America had Jimmy Dean, we had Phil Daniels, the angry young man in 'Quadrophenia'. But the archetypal Cockney wideboy has kept surprisingly busy between 1979 and his bit part in Blur's 'Parklife' video. Now he's returning to hard-boiled drama in BBC2's 'Holding On'
Say "Phil Daniels" and two images come to mind. There's Daniels the troubled teen in a parka, bug-eyed with speed and black eye-liner, on the train to Brighton in 1979's Quadrophenia; then there's the more mature gent oo's finking abaht leavin' the arse in Blur's "Parklife". Somewhere between the two, he became a cult figure. Can anybody work out why, or when?

In Tony Marchant's ambitious new BBC2 drama series, Holding On, Daniels plays Gary Rickey, a food critic - rich, successful but basically the same smirking Norf London geezer we've come to expect. Set in a many-layered London, it has 25 main players and numerous interlocking storylines; characters brush against each other, setting off reactions and chance combinations (in one scene we fleetingly take in a cinema advertising Short Cuts). His may not be the biggest role, but if any performer can be said to pull the whole bravura piece together, it's Daniels.

The Waldorf at tea-time seemed an appropriate venue for Gary, if not Phil. Grinning, he's as familiar as your favourite uncle. In repose (which isn't often), he's nondescript, but the voice is instantly recognisable. What you notice most is the non- verbal communication: conversation is peppered with laughter (huck-huck, aher-aher, ayuck-ayuck), excited oohs and aaahs, the urgent "dwamean?" and a curious, temporising urrrrrr-urrrrr which makes him sound exactly like Steptoe's son.

Marchant, director Adrian Shergold and Daniels go back to the early Eighties and the days of the Soho Poly theatre, where Marchant's first play appeared. "I got friendly with him then, 'cos he's a very normal sort of guy, Tony - he's an ex- boxer for England," says Daniels, setting up in one sentence both a statement and its antithesis. "We've sort of bumped into one another and kept up, then this came up." An initial reading, however, didn't quite convince Daniels. ""First of all you look at your part and think uhhhhh, uhhhhh, not so sure about how big this is. But then I read the whole lot and realised why it had to be, in a way, minimalist. If you want more of Gary, then it's good, but if you get too much of him, he'd go up his own arse, he wouldn't be credible any more."

Is Gary, not to put too fine a point on it, a tosser? "Nah, nah, aaaah," - pure Steptoe - "I don't think he's a tosser! I quite like him. He narrates the thing, but there's a comic element as well. I interlock on a couple of levels: Hilary, who was my agent, has a relationship with the security guard who knows the two boys that are running the radio station, and one of them's a chef that I bump into when I walk into the kitchen." (All plot discussions of Holding On sound like this.)

Comeuppance for the rebarbative Gary (the whole enthralling eight-hour drama is about come-uppance in one form or another) takes an unpleasant form. "Let's not say he's bulimic," says Daniels, tucking into his cream scone. "Let's just say he's got an eating disorder, 'cos I don't want the bulimic society after me for not portraying it quite right, nnnyer. He goes downhill in quite a major way, his teeth and hair start falling out. There's this scene at the Cafe Royale where I just spew up all over the table. So it was fun, but it's sad!" The hapless Gary ends up where he started, as a lowly match reporter. Daniels, too, had a brief stint on a sports desk: "Chelsea correspondent for the Morning Star, I was, for two and a half years." When was that? "In the early Eighties."

So what did you do after Quadrophenia, Phil? "I can't remember. Am I meant to have a thing?" he barks, peering into his teacup. "Am I meant to have all these leaves in here?" He contemplates the silver tea-strainer. "You don't get one each, eh?" he mutters. "I don't know what happened to me after Quadrophenia," he goes on. "I did a film, Breaking Glass, with Hazel O'Connor. Then I did Scum, about Borstal. Then I sort of got offered a lot of jobs, other mad films that weren't very good, but I decided to go to Exeter and do King Lear, playing the Fool. Did like, three years at the RSC, din'I, n'all that, and the National Theatre. At the RSC I did five plays in two years. Then I went back, did A Clockwork Orange." This is the thing about talking to Daniels. You remember, oh yeah, he was in that, wasn't he... and that... and the dots between Quadro and Blur start to join up.

"Before Dealer's Choice" (see? there's another one) "I was in Carousel. I loved that, because I always wanted to do a musical. I did that record with Blur, and I'd be on stage with Carousel singing 'High blow low' or summat like 'at, and after the gig I'd get a car and go to Shepherd's Bush Empire. It was really funny, huck-huck! 'Bye darlings!' 'Orroight, boys and gels, got any gear... '" Ah yes, Blur and that song. Must be a good little earner... "Nah," he snaps, then leans forward conspiratorially. "But it's not a bad little earner." A fine distinction. "They said, we've always liked you, and we've got this song and sent me a tape. I think they're brilliant, they're going forward, changing their music, not like some other bands we know. But I'm in their camp, so there you go." Not that Daniels is much of a music fan. "I stopped at Steely Dan, really..."

He plays golf ("I want the world to know this") and lives in Stoke Newington, a few miles and yet a world away from his birthplace, King's Cross. "It was always nice, King's Cross, especially round the back bit. Where there used to be prostitutes - which was all right - it's crack cocaine, now." So is he a luvvie? This elicits a convulsion of laughter. "I've desperately - desperately - all my life tried to be a luvvie and I think I'm nearly getting there. Darling, luvvie - people that are that nice to each other. It's only because you can't remember anybody's name. 'Oh, er... love, how are you... darling.' A-huck. Oh, love 'em! I absolutely love 'em."

Holding On, 8 September, BBC2.