Who Do you think you are?
Actor Charles Dance on uncovering the life of the dad he lost as a little boy and the sisters he never knew he had…
THURSDAY / BBC1
Actor Charles Dance is the first of five famous faces in the 16th series. But rather than research his ancestors, he finds out about the father he never knew.
Most episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? see celebrities explore the branches of their family tree to discover far-flung ancestors. But the opening episode of the new run takes Charles Dance on a far more personal journey as he learns about his own father, Walter Dance, and siblings he never knew existed.
The actor, whose CV includes everything from The Jewel in the Crown to Game of Thrones, was born in Worcestershire in 1946 to one-time housemaid Eleanor and engineer Walter. Sadly, Walter passed away when Charles was a boy, so he has little memory of his dad and just a single photograph of him in army uniform.
Here, Charles, 70, tells TV Times about his journey into the past...
Your story was incredibly moving to watch, what was the experience like for you?
It’s not like most episodes where you have startling revelations about how people are related to William the Conqueror. This was about filling in huge gaps in my knowledge about my parentage because I want my children [Oliver, 42, and Rebecca, 35, with ex-wife
Joanna Haythorn and Rose, five, with ex-partner Eleanor Boorman] to be better informed than I was. It turned into an adventure for me; there were so many revelations.
How much did you know about your dad? Nothing at all. My mother never talked about him in detail. She referred to him as ‘WD’ and said that he was in late middle age when he died, but I found out that he actually didn’t have me until he was 72, and the photo that I assumed was of him going off to World War One was in fact the Boer War!
You also learned that you had two half-sisters – Norah and Mary, Walter’s two daughters with his first wife – but Mary died aged five after being hit by scaffolding. Was that tough? Finding out about Mary was awful, especially as I then had to go and stand outside the house in west London where it happened. That was a difficult day because I’ve a daughter that age and for a parent to suffer that kind of loss must have been terrible. Then I discovered that Norah lived into her nineties in South Africa before dying in 1993. We had no knowledge of each other, but it would’ve been nice to have met her.
What was it like meeting Norah’s granddaughter Noneen, your great-niece?
Oh, she is terrific and we’ve been in touch a lot since, we email once a week. She compiled an album for me with photographs and the last letter my father wrote, so she’s been wonderful and I’m very glad to know her. Do you feel closer to your father now that you have uncovered a little more about his life?
Yes, especially because Noneen also photocopied Norah’s autobiography for me. In that, she talked about Dad’s Roman nose and mine you could arguably describe as Roman; it’s prominent anyway! Noneen also gave me a gold medal that Dad got for elocution. He used to recite monologues like The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck and that ties in with my acting. There were all kinds of connections that rang a bell; it was revealing.
You found out more about your mother’s side, too. Did you know much about her background?
I remember her telling me that her father went to war in 1914 and came back in 1920 after spending two years shacked up with a
Mademoiselle from Armentières! She worked most of her life and didn’t have an easy life, so if she’d known what I found out, it might have made her more contented.
You say in the show that you are not aristocratic at all. Why do you think are you often cast in those type of roles? Because I speak reasonably well and because of the way my face is put together! When I did the film Gosford Park I said to the director Robert Altman, ‘I should be downstairs not upstairs’ and he said, ‘Not with that face Charles!’ I’d like to play downstairs and there was a time I was a romantic lead but time takes its toll and somebody thought I was more suited to playing villains, but I’m managing to get away from that.
How did you feel about turning 70 last year?
It is a milestone. I was in Botswana on the day doing some press and I had a couple of days’ safari so on the morning of my 70th birthday these ladies came with cake and Champagne at breakfast and danced around singing Happy Birthday while elephants and giraffes were looking on. That was quite something.
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently had rather too much fun doing [BBC1’S forthcoming period drama] The Woman in White, where I looked like a cross between Quentin Crisp and my mother in a curly wig! I’m just about to do Godzilla: King of Monsters, which is different. I’d also like to direct another film. I just love the variety, I’m perhaps not as choosy as I might have been but I just want to keep working. Actors don’t retire because there would be nobody to play old wrinkly people; we have to keep going as long as we can.
I found out that my dad actually didn’t have me until he was 72!
Secret siblings: charles learned that he had two half-sisters
Who Do You Think You Are? THURSDAY / bbc1 / 9.00Pm
Military man: the actor’s father in uniform
charles’ mother eleanor and stepdad Harold calculating: As tywin lannister in Game of Thrones In 1984 series The Jewel in the Crown