in prison is clearly a life changing experience but, I suggested, without it he may never have become an actor. “That’s right. I got into acting while I was in prison. It was acting that got me through that period. I started off making the scenery and the tea but one day the leading man was taken off to have electric shock treatment so I got roped in. After that I decided that’s what I was going to do with my life.”
It must have been difficult though, the transition from prison to drama school. How did he go about that? “While I was at Leyhill somebody from the Bristol Old Vic School saw me and offered me a place but the Home Office wouldn’t allow it. I was later offered a place at Webber Douglas Drama School but I didn’t have any money. They offered me a scholarship but I didn’t want it so I painted the German Embassy by day and the St. Thomas’s VD clinic by night to pay my way. I also worked as a cleaner. That’s how much I wanted it.”
What you’ve seen or what you’ve missed
As I think I made clear in the last Green Room, I am a big fan of dinnerladies. So, to a certain extent, I was setting myself up for disappointment when the stage version came to the Everyman. With a largely different cast and a touring set it couldn’t possibly be as good as the original BBC sitcom; it wasn’t, but it was good enough.
The success of dinnerladies is the fact that it is an ensemble piece; ten main characters who’s individual lives are more important than any real plot – a situation comedy in the true sense of the word. The stage version had the cast more or less impersonating the characters from television. It worked quite well and in some cases the likenesses were quite uncanny. But I wondered if it was necessary. The writing is so good, so tight and so true I think perhaps it would have worked just as well if the new actors were allowed their own interpretation of the characters.
The advantage with TV is that it can direct the viewer so they are in the right place as soon as something happens. In the theatre the audience is left to choose where it looks and consequently can sometime be looking in the wrong place and missing a good line. In the TV dinnerladies some of the best lines are throw-aways but the camera is always there to pick them up. On stage, unless you were familiar with the style, many of the lines were wasted.
Another issue is that if you impersonate the original actors then you are bound to be compared to them and a couple of the cast did not really pass the test. But generally speaking it was fine. Andrew Dunn’s bewildered and often beleaguered canteen manager Tony, held the piece together and was the main link to the original. I enjoyed it.
Fiona Spiers is the Everyman’s Development Officer. We chatted in the theatre’s Green Room and I asked what that involved. “Essentially it means I raise money for the theatre. In a nutshell, that’s what it is. Any project that the education team are doing, I try and raise funds for that. We are also going through a capital development scheme at the moment so a lot of my time is spent on that.”
As you probably know, there are plans afoot for a major refurbishment of both the auditorium and the front of house planned for next year. “We have submitted our final application for Lottery funds and will hopefully have an answer by June.” Fiona explained. “If we get that then the council will be on board and it will all mesh together. Some of the money is in the bag, but there will still be a short fall of half a million pounds if we get the lottery funding. There’s a three year education programme which is also part of the package. We still need a bit more; the project is £3m in total. Obviously in the current climate things are tough, so it’s more difficult than it was three or 4 years ago.”
I asked Fiona what her background was, was she a theatre person? “I’m an arts person not a theatre person. For the past 15 years or so I’ve worked in museums and art galleries. The last one was in Yorkshire where I worked for eight years.”
And how long had she been with the Everyman? “I came on board in October 2008. When I started, the refurbishment plans were not really underway and my job then was trying to support the ReachOut department. I only work part time, three days a week one of those at home in Warwickshire. On a day to day basis, when I’m here in the morning, I touch base with Geoffrey Rowe, the Chief Excecutive, to discuss how things are going and then it’s writing letters and making phone calls trying to raise some money.”