Leslie Grantham goes abroad to star in a Bulgarian TV Show
He became known around the world for starring as Dirty Den in EastEnders.
But now after leaving the BBC soap, actor Leslie Grantham is trying his luck in a new Bulgarian miniseries called The English Neighbour.
Grantham's new show, which premieres in Bulgaria next week, comes as the actor slammed British television for being too 'celebrity-obsessed'. 'TV used to be like newspapers, but now it's all frivolous, celebrity lose weight, celebrity change your wardrobe,' he told told Gabriel Hershman at the Sofia Echo.
'If you offer a starving man dog poo, he's going to eat it. They've been told they should watch it and so they do'We now have satellite TV - about 200 channels - but, as my wife says, "All you look at is old movies and football".'
Grantham - who quit as crooked Den Watts when he left Albert Square to go back on the stage - plays a retired chemist trying to make a new life for himself in the country where thousands of Britons have settled.
The 64-year-old is the only non-Bulgarian cast member in the show where he plays John, a Brit obsessed with living the simple life in his new country.
And when the debut episode is broadcast on Bulgaria's BNT channel next week, he will be speaking a mixture of Bulgarian and English - with the English dialogue subtitled in Bulgarian. Talking about the script, Grantham told the Bulgarian newspaper: 'At first I thought it was a British series being filmed in Bulgaria, but then they told me it was actually a Bulgarian series and I would be the only English person in it.'
In the series Grantham sets up home in the fictional village of Plodorodno and soon starts rubbing his neighbours up the wrong way.
The star - who swaps Den's sharp suits for bib and brace overalls and a baseball cap - is soon set upon by scheming locals. And, in these new pictures from the soap, Grantham's character is seen trying to fit in with his new neighbours while others show him clowning about with other cast members on the set. A set insider explained: 'There's a local femme fatale who definitely wants to cement international relations with him, an ex communist who is convinced he's a spy and he still gets in the odd scrape with the law, a bit like Albert Square.
The English Neighbour: Grantham is the only English actor in the new soap
'He even becomes a regular down the local bar that passes for the Queen Vic. But he's a lovely guy and a real professional. Most of the time he hasn't really got a clue what any of the other actors are saying but it doesn't seem to bother him.'
Grantham explained: 'I have to learn the script in English first to get the emotions right. Then I have to learn the same lines in Bulgarian.
'It's strange being the only English actor on the set. There's a part of me that doesn't want to let the English side down.'Then there's a part of me that doesn't want to let down the Bulgarian side, so when I do screw up I get upset with myself.'
As the star of Britain's biggest TV drama, Grantham once pulled in a record breaking 30.15 million viewers for the Christmas Day episode in 1986 where Den served divorce papers on wife Angie.
Now local critics are wondering if his new series will make any impact on local telly ratings.
One critic said: 'It's very unusual to have a character speaking English.
'People sort of know who he is but he isn't really a star over here. Not yet, anyway.'
Love interest? It seems Grantham's character becomes interested in a local girl
On set of The English Neighbour
Interview with Leslie from The Sofia Echo
For a man who has battled more than his share of demons, actor Leslie Grantham sounds extremely cheerful. The man you love to hate – the JR Ewing of Walford – Eastenders hardman "Dirty Den" whose life triggered a media frenzy in the late 1980s, is serene, content and almost boyishly excited about his time in Bulgaria.
Grantham is here filming The English Neighbour, based on a popular novel by Bulgarian writer Mikhail Veshim, about a British retiree who moves to a Bulgarian village.
A month after his arrival and the Wimbledon-based actor, now 63, is still raving about the beauty of the countryside and the joy of being in a place where, he says, everyone seems to be smiling.
Grantham did two stints on Eastenders, interspersed with roles in other hit series like The Paradise Club (with his close friend, the late Don Henderson) and sci-fi series The Uninvited.
