How you perceive actor Phil Daniels will depend on your age. Those born in the 50s and 60s will remember his iconic film roles in Scum, the violent insight into young offenders in borstal, and as the disillusioned Mod, Jimmy Cooper, in Quadrophenia. The next generation will have caught up with Daniels’ film work in Goodbye Charlie Bright, and from TV, with the Only Fools and Horses prequels and a long stint in Eastenders. But unbeknown to those who are only aware of his screen output, Phil Daniels is a respected member of the theatre community. He has been working with the best scripts, the best actors and best companies for many years and it would not be out of order to describe him as a Shakespearean actor, writes Michael Holland.
I caught up with Mr Daniels during a break in rehearsals for his role as Charles Dickens in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter. You realise immediately that there is no side to him, he thinks of his craft as just a job and talks of people who ‘have their feet on the ground’, when meaning that they have no pomposity about them.
This seasoned actor began getting roles at a young age and pretty much continued working from then on. He felt school was there to hold people back and found that trips to the theatre, as well as performing in socially aware productions, was motivating for him. ‘I remember going to the Royal Court in the 70s, where work by young writers at the time were saying more to me about life,’ he recalls. ‘They seemed better for me than being told off by teachers,’ he laughs.
Being open to a different world must have had some impact on his subconscious mind. ‘I never really decided to be an actor,’ he begins, ‘but that’s what paid the rent, really, so I kept doing it.’ He jokes that even now he has still not decided if he wants to be an actor, and then relates a tale of when he was unemployed for a while after he had become famous: ‘That was all a bit weird, lining up to sign on the dole while signing autographs for people in the queue with me.’
Phil Daniels has never been afraid to have a go at something. He tells me how he refused a lot of film and TV roles that would have stereotyped him in order to go off to Exeter and play The Fool in King Lear. He has made albums with a band he formed and jumps at the chance of a musical – ‘I love songs and singing,’ he says candidly. There are so many aspects to his oeuvre that he cannot be pigeon-holed. And this man does not spend time over-thinking what he does, waving it all away with, ’it’s all part of the job.’ Which does not mean he doesn’t take his work seriously. It is evident that he does because of the level of the work that he continually gets cast in, and from his history with some of the best in the business. ‘When a good writer or director offers me a part,’ reveals one of London’s finest,’ I think, “That’s nice”, I must be doing something right.’
And that is all justified with Daniels’ casting as Charles Dickens in A Very Very Very Dark Matter. He says he was drawn to the play by the writer Martin McDonagh, whose illustrious career includes Oscar winner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and too many theatre awards to mention, and the attraction of working with director Matthew Dunster. As he tells it: ‘I thought, yeh, that’ll be good, I’ll enjoy doing that.’
I listened as he spoke of a real meeting of Dickens and Jim Broadbent’s character, Hans Christian Andersen, which has become a scene in the play, before he praised Broadbent (‘He’s a lovely fella and very enjoyable to work with… His feet are on the ground’). He continued with kind words on the children performing in the show (‘Austin is very good’).
‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter,’ he explains, is ‘complicated and very, very dark – but funny too.’ Black comedy seems to be the style of writer McDonagh, who Daniels says has been in rehearsals almost everyday observing and doing little rewrites when necessary. But because he and the director have collaborated before, I’m guessing his input is not intrusive but part of the evolution of the creativity surrounding this new work.
We wound the interview down with talk of the podcast he records about his beloved Chelsea – The Chels – and his hopes for the play: ‘I’d like to see people there who don’t usually go to the theatre as they will be in for a nice surprise.’
A Very Very Very Dark Matter is on at Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, Bermondsey, SE1 2SG from October 12th 2018 – January 6th 2019. Times: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm, Wednesday & Saturday 2.30pm. Admission: £15 – £65. Phone: 0333 320 0051