CHARLES Dance is relishing his role in a new TV drama about a politician with principles... he just wishes today’s real-life Westminster players were cut from the same cloth, hears Lisa Williams
With “Plebgate” still ringing in our ears like a bicycle bell, now is not a good time to be chief whip. Unless you’re Charles Dance, of course, who is playing a fictional one in Secret State, a new Channel 4 drama which the 66-year-old actor describes as “rather good”.
But Dance says his character in the latest adaptation of former MP Chris Mullin’s book, A Very British Coup, is not cut from the same cloth as the recently resigned Andrew Mitchell.
“I don’t think he’s the kind of man to ride on his bicycle through the gates and abuse policemen, that’s for sure,” says Dance, projecting his voice down the phone like a true thespian.
The actor – known to viewers of a certain age for his swoonsome role in 1980s serial The Jewel In The Crown, and to recent converts for playing Lord Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones – plays Downing Street official John Hodder. He is a shady character who helps manoeuvre his colleague Tom Dawkins (played by Gabriel Byrne) into the top job when the prime minister’s aeroplane crashes in mysterious circumstances.
“John is very much a kind of father figure to him, and there’s not much going on that he doesn’t know about,” says Dance. “He’s always there, hovering around, offering advice and making sure Tom doesn’t put a foot wrong, and he doesn’t mince his words.”
The conspiracy drama, which kicked off with a nuclear explosion destroying a Teesside school – and many of its pupils – does not pull any punches, and explores such pressing issues as state surveillance, terrorism and corporate responsibility.
Dance, for one, hopes it will make viewers ask questions about what is going on. “I’m always intrigued,” he says, by way of example, “whether there’s much we do that Big Brother doesn’t know about.
“I suspect what came out of the Leveson Inquiry about people’s phones being hacked by tabloid newspapers is pretty small fry compared to what goes on at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).”
The Redditch-born actor makes no bones about his own political views, which he describes as “very left of centre”.
“I don’t really like what’s going on at the moment. The wrong people are having to pay for what the right people did, and the recent debacle with the railway franchise? It takes your breath away, really,” he says.
Though Byrne’s character in Secret State is a politician with principles who believes in open government, Dance reveals that he believes there are no such credible characters in Westminster.
Is there absolutely no-one he admires?
“Not really, darling, no,” he says. “They don’t inspire one very much, any of them, and I think it’s a great shame. If there was a lot more to Boris than rather amusing bluster he might be a likely candidate but he’s just very good entertainment value at the moment.”
Speaking of entertainment value, Dance provided some of his own a couple of months back on bawdy chat show Ronna & Beverly.
The usually reserved actor was put in the hot seat and subjected to the comedy duo’s trademark intimate line of questioning, and Jewish housewife “Beverly” appeared to be particularly titillated by his presence.
“They’re mad as snakes those two,” recalls Dance with a hearty “har, har, har” laugh.
Perhaps because he has a voice made to be projected to the back of the National Theatre, and enough gravitas to make you quake in your boots, Dance is not often asked to do comedy.
“In this business you are what you’re seen to be. If you’re seen to be austere or villainous that’s what you tend to be offered, and we have bills to pay so we tend to say yes, unless there’s money in the bank to say no,” he says.
This is a shame, as one suspects Dance has a mischievous side …
“Oh God yes, darling!” he confirms. “I have got to the age where I don’t care very much any more.”
So luckily for him, off the back of his guest appearance on Ronna & Beverly, he was cast in a short comedy film for Channel 4 called Bad Grandad.
“He’s a retired rock’n’roll tour manager and it was so far removed from what I’m normally asked to do, so I couldn’t say no and I had a hoot doing it,” he says.
Next up, he’s shooting two Australian films and is also hoping to finance two films of his own. Dance went behind the camera for 2004’s Ladies In Lavender, a film which brought together Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, and of which he is immensely proud.
“It was a film with no dramatic car chases, no enormous stunts, no rumpy pumpy,” he recalls. “It sat on the circuit for a few weeks, it was one of the few films that made money for the British Film Institute and is a stocking-filler for everybody’s maiden aunt and grandmother.”
He’ll be back in Belfast next year to film the next series of Game of Thrones and has no plans at all to slow down.
“I used to share an agent with John Gielgud and in his 90s he was phoning our agent and saying, ‘Hello, Johnny Gielgud here, any work?’ Now that’s fantastic,” says Dance, “Har, har, har.”