It’s patronising to assume SEX STOPS AT40
He first charmed us three decades ago with The Jewel in the Crown and now Game of Thrones has given him a new generation of fans. Liz Hoggard meets the man once called “the thinking woman’s crumpet” and talks about being an older father, working with wome
Charles Dance is telling me about the moment when he and Jason Isaacs fell for Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. It was in July this year during the Franco-British 100th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval in France. The actors were backstage in the green room after doing their poetry readings for the ceremony. “We met Nicola afterwards and Jason and I both agreed that she is, to put it mildly, not unattractive,” recalls Charles drily.
In an instant, they became craven Sturgeon fans, he laughs. “We all of us – Jason, Joely [Richardson] and I – said: ‘Can we come and live in Scotland, please?’ And she said: ‘Aye, I’ll get you a passport, don’t worry about it.’ I think she’s a feisty, terrific woman. She seems to still have this integrity which is a quality that, from a naive observer’s point of view, very few politicians have.”
It’s a typical Charles anecdote: part political, part flirtatious. Once he played the romantic leading man; now it’s fathers and grandfathers, he says with a slight sigh. But he still has an effect on “women of a certain age” (and knows it).
Today the 1.9m actor, impressively lean at 69, wears an exquisite Anderson & Sheppard suit. He swims in Hampstead’s outdoor lido at 8am every day, followed by “a full cardiac-arrest breakfast” then cycles home.
“If, God forbid, I do have to take my shirt off, I go and pump a bit of iron. I’m lucky that I have good genes. I’ve never been overweight. Time takes its toll on all of us. Unfortunately, it’s unkinder to women than it is to men, but nevertheless I try to keep an eye on the ravages of gravity if I possibly can, because as an actor this is all we have. Painters have brushes and paints, but this
is it. So it’s incumbent on us to look after our tool as much as we can.”
It’s a shock to realise that Charles has been on our screens for 32 years. His breakthrough role was as “the thinking woman’s crumpet” in the 1984 British Raj drama The Jewel in the Crown. Younger fans will know him as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, where he met a grisly death – shot with a crossbow “on the khazi”.
He played icy British commander Alastair Denniston in the Oscarwinning The Imitation Game, and he has a hilarious cameo as a “rather cynical English dean” in the new Ghostbusters movie, alongside
Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.
He’s happy to be a straight man to “a bunch of very funny ladies”. When I mention the male fans who have reacted badly to the all-female reboot, he sighs elegantly. “They’re talking about it as if somebody’s demolished Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. It isn’t.
It’s a piece of light entertainment and the girls might well be funnier than the men. Poor Caroline Aherne, who died recently, was incredibly clever and very, very funny. Listen, being funny is not the prerogative of men.”
Charles is witty and charming, but those steely blue eyes flash if he senses a lazy question. “That’s old hat now, darling, actually,” he reproves.
He’s been labelled Mr Posh, but the suave persona is a fake, he laughs. His mother, Nell, came from a poor East End family and went into service as an under house parlour maid at the age of 14. Later she worked as a waitress. Home was a two-bedroom terrace house near Plymouth, with an outside lavatory. He didn’t go to drama school or university; his education came through acting and travel.
He’s still a nomad – he’ll jump on a plane to film for six weeks in Beirut or the Bering Sea. He recalls that while making a documentary about Nanook of the North, he was standing on the top deck of an icebreaker at 3am, with his Walkman playing Wagner, as the ship crunched through the ice. “It was me and 15 Inuits. And that’s not something you get to do unless you’re doing this peculiar job. I have a brother who is a retired naval officer but, if we both put flags in the map of the world as to where we’ve been, I’ve many more flags than he has.”
It can take its toll on relationships, of course. After his 33-year marriage to the sculptor Joanna Haythorn ended (they have a son, 42, and a daughter, 36), he dated the actress Sophia Myles, then in her 20s. In 2010 he became engaged to the artist Eleanor Boorman, 26 years his junior. They had a daughter, Rose, in 2012 but separated later that year.
Is it complicated to be away so much when you have such a young child? He shakes his head. “It’s complicated for a variety of reasons, none of which we will go into,” he says sternly. Then his face lights up. “But she is the most adorable, fantastic little girl. She’s absolutely bloody brilliant, the apple of my eye.”
Is fatherhood different second time around? “I don’t know that it’s different but, probably because it’s a while ago now, I don’t remember that paternal pull. But then when my grown-up children were growing up, I shared the responsibility with Jo, my ex-wife. We are all still very close – possibly too close – but I don’t remember [experiencing] what I feel for this little person. It’s strange, I don’t know what that’s about.”
Recently he played Mr Bennet in the movie mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where a bevy of young actresses run about with daggers in their stockings. He loved sexing up Lizzie Bennet’s father – “I thought somebody who sends his daughters off to be trained as martial arts experts has got to have something about him,” he hoots.
