Danny Dyer is best known for low-budget, critically reviled films and has a reputation (whether deserved or otherwise) for a particularly misogynistic style of laddism. He is also known for his expletive laden outbursts and self-confessed drug use, so he may not seem like the most obvious casting choice for the BBC’s flagship soap opera. Dyer’s cinematic output since his debut as drug-dealing wide-boy, Moff, in Human Traffic (Justin Kerrigan, 1999) has been prolific: he has appeared in over 40 films and a number of television series including Casualty, Hollyoaks Later, Foyles War and Hotel Babylon. But despite amassing an impressive number of outputs, Dyer’s film work has been subjected to considerable disdain by critics including Mark Kermode and The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage – the latter describing Dyer as “a cut price Ray Winstone, a Baby-Kray for the Nuts generation,” who has become “a by-word for low-budget, no-quality Brit Trash cinema.” Given the opprobrium routinely heaped upon Dyer’s work it is easy to forget that, alongside the likes of Run For Your Wife (which took under £700 on its opening weekend), Dyer has also worked with Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, and the two, famously, formed a close bond despite their differences. Dyer himself readily acknowledges his divisive status – he is, in his own words, ‘either a legend or a joke.’ Indeed, the amount of material he inspires is impressive – the YouTube parody ‘Danny Dire’ sending up his performance as the presenter of The Real Football Factoriesis a particularly good example of his subcultural status.
As someone who is primarily interested in questions of gender and culture in recent British media history it is, perhaps, inevitable that Dyer should come to my attention. Indeed, for many years the contradictory nature of his star image has intrigued and fascinated me; his output, which ranges from the reviled, low-budget gangster movie to the Pinter plays, the critical reception of his work which is at odds with his popularity but most of all, it is his celebrity persona which fascinates me. From the plethora of YouTube clips featuring Dyer (such as the recent haiku videos, his chats with fellow hard man actor Frank Harper) to his status as a gay pin-up, an icon of all that is reviled in working class British lad culture to his position as a father of two young girls. These various aspects of Dyer’s public persona sit, often incongruously, alongside one another. His deliberately unpolished vernacular provides a convincing performance of his working class authenticity and his distance from his media-trained PR savvy peers – even if it does backfire on occasion, as the Zoo magazine debacle aptly demonstrates.
So, when it was announced that Dyer was not just going to be in Eastenders but was coming in as the new landlord for the Queen Vic, I was keen to see what he would bring to the show; as an academic who has watched a considerable number of his films (even the really bad ones!) and argued, along with Johnny Walker, that the critical reception surrounding Dyer is more about cultural snobbery than his talent as an actor. It is not surprising that the press reaction to the news that Danny Dyer was joining the crew of Eastenders was mixed. Mark Kermode took the opportunity to take another swipe at Dyer, proclaiming that he hoped the workload of the show would curtail Dyer’s cinematic activities while Grace Dent welcomed the news, dismissing the double standards of ‘middle-class socialists who spend all day tub-thumping about the working classes but feel bilious if they actually have to look at them.’ The wider public online fora were similarly split between those who felt that Dyer would bring a much needed authenticity to the flailing soap and those who saw his arrival as signalling a new low for the show. Both sides awaited the Christmas Day unveiling of the Carter family and their notorious patriarch.
Like many people brought up in Britain since the 1980s, I have grown up with Eastenders and have had an intermittent viewing relationship with the show. Fond memories of Den and Angie (and poodle, Roly), Frank and Pat or Phil and Grant persist, but for the last few years I have watched only sporadically and the storylines have failed to engage me in the same way. It would seem that I was not alone in this and it was the falling audience figures for the show which inspired in-coming producer, Dominic Treadwell-Collins, to take a different approach to the programme.
The publicity released in the run up to the arrival of the Carter clan focused very much on Dyer whose character, Mick, was described as ‘a bloke’s bloke with a soft heart’ – an apparent shift away from the harder masculinities associated with the previously dominant Mitchell family but with a harder edge than incumbent landlord, Alfie Moon. In interviews released in the run up to his debut appearance, Dyer spoke about how he hoped to bring a degree of ‘authenticity’ back to the show – drawing on his own upbringing as an East End lad and expounding on his life experiences would help to form the character he plays. Coming shortly on the back of his appearance as a gangster figure in Hollyoaks Later I was relieved to see that his role in Eastenders was looking like taking a different direction and not falling back on the predictable hard man shtick for which he has become so well known.
This change in direction is in keeping with the wider shifts in Dyer’s celebrity persona over the last 12 months or so. Indeed, it seems that since the 2010 Zoo magazine debacle, Danny Dyer has been on a mission to distance himself from the more controversial aspects of his celebrity image and his character on Eastenders continues in this vein. In many ways, Dyer’s character, Mick, marks something of a new venture for the soap, providing a rare example of a father figure who is not dysfunctional, neglectful, abusive or hapless. As Dyer explains in an interview in the Radio Times ‘I’m one of the first to come in and be a really good parent. I think that was what was needed. Plus they used the perception of what I am known for and spun it on its head.’ Aside from seeing Dyer don a frilly pink dressing gown, the highlight for many has been the storyline in which the Carter’s son, Johnny (Sam Strike) reveals that he is gay. While Linda refused to accept her son’s sexuality, dad, Mick, was supportive and caring. In what has arguably been one of Dyer’s strongest scenes thus far, Mick holds Johnny, comforting and reassuring him. This storyline sparked something of a Twitterstorm on Dyer’s oft-trolled page as a number of homophobic messages were posted. When Dyer responded in his inimitable style the press quickly latched on to the story but it seemed that the one-time bad boy had finally found favour with journalists and the reporting of the whole affair was very firmly on Dyer’s side. The changed tone seems to mark a significant change in the way in which Dyer is being seen by the popular press and it would seem, thus far, that despite the apparent incongruous casting, Danny Dyer seems to be working well for Eastenders; even the acerbic Charlie Brooker had to concede that rather than watching Eastenders in order to laugh at Dyer ‘I was watching Eastenders because of Danny Dyer.’ As Dyer continues to settle into the routine of life in Albert Square stories of his on-set high-jinx continue to come out but it would seem that he is, at last, on the verge of being accepted as more than just an uncouth lout who got lucky.
Sarah Godfrey is a Lecturer in Film, Television and Media at the University of East Anglia. She teaches and researches around questions of gender and sexuality in British film and television.