Handsome? I should say so

Whatever happened to 'the English Robert Redford'? Some say Charles Dance never got over being cast as the dashing young blades of his youth. But to his band of devoted female fans, he has always been much more than a matinee idol. So, girls, this one's for you
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The Independent Online

This week's interview is dedicated to my new internet friends - or Charlie's Angels, as they call themselves - at Mary's Charles Dance Home Page. These include Carol and Kimberly and Chris and Karen and Lynne and Doris and Margie and Mary and Donna and Gaddy and Gretty, who could all teach the rest of you a thing or two about loyalty and gratitude, although Gretty, who is from America, is going to take some winning over, I think.

This week's interview is dedicated to my new internet friends - or Charlie's Angels, as they call themselves - at Mary's Charles Dance Home Page. These include Carol and Kimberly and Chris and Karen and Lynne and Doris and Margie and Mary and Donna and Gaddy and Gretty, who could all teach the rest of you a thing or two about loyalty and gratitude, although Gretty, who is from America, is going to take some winning over, I think.

Indeed, I caught her messaging Carol with: "She (i.e. me) thinks we are just a herd of buggy broads", which is absolute nonsense. I think Charlie's Angels are fab. I mean, I posted one little question on the message board - do any of you have anything you'd like me to ask Charles? - and the questions, magnificently, kept coming and coming. Chris, for example, wants to know which trait Charles most deplores in himself. Well, Charles?

"Um... my nicotine addiction."

Gaddy wants to know what brings you joy.

"Is that Gaddy from Oregon?"

Could well be.

"Lots of things bring me joy. Sitting by my pond on a beautiful evening can bring me joy."

Kimberly wants to know what compels you to play roles that "push the sexual envelope?"

"I don't really understand what that means."

Neither do I, frankly. Perhaps she has a postman fetish. Anyway, don't you find it a bit spooky, all these women gathering behind your back to talk and enthuse about you?

"I did at first, when I was suspicious of the internet... but, no, I find it very flattering. They're a very loyal lot. They have these Angel Flights where they all get together, flying in from all over the globe. I first met them in Birmingham when I was doing Three Sisters. And they are absolute..."

...buggy broads?

"...sweethearts!"

True. Still, I do feel oddly capable of resisting Megan's offer to borrow the short film she has made which is, essentially, "a compendium of Charles' best scenes using his eyes to depict a feeling or character". Sorry, Megan. I'd love to in normal circumstances, it's just that I'm out every night this week. And next week, too, come to think of it.

Anyway, girls, let's get down to business. I meet him in London, where he is rehearsing for Eugene O'Neill's epic story of the decline of the Tyrone family, Long Day's Journey Into Night, which, as you know, co-stars Jessica Lange and opens at the Lyric Theatre on 21 November. The rehearsals have been good. "I suspect the end result is going to be special," he says.

He thanks you all for his recent birthday present - a first-edition copy of Long Day's Journey Into Night plus an original, Broadway programme! Bloody hell, you're not stingy, cheapskate, Ferrero Rocher people, are you? "Fantastic gift," he says.

Kimberly, he says his house in Somerset (which as you know, he shares with his wife, Jo, whom he met yonks ago at art school, and their two children) survived the floods, thanks for asking. "We are used to a great deal of rain there anyway."

So, what is he like? In the flesh? To actually meet? Well, he is quite offish at first, and almost as hard to win over as Gretty, but then we bond over our mutual addiction to Coronation Street. I put it to him that, what with Jim McDonald being made a paraplegic, then being done for murder, and Steve McDonald being almost beaten to death by Jez, and Liz McDonald leaving Jim for Jim's physiotherapist, you'd think Andy McDonald, Jim and Liz's other son, and Steve's twin brother, would have popped home from college at least once in the last five years. "Yes, where is Andy?" cries Charles. He laughs. And then we're OK.

He has quite a quick, dry sense of humour, actually. For some reason, we get on to Madame Tussaud's, which he thinks he is in, "unless they've melted me down". Chris, I did ask him what his favourite word is. And? He thought about it, then said: "Sunday." The rehearsals have been very exhausting, obviously.

Handsome? I should say so. And very tall and commanding and blue-eyed although, Carol, I'm not quite sure he is "the sexiest man alive". He might be a bit too gingery for some. He might be a bit too Paddy Ashdown although, obviously, without having gone quite so hideously wrong. Thank you, Gretty, for pointing out that "his glance is magnetic" and he "has a presence that may be compared to something as mundane as sex-appeal, but it is much more than that. It's like a perfume that is above the senses."

Still, in a strange, and perhaps ironic way, the looks and the presence that have so enslaved you all have also, possibly, rather enslaved him. I do sense that, deep down, there is a kind of disappointment within him. That he feels he should have lived up to the "British Robert Redford" sobriquet conferred on him after playing the dashing Guy Perron in Jewel In The Crown, but somehow didn't.

"You once said: 'I'm not as successful as I want to be...'"

"I am reasonably successful."

"I know. I know. You are very successful. But as successful as you want to be?"

"I would like to be in a position where I decide what I am suitable for. With the success of an Oscar, say, you are suddenly deemed to be suitable for everything."