He was the first TV actor to break the mould – to use soap stardom as a springboard to greater heights. He's now been killed off twice in Eastenders and – sorry to disappoint Dirty Den devotees out there – there will be no third coming, despite public requests to resuscitate his corpse. In any case, the treadmill of work on a long-running soap is simply not to Grantham's taste.
Eastenders may have wilted somewhat in its quarter of a century on the box – I admit to not being an avid viewer, then again neither is our subject nowadays – but perhaps Grantham, more than anyone else, has entered British TV soap immortality.
Who can forget "Den" serving divorce papers on wife Angie (Anita Dobson) in the Queen Vic pub in a Christmas episode from 1986 that pulled an incredible 30 million punters? Back then it was compulsive viewing. Some actors were truly superb, notably Bill Treacher as hapless Arthur Fowler, the unemployed lost soul reduced to watching daytime kiddies' programmes.
Some of its stars – like Grantham and Dobson – became household names and went on to even better things. Others went back to the semi-obscurity from whence they came – and that was no reflection on their acting ability. As Grantham says, so much of an acting career is built on luck.
"I was working with a fantastic bunch of people, (the late) Wendy Richard, Susan Tully and June Brown," says Grantham, reflecting on the early days of Eastenders. "Back then it was only two episodes a week. Now it's three, so people can now dip in and out because story-lines come round much faster."
Grantham could almost certainly have stayed in Eastenders for many more years but he wanted to broach pastures anew. He understands why soap actors may like the security of steady income but that kind of routine was not for him.
"Personally, I could never work in a nine-to-five job. I like to do different things. At one point there was part of me that thought – 'I can do this standing on my head, two shows a week' but then I realised it wouldn't be good for me."
The media transformed Grantham into a kind of Michael Caine of the small screen. The tabloids went berserk, raking up everything they could about the private lives of Eastenders' actors.
"When you've got an insatiable beast like the UK public who want to devour everything about everybody on TV, you supply a sausage machine that's going to churn that out," says Grantham. "In the old days, journalists exposed serious issues. Now it's all about who's sleeping with who. TV used to be like newspapers; news was the main thing, especially on the BBC. There would be some light entertainment but also a lot of serious stuff. Now it's all frivolous, celebrity lose weight, celebrity change your wardrobe..."
"Aren't people fed up with that garbage?" I suggest.
"I think everyone is," says Grantham.
"Then who's watching it?"
"If you offer a starving man dog pooh, he's going to eat it," says Grantham, not entirely unreasonably. "They've been told they should watch it and so they do; it's moving wallpaper for the eyes. We now have satellite TV – about 200 channels – but, as my wife says, 'all you look at is old movies and football'."
Grantham surprises with some illuminating political insight. According to him, it's all a ploy by the British establishment to keep the masses malleable.
"It goes back to Thatcher. She decided we should have TV 24 hours a day, straight after the poll tax demonstrations. It kept people quiet because they were always watching TV! It also turned people into couch potatoes and stopped them going out and exercising, hence we don't have a decent football team!"
In the public eye
Nothing spreads fame faster than the small box in the corner, perhaps even more so 25 years ago in pre-internet days. Grantham reacts well when fans approach him but admits he'd be a bit wary of going to a place like Sunny Beach for fear of being stopped every five minutes and asked for a photo.
"As an actor you have to be thankful for small mercies. It's better for people to appreciate what you've done. It must be terrible for people who are much better actors than me who've done fantastic stuff at the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company and walk around and nobody knows who they are. Appearing in a soap opera doesn't always help your career. Oscar James, for example, (who played Tony Carpenter) did great stuff at The Royal Court but ended up as a cab driver. I'm the most successful person from my year at drama school but I'm certainly not the most talented. It's all about luck," he says.
Camberwell-born Grantham trained at the Webber Douglas drama school. The day after his graduation, he got a job playing a cockney character, followed by a stage tour and a trip to India to film an episode of Jewel in the Crown. The director gave me some good advice: 'You're going to be a big star on TV. Just be yourself, that's the best asset you have.'" And Grantham, as he admits, HAS indeed been blessed. In a career spanning 30 years he's only had five months' unemployment.
