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The Dyer Strait: how Danny plots a course to our hearts

·5-min read
Dyer is one of the most aspirational figures in light entertainment (Shutterstock/BBC)
Dyer is one of the most aspirational figures in light entertainment (Shutterstock/BBC)

Eleven years ago, the actor Danny Dyer presented a documentary for BBC Three called Danny Dyer: I Believe In UFOs, in which he went on a quest to find one. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with him. Does it border on obsession? I was certainly excited when I met him in Moss Bros on Regent Street. Dyer might not have the Baftas or the big Hollywood parts, but he is one of the most aspirational figures in light entertainment. Few men better encapsulate the anxieties of the 21st-century British male. Deep down, many of us would like to be more Dyer: eloquent, fluent in slang, sensitive when the occasion requires and able to mix it on the terraces. He doesn’t take himself seriously but is capable of seriousness, navigating a narrow channel between ridiculousness and self-parody that we might call the Dyer Strait.

At 43, in early middle age, Dyer has already landed a rare double sinecure. He’s into his eighth year playing Mick Carter on EastEnders, and onto the fourth series of The Wall, his BBC One gameshow. If you’ve missed it so far, it’s a solid addition to the Saturday night canon. Contestants must negotiate a series of question-and-answer rounds while accumulating a cash prize. Looming in the centre of the studio is the titular Wall, a kind of 50ft multimedia feature voiced by Angela Rippon. Dyer, our host, admiringly refers to this edifice as “the biggest opponent on television”. At times, The Wall serves as a big screen, but its main function is to provide an element of chance amid the trivia. Balls drop down through a grid of pinball-style bumpers, darting this way and that. They have the power to reward or punish, to bestow a quid or 10,000 quid. In Dyer’s words: “The wall gives, and the wall takes away.”

It’s another surprising departure for Dyer in a career that has always kept us on our toes. Second-guessing his next turn is a fool’s errand. You might as well pick a part for Tilda Swinton. He is one of the more enigmatic figures in British entertainment, all the more so for his patina of cockney bravado. In The Wall, he hams it up as a kind of mafioso ringmaster, all slicked back hair and double-breasted jackets. Men are “geezers”, hard work is “graft”, money is “readies”. He’s also up on his mental health. “I like a bit of yoga, me,” he says. “It’s good for the nut, yoga.” Like Noel Edmonds on Deal or No Deal, Dyer adopts the persona of a kind of Cumaean Sibyl, sympathetic to the contestants but wary of the fates arrayed against them. He’s not beyond directing his frustration towards the Wall itself. “Give us loads of readies, you mug!” he shouts. He has ongoing fun with the word “ball”.

A common view of Dyer is that although he’s blessed with wit, charm and gravitas, he also benefitted from a stroke of outrageous luck at the start of his career when Harold Pinter took him under his wing. The Nobel laureate cast Dyer in a new play, Celebration, in 2000. This irreducible early credibility has underpinned Dyer’s subsequent work, from the hooligan-chic films like Football Factory and Mean Machine to his stint on EastEnders. His controversies, as in 2010 when he appeared to use an agony uncle column to encourage domestic violence, are written off as a bit of roughness around the edges, an unfortunate part of the lovable tame-geezer package.

It does the man a disservice. In the minefield of class resentment that is modern Britain, Dyer can switch codes with the best of them. The gruffness is vital. If you send Dyers to public school, you end up with Alexander Armstrong. Versatile but toothless. Nobody who saw Dyer’s assassination of David Cameron in 2018 will ever forget it. Sitting with Piers Morgan and Susannah Reid, across the table from Jeremy Corbyn and – somewhat surprisingly – Pamela Anderson, Dyer echoed the thoughts of the nation when he said that nobody actually knew what Brexit was and complained that David Cameron was in Nice “with his trotters up”. There are political journalists who’ll go their whole lives without coming up with a phrase that evocative. His episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the best in the whole series. Having discovered, tears in his eyes, that he is directly descended from Edward III, he announces that he is going to “treat [himself] to a ruff”. A build-up of emotion, dispelled with calculated irreverence.

It doesn’t stop there. Everything I want to do, Dyer has already done. He’s played a character in two Grand Theft Autos. He has advocated for drugs legalisation, admitting to his own use: “I’ve always taken drugs and I probably always will, but there’s a difference between having the odd crafty bump up the snout as a reward for a job well done and letting it rule your life.” Other writers fantasise about being that honest in print. As his daughter, unimprovably named Dani, triumphed on Love Island in 2015, her old man played the part of the protective father to perfection. While we might have laughed at Danny when he believed in UFOs, we weren’t laughing last month when Barack Obama revealed that the US government keeps a dossier on them.

Who’s to say where his two-pronged assault on BBC One will end? Male national treasures are thin on the ground. Provided Danny keeps his snout clean – or cleanish, according to his own policy – his future status is assured. Like one of the balls tumbling down the Wall, there’s no way to know where he’ll go next. Wherever he ends up, I believe in him.

‘The Wall’ returns to BBC One at 7.55pm on Saturday 12 June

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