I’d assumed (perhaps unfairly) that Charles was one of those men who don’t date women of his own age. He is, after all, surrounded by youthful flesh in his job. But he talks warmly about his favourite 60-plus actresses. He’s recently been to see
Zoë Wanamaker (an old friend) and Barbara Flynn in the play Elegy.
This is the man, after all, who virtually invented the grey pound when he directed Ladies in Lavender (2004) with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It was a box office success and “became the stocking filler for every maiden aunt and grandmother and their nephews and nieces”.
He still gets indignant about how badly cinema audiences aged over 50 are treated. So he has bought the film rights to Hilary Boyd’s bestselling book Thursdays in the Park, about a 59-year-old woman who finds love with a man when they meet on
playground visits with their respective grandchildren. It is, he says, about the eternal dilemma of whether to stay with a dull but decent partner or “take a flyer” on passion. “I know there are a lot of both men and women at that age in that position, actually. And also the assumption that an active sex life stops at 40, it’s very patronising.”
As a young man, Charles was sporty but not academic and had a terrible stammer. He left school with two O levels, went to art school, then worked as a graphic designer. Steve McQueen was his idol. “He was the king of cool. He transported us up there.”
In his 20s, he met two retired gay actors who mentored him at their unofficial drama academy in Devon. “We worked our way through Shaw and Shakespeare. They gave me basic ballet exercises, because I tended to stoop, and a lot of voice work.”
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, then The Jewel in the Crown put him on the map. There were roles in Alien 3 and Last Action Hero. Thanks to Game of Thrones he’s become cool for a new generation. “It’s incredibly well written. The writers, Dan and David [D.B. Weiss and David Benioff], read English at Trinity,
Dublin. I don’t think in the four years I was associated with it I found the word ‘gotten’ once. As soon as I see that, the hairs go up on the back of my neck.”
We talk about his mother, who was a waitress (“a nippy”) in a Lyons Corner House. “They were the place to go in the 1930s and 40s. They were places for romantic liaison, for working-class girls to get out of the ghetto, as it were. A girl from Streatham or Deptford might meet a husband. They were gay-friendly – homosexual men could feel comfortable sitting there, wearing a chiffon scarf. There were covert meetings between security people. There was always an orchestra and you could have a slap-up tea or a quiet dinner without paying through the nose. Now if you want that kind of thing, you’d have to join one of those many members’ clubs in London that cater for the elite.”
There’s a gleam in his eye. Is he planning another script? “I think there are endless stories there. Especially with the success of Call the Midwife, which has a similar kind of time-scale.”
Occasionally, he wearies of living out of a suitcase. He tells me he’s been enjoying a summer in London, taking part in Poetry Hour, launched at the British Library by novelist Josephine Hart to present great poetry, read by great actors, to new audiences.
His friendship with Hart, who died of cancer in 2011, and her husband, the advertising man Maurice Saatchi, goes back years. “Josephine would phone me and say: ‘Come and do some Larkin with us,’” he says, imitating her rich Irish brogue. “I just jumped at it because I wasn’t particularly well read, and I learnt a phenomenal amount from her.”
Today Saatchi runs the project in her memory. I say it’s refreshing to have a man talk so openly about his grief. “Yes, it’s fantastic,” Charles agrees. I’m very fond of Maurice.
He’s a great guy and was bereft when Josephine died.”
Charles is aware of his own mortality. He’s no party animal, preferring to be in bed by 11pm. “My body clock doesn’t suit late nights.”
Besides, there’s the 8am swim. Sometimes on a rainy day he’d “like to snuggle down under the duvet, but I think: ‘No, kick yourself up the arse, get on the bike and just do it.’” He talks enviously about an elderly man at the Hampstead lido who swims even when he has to break the ice. “He said he only swims for about 15 minutes and that the time to get out is when you start feeling euphoric, which is what happens just before hypothermia sets in.”
Above his desk Charles has pinned: “I’ve wasted too much time but it was not mine to waste.”
So he’ll keep on fighting the ravages of age. “An actor should never retire, anyway,” he insists.
“There’d be nobody to play old wrinkly people if we retired. We just have to keep going.”
“An actor should never retire. There’d be nobody to play old wrinkly people if we retired.”
TOP: Charles Dance and his ex-wife Joanna Haythorn in 1987. They were married for 33 years. ABOVE: The actor attended this red carpet event in 2014 with former fiancée Eleanor Boorman. The couple had a daughter in 2012, but separated soon after.
FROM LEFT: Charles and Geraldine James in The Jewel in the Crown. With Dame Judi Dench on the set of Ladies in Lavender. As Game of Thrones’ Tywin Lannister.