After his success in Eastenders, was he, I wonder, ever tempted to try his luck in the US?
"American Vogue magazine once wanted to do an article on me. I refused but maybe that was a mistake. But at the end of the day there are thousands of better actors than me in Hollywood. I'm now happy to be just a jobbing actor," he says.
Stage and scribbles
Recently Grantham wrote his (unghosted) autobiography, reaching a quarter of a million words at one point, before editing.
"I went with a small publisher. I don't want to be manipulated. It certainly opened a few doors in my head. I was doing a Jeffrey Archer play (Beyond Reasonable doubt) and during the day it was pretty empty and so I filled it with writing. I found writing to be quite addictive."
Grantham's most recent part in the UK was a tour of Dad's Army, playing Private Walker, the spiv role made famous by the late James Beck in the classic comedy. It was then that he had a phone call asking him if he wanted to do a TV series in Bulgaria.
"At first I thought it was a British series being filmed in Bulgaria, but then they told me it was actually a Bulgarian series and I would be the only English person in it. When it was first mooted, two years ago, Ben Cross was actually the first choice. Then the money went away. When the money re-appeared, Ben was working on something else and he suggested me."
He and Cross have mutual friends in common but they met for the first time on the set of The English Neighbour very recently.
In the series Grantham plays a retired chemist, married to a Bulgarian, who comes to live in the remote fictional village of Plodorodno. (In reality, filming takes place near Elin Pelin.) "Well, at my age you don't want to be jumping around and getting run down by cars, do you?" he asks.
Grantham describes The English Neighbour as "a lighthearted look at foreigners buying property". Naturally, there's room for all kinds of wry observations on an outsider in a Bulgarian village, including suspicions by an ex-communist that he is a member of MI6.
"My character is totally fixated with Bulgaria. He comes out early on his own to do all the paperwork. The village is a strange place; it thinks it's English. There's even one chap, named Noki, who wants to change his name to Nottingham Forest, so when an Englishman turns up, they think it's great. My character wants to go back to traditional Bulgarian ways, planting my own vegetables and doing everything myself. The other villagers think I'm a bit mad."
Falling in love
Perhaps surprisingly, Grantham comes to speak some Bulgarian in the series. "I start off subtitled and then I speak Bulgarian, so it's a natural progression for my character." Grantham claims that "acting is the easiest thing in the world" but concedes that the language dimension brought new challenges, notwithstanding help from language coaches.
"I have to learn the script in English first to get the emotions right. Then I have to learn the same lines in Bulgarian. Usually there's one word that screws me up. It's strange being the only English actor on the set. There's a part of me that doesn't want to let the English side down. Then there's a part of me that doesn't want to let down the Bulgarian side, so when I do screw up I get upset with myself."
Doing the series has made Grantham all the more aware of the appeal of Bulgaria to Brits fleeing the rat race.
"We did a sequence last night, sitting under the night sky. In the scene my 'wife' and I were talking and she asks me what we are doing in this strange country. My character points to the stars and explains that he's doing what he always wanted to do."
A similar programme in the UK, Grantham feels, would not work purely because the immigrant theme has no novelty value in a country where there has been such an influx of foreigners. Hence, The Ethiopian Neighbour or Polish Neighbour wouldn't be viable. "It's unique to a country like this that is suddenly on the radar screen to people with a bit of money," he says.
Grantham's hectic schedule did not permit him to bring his wife and children to Sofia. But, fear not, he has fallen in love – with Bulgaria.
"The first morning I stepped outside and saw Nevsky and the Parliament building – the eclectic mix of architecture. The English assume that any former communist country must be a third world country and, yes, it's a developing nation, but it's also so peaceful here. I don't want to sound like a travelogue for the holiday channel, but I think it's great."
Grantham has another few weeks of filming in Bulgaria. By the sound of it, he may be open to more offers in Bulgaria...
The English Neighbour will be shown on Bulgarian National Television in 2011.