Nigel Harman: Cockney rebel

Child star, West-End hoofer, van driver . . . Nigel Harman had a varied career before shooting to stardom as ...ast...nders' roguish sex symbol, Dennis Watts. Now, he tells Ryan Gilbey, he's yearning for new challenges
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When Nigel Harman got the call to say that he'd landed a part in EastEnders, he was driving a Sainsbury's van around south London. "They said: 'You've got the job.' I was sitting there in my Sainsbury's fleece, with Mrs Bloggs's groceries in the back, and I just laughed my arse off," says Harman. The first thing he did was take the van back to the depot. "I said, 'Right, I'm out of here'." He smacks his lips at the memory. His boss asked him to finish off the day, but Harman said "no chance", told him that he had a new job, and scarpered. Poor Mrs Bloggs. I hope she got her shopping in the end.

That was nearly a year ago, and now you can't open a celebrity magazine or a tabloid newspaper without being greeted by 30-year-old Harman's moody expression, or some scavenged titbit about what he likes on his crackers, or how frequently he flosses. It would be wrong, though, to dismiss him, or the show, as a lowbrow phenomenon. Along with Leslie Grantham, who has returned to the soap after 14 years to play "Dirty" Den Watts, the poker-faced father to Harman's smouldering thug Dennis, he has helped to make EastEnders properly exciting again. Since his arrival, Dennis has been a busy bee, generating quite a buzz, not least for removing his shirt at every opportunity. First, he seduced most of the female characters in Albert Square, including his half-sister Sharon, until he had more notches than bedpost.

Then he had a big scene in which he murdered a mob boss. Harman prepares a roll-up in a corner of the deserted BBC bar, and muses on how these life-shattering events are folded into the mix. "You have your big moment, your breakdown, then you seep back into the Square and life continues." He runs his tongue along the cigarette paper. "It would be interesting to see someone living with having committed murder. But there's no room for that in the show. If Dennis was skulking around with depression, you'd get bloody bored with him."

It must also be strange to play a role in which you can't see the finishing post. "Yeah, it just keeps rolling on. You go to the story editor every couple of months and she says, 'Next year, Nige, you'll be doing this-and-this...'" It is, naturally, top-secret stuff, but on the day we meet, he has been shooting some "heavy" scenes. He admits that Dennis has softened lately. "But he can snap at any time. I've spent all the morning terrorising people. I'm not violent at all, but I love playing Dennis. He's all, 'punch first, ask questions later'. It's a bit like therapy. When I first came here, I did so much screaming and throwing things, I'd get all my angst out and go home without a care."

With the improvements in cast and quality, the soap has bubbled over into the cultural consciousness in a way that happens only sporadically - the Deirdre/ Ken/Mike love triangle in Coronation Street, the stiff under the patio in Brookside. Most obviously, Harman has brought sex back into soap opera. Or rather, Dennis has. In fact, the actor is adamant about the distinction. "It's Dennis, not me," he insists. "He's a bit of a rough diamond, but [adopts a mock-sincere voice] he's got a sensitive side. All that crap."

I point out that his looks must play some part in his popularity. "The storyline with Dennis copping off with all those women wouldn't have worked if the public didn't find you vaguely attractive to look at." His discomfort at this promotion to resident hunk is obvious - he hunches his shoulders slightly when he's discussing it, and narrows his eyes. "I am a bit embarrassed, yeah," he admits. "I don't get off on it. I walk into the living-room in the morning in my jogging pants, with my hair all over the place, and my flatmates say: 'So, you're supposed to be one of the sexiest men in the country?' And I go: 'I know. I don't get it either.'"

The appeal of Harman, and Dennis, is pretty clear. He is a genuine tonic in a show that has offered little more to please the eye than that prickly cactus Phil Mitchell, who has all the charm of athlete's foot. In a wider context, the public could be responding to the unironically macho Dennis as a reaction against a cultural climate in which the trend is for Metrosexual boy-men who gender-bend it like Beckham. Not that Harman doesn't have gay appeal. He is, predictably, already something of a gay icon. Or, as Leslie Grantham puts it, "a gay acorn". "He calls me 'eye candy'," says Harman. "'Come on, eye-candy, say your lines.' When they shoot a close-up of me brooding at the bar, Les will call over, 'That one for the male nurses, is it?'"

Recently, Harman was named most popular newcomer at the National Television Awards, but he can see the cloud attached to this silver lining. "Now, the press can sell more pictures of me. Last week, leaving my flat, I had to lose a 'pappo' about four times. It's so hot, that if I'm even pictured with a woman, whether it's my flatmate or my sister, it's a story."

I buy Heat magazine on the way home, and sure enough, there is speculation inside about whether Harman is dating a record-company PR. The magazine also prints a snap of him in satin trousers, sequined waistcoat and dinky bow-tie, taken at a talent contest when he was 11. Harman was already a showbusiness veteran by then, and it was partly his father's fault. The family, including Harman's brother and sister, lived in Woldingham, Surrey, which he describes as "Toryville". Derek Harman was a bank manager by day and an amateur-dramatics obsessive by night. "He'd run home, get changed, and go off and direct Annie, Get Your Gun. We're talking four nights a week. And Sundays." And Mrs Harman? "Oh, Mum did loads. She was a great character actress and dancer."

Harman himself got his big break at the age of eight. "Dad needed a kid in a sailor suit to sit on a banquette for a play in Croydon." He can't pinpoint what it was that made him implore his parents to send him to singing and dancing classes. But from that moment, he says, "it all went mental". Harman mixed stage work with TV shows and commercials. "I did this Colgate one where the girl playing my sister had to say, 'let me try'. Her voice was so nauseating that they had to redub it."

After finishing his GCSEs, he enrolled at drama school, then got a job dancing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. "It was minging," he spits. "For years afterwards, I pretended the job never existed." His big ambition was to appear in a West End musical, but he'd done that by the age of 23, appearing as Cousin Kevin in Tommy throughout 1996. "Great show, but no one came. Except for my dad. He saw it 13 times and brought loads of people. I think that he wanted everyone to see it in case that was as good as it got. You know, 'he might be selling the Big Issue next week'."

But he wasn't. When Tommy closed, Harman had no shortage of work. It got to the point where he was so well known on the musical circuit that he rarely needed to audition. He got a part in Mamma Mia!, which he says was "a bit like community service", then decided to quit the West End. "I wanted to get out of musical theatre because I didn't just want to make people happy. Jesus, it takes it out of you when you have to keep going, 'Hey, what a great time I'm having!'" He clenches his teeth in a lockjawed grin that expresses fully the agony of singing "Dancing Queen" six nights a week, plus matinées.

He was obviously too smart for all that. Perhaps, eventually, he will feel he is too smart for EastEnders. "When it's the big storylines, it's fantastic. Other days, it's like working in an office. You come in and all you have to do is order a bacon sandwich; you can't get much from that on a personal level. I've only been here eight or nine months, and already there are times when I think, 'Hang on, I've played this before'."

My advice to the BBC is to keep Harman stimulated if it wants to keep him. Provide him with challenges, as one would a precocious child. He will need them as surely as his fans will need more scenes in which he is forced, for no good reason, to remove his shirt and behave in a beastly fashion.