The Bernard Cribbins of his generation?

"THIS GIRL came up to me a little while ago," Phil Daniels remembers. "I don't know how old she was, 17 or something, and she said, 'You were in Quadrophenia.' " He pauses, face flickering into the familiar crooked smile. " 'It's my dad's favourite film,' she said." He cackles. "That's when I knew I was an elder statesman." Daniels, at one time British film's face of street-smart youth, is happy to have crossed the generation gap. "It's quite nice," he grins darkly, "to have little runts telling me what to do."

As early as 1980, Daniels was observing that people were always comparing him to a sparrow or a weasel, and like both those industrious and undervalued species of native fauna, he normally stays out of the limelight. But currently, twinkling tragi-comically in a major West End role - as would-be high roller Frankie in Patrick Marber's much-praised poker play Dealer's Choice, just transferred from the National - and with his scene-stealing cameo in Blur's Brit-award-winning song "Parklife" still fresh in the memory, Daniels' profile is a good deal higher than usual.

In person, he is engagingly modest and soft-spoken. Daniels arrives at our meeting-place - a cafe just down the road from the Stoke Newington home he shares with his wife and five-year-old daughter Ella - with a motorbike helmet under one arm (he rides a 150cc Honda), his other hand shyly outstretched. He has none of the affectations normally associated with his calling: it's easy to see why he is admired by people who don't normally look up to actors. His wiry, humourful slouch accommodates a fierce energy, and his career so far is a shining example of stubborn integrity.

Now 36, he began acting in his early teens at the Anna Scher children's theatre; today a celebrated launch-pad for young EastEnders, then a humble after-school diversion. "I sort of fancied this girl that went there," Daniels remembers bashfully. "I followed her in one time, sat at the back and got involved. I quite enjoyed it. After a few weeks I got a part - as a gnome in the opera Falstaff - and I got paid pounds 16 by the BBC. It got me out of school - I was never very keen on school - and that was it really."

Daniels was 19 and living at home in Kings Cross when he got the role for which he is still best known, Jimmy the mod in Franc Roddam's triumphant film version of The Who's rock-opera, Quadrophenia. "That whole thing about the aggro you have with your parents," Daniels remembers, "it was nice to be able to play it out as a role instead of having to live it. You know what it's like - even if you've got liberal parents you're rebelling against the liberalness of them." And did he have liberal parents? "No."

There was a certain very British, very north-London sharpness about Phil Daniels which had rarely made it onto the big screen before. It was this, combined with a touching vulnerability that made (and continues to make) him such a magnetic presence. There was a violent edge, too; both here and in his other early film roles, in the brutal prison-drama Scum and as Danny, Hazel O'Connor's manager in Breaking Glass. "I'm quite anti- violence really," Daniels says, "but that's why I started doing drama in the first place - to get those emotions out that otherwise you just hold in."

At this point his future seemed to be mapped out - there was talk of him as a potential British De Niro - but things didn't turn out that way. "They made those films one after the other, bop bop bop," he recalls wryly, "but then they made 'da da da da der der' (he breaks into the theme tune of Chariots of Fire) and everybody thought 'This is the perfect film', and that was the end of it. People just did not want to see what things were really like. That year I was up for best newcomer at the Evening Standard Film Awards, and Simon MacCorkindale won it for Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express, and I thought 'this is it: the world is bent'. "

Phil Daniels has maintained an admirably cussed front in the face of fickle showbiz fortune. At the height of his early fame, he turned down a lucrative role as a green-haired punk rocker in a BBC sitcom in order to play the fool in a production of King Lear in Exeter. "That was how I was, I didn't want to get pigeon-holed." He never went after the Hollywood careers successfullly pursued by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth - his younger and fractionally out-acted co-stars in Mike Leigh's classic 1983 Meantime - but seems to bear no grudges. "I think it's interesting that they've done it: you've got to go out there and fight to be a film star, and I've never been willing to do that."

Why has he tended to favour theatre over film (Daniels recently completed nine months in Nicholas Hytner's Carousel and did a year at Stratford, culminating with Alex in A Clockwork Orange)? "Film's great, but at the end of the day it's much more a director's medium - ultimately it's in their hands which take to use - but when you're onstage, once you've got the director off your back, the play is your own for an hour and a half."

Daniels is far from dewy-eyed about the medium, though - "A lot of theatre in this country is lost in a time-warp, tied to some imaginary England" - and seems well aware that directors might use him as short-hand for rough-house modernity. "It's snobbish in a way to expect that to be otherwise," he says reasonably. "They always went and got Gielgud for the old butler." His current role, as the cocky but not invincible waiter Frankie, in the taut and funny Dealer's Choice, finds him compulsive and craftsman- like as ever: painstakingly adding extra depth and dignity to what the play's author modestly describes as a "basic Jack-the-lad character".

When Blur first approached him to narrate the title track on Parklife - Daniels' crafty-cockney monologue establishing him as, in his own words, "The Bernard Cribbins of his generation" - did he think they wanted to steal his soul? "No", he laughs affectionately, "but it's turned out a bit like that".

Ben Thompson

! 'Dealer's Choice': Vaudeville Theatre, WC1 (0171 836 9987) Mon-Sat, to 16 August. Phil Daniels also guest stars in 'The World of Lee Evans', Channel 4, 16 June.