Remember, Dan, it could have been me

James Hanning recalls boyhood with Daniel Day-Lewis

Sunday 02 March 2008 01:00

Of all of us, "Dan" was the one you thought would make it. Bastard. We Blackheath/Greenwich boys had all cut our teeth in school plays with varying degrees of success, but he seemed to want it more. Being the son of the poet laureate would give him an unfair advantage, we felt. The fact that his grandfather had been Sir Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, and his mother was the celebrated actress Jill Balcon would have helped. Nobody clapped more loudly than I did, honestly, when Dan won his Oscar last weekend. I know how hard he worked for it.

As a boy I lived in Blackheath. Dan lived down the hill in Greenwich among a pretty arty lot. A mutual friend remembers going on picnics with Dan and his family and being bamboozled by the intellectual timbre of the conversations. Children were at their least childish when they went to the Day-Lewises, but it wasn't all poetry.

One birthday, his 11th maybe, his parents gave him boxing gloves, shorts and a boxing ring, lovingly erected in his bedroom. His friends duly came to the party. At least one remembers getting quite a roughing up.

Dan was always striking to look at, and charming, or so the mothers said. He used to look very serious but then he would break into what a friend's sister rather irritatingly calls a "heart-melting smile". And he was always fun and a bit naughty, and used to do lots of dares, like going into the laundrette and asking if they sold pot plants. I don't think it's funny either, but there you are.

I'm not bitter, you understand. I had my own starring roles early on. One local critic called my interpretation at the age of six of the central role in the Mayor of Songville "awfully good".

Dan and I shared admittedly modest billing for our screen debuts in Sunday Bloody Sunday, starring Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. I happened to be wandering around Greenwich Park with a friend when a man asked if we wanted to be paid £10 a day to play football. So we did, for about three days.

Dan was also paid to play football, but he wasn't a footballer, bless him. Maybe that's why they moved him, and he landed a plum role as a hooligan. In the film he appears walking along the street, broken bottle in hand, scratching cars.

Not a difficult role. When puberty struck, Dan's wilder side came out. He left Sevenoaks school early and lost his father, ending up at ultra-liberal Bedales, which seems to have suited him. Dan developed his creative side and stuck to the acting. I went a different way. Maybe the right roles didn't come up for me. But when you see that statue on your mantelpiece, Dan, just remember. It could have been me.

James Hanning is deputy editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'

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