He was once turned down for the film version of Alan Ayckbourn's Chorus of Disapproval because, apparently, Ayckbourn said: "Charles Dance? He's just a bloody matinée idol!" Total rubbish, I know, but don't blame me, girls, I'm just repeating what Ayckbourn said. I know, Margie, that he is a "a superlative representative of the Britisch (sic) acting profession at its highest peak". (We must forgive Margie. She's Dutsch.)

Still, Charles would dearly love to work with, say, Alan Bennett one day. "I think he's wonderful. Love him." He once sent a postcard to Bennett, when Bennett was refusing to let Hollywood put Sylvester Stallone into The Madness of King George instead of Nigel Hawthorne. "I thought it was admirable. I thought he showed great integrity. I got this card back, and it was like a little paragraph from one of his plays. He said: 'Thank you for your card, although I wasn't offered £50m to have Stallone and 50p for Nigel as you might think. P.S. We nearly met at the dental hygienist's two weeks ago.'"

I think it is touching that Charles now knows it by heart. No, he hasn't failed. He's done a lot of films - Plenty, White Mischief, Pascali's Island, Star Truckers ( Star Truckers?). It's just that he's never quite earned the right to be that choosy. Why? I don't know. Perhaps, as someone once remarked, he is just too effortlessly dashing. Perhaps that's his career problem. If there is a problem, that is!

Now, I know you don't want me to, as Megan puts it, "just rehash his life story, which has been written about over and over in exactly the same way". Megan! How little you think of me. It's because I resisted your film, isn't it? Well, if I'd known you'd take on so... still, I do think some bits of it are not only worth re-telling, but also quite telling. I think it's quite interesting, for example, that most people think he's quite posh, whereas he isn't and never was. That there is some kind of self-invention going on. I find out quite a lot of new, juicy information, too.

He was brought up in Plymouth. His mother, Eleanor - known as Nell - came from a poor East End background and, although put into service as an under parlour maid at 14, spent much of her working life as a waitress in a Lyon's Corner House. This is well known, but did you know that before that she worked in Goodbody's Cafe in Plymouth? And that Charles not only remembers visiting her there, he also remembers "she made the band play 'Teddy Bears' Picnic' for me"?

His father, Walter, an engineer, died when Charles was four. Do you remember him at all, Charles? "Dim memories. He was tall, well built, bald. I remember him wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase."

He did not mourn for his father when he died - "I can't remember his death, or being told he was dead or anything" - and has not mourned since. It just did not affect him, he says.

After Walter died, Nell almost immediately married the Dances' lodger, Edward. It was the sensible thing to do. "Mum had only ten bob left in the world." But no one was allowed to forget Walter. "He cared for her, looked after her. She married above her station. He lifted her out of relative poverty." Nell was tirelessly aspirational. A snob, even? "In an odd way, yes. She came from the real working class, but had delusions of grandeur. She got rid of her accent and encouraged her children to get rid of theirs. She was always going on about manners. Her favourite expression was: 'God, that is so common' and, I'd think, who are you to say that?"

Did you pity her? "Yes, yes! She was always frustrated. Always wished to be someone else." Did you feel you had to get away? "I certainly wanted to lift myself out of a claustrophobic, frustrated environment." Perhaps, to do that, Charles had to become someoneelse, rather than just wish it, as his mother had done before him. And perhaps that someone else was the rather dashing, upper-class fellow she'd put into his head in the first place. Just a thought.

I wonder where the acting came in. "I did school plays when I was a kid, but at the onset of adolescence, I got a stammer which stuck with me until I was 20, 21. I didn't have a lot of confidence. But when the stammer went, I remembered the fun I'd had. I thought acting was something I could do without getting bored. I just seemed to need it like someone who has a gender correction operation needs that operation... I needed that sense of being fulfilled, and complete."

His first job, after art school, and before going into rep, was as a dresser at Her Majesty's. "I dressed all the chorus boys in Fiddler On The Roof." He loved it. "I just felt this wonderful sense of belonging." Was the theatre, in a way, the accepting family you never had? "Yes, yes!"

We talk about acting, during which he gives me the best description I've ever heard of what it is, exactly. "The other day, I went to see a recital given by Tim Piggott-Smith's son, Tom, who is a brilliant violinist, and there were many moments when he just gave himself to the music. And I thought, if I could ever lose myself like that, as an actor, I'd be content." And have you? "Only twice. Once during a production of The Heiress and once playing Coriolanus (for the RSC). It's like you are supported on a cushion of air.

"I recently did a film about a child prodigy. I was the demanding father who made it his life's ambition to make sure his son played the great violin concertos as they were written. The father tells him not to impose emotion on the music. The emotion should be a response to the music. That's how you achieve purity. I think the same can be said of the theatre."

Sadly, Angels, he has to go. A car is waiting for him. I do think Long Day's Journey will be very much worth seeing. He knows, Mary, that you all have tickets for January. He looks forward to seeing you all. He says: "I hope I don't let you all down." He adds, too, that he has fallen rather in love with me, and thinks we should rent a little love-nest in Soho. Only joking, Gretty! He is, I agree, a fine and intelligent man, and a substantial actor, too. And Megan? He'd love to watch your film, I suspect, but is rather busy every night this week, too.

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