Leslie Grantham’s private life proved every bit as dramatic and incident-filled as that of pub landlord ‘Dirty’ Den Watts, the role that catapulted him to stardom virtually overnight in the BBC’s flagship soap, EastEnders.
From its inaugural episode in 1985, with Grantham saying its first line after breaking into a long-dead neighbour’s house, he was at the centre of the soap’s luridly gritty determination to challenge the cosy familiarity its venerable ITV competitor, Coronation Street, had taken refuge in.
At its peak, the Christmas Day episode in 1986 – when Grantham memorably served divorce papers on his wife (Anita Dobson) after an involved storyline of mutual infidelity and deception – it was watched by more than 30 million viewers, half of the population.
Grantham’s past caught up with him early in his EastEnders fame when the Sun revealed he had spent 10 years in jail for murder while serving with the Royal Fusiliers in Germany in 1966. Even so, he remained with the soap until 1989. Shortly after he returned to the show in 2003, he found himself embroiled in another scandal when webcam photographs of him performing sex acts were published in a Sunday newspaper. Dirty Den met his inevitable demise in February 2005.
Born in Camberwell, London, Grantham enlisted in the army in 1965 and began acting while serving his sentence in Leyhill Prison, Gloucestershire. On his release, he trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
He made an early professional appearance in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in 1981, but his stage career remained all but dormant until his success in EastEnders.
In 1991, he was seen reprising Humphrey Bogart’s iconic screen role in Rick’s Bar Casablanca at the Whitehall Theatre, of which The Stage noted: “He manages to smoke like Bogart… but his American accent is decidedly dodgy.” It closed after four weeks.
On tour, he was the titular vampire in Mickey O’Donoghue’s Dracula, or How’s Your Blood Count (1996), appeared alongside Roy Hudd in Eric Chappell’s Theft (2001), in an unconvincing adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (2002) and in Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2005). His most successful stage appearances were in nine pantomimes in the dual roles of Mr Darling and Captain Hook in Peter Pan, six of them with Joe Pasquale’s Smee.
More recently, he played Private Walker in two Dad’s Army spin-offs: The Lost Episodes (2008) and Dad’s Army Marches On (2010).
Other television credits included The Paradise Club (1989-90), children’s comedy Woof! (1992-95), Colonel Mustard in Cluedo (1993) and police drama 99-1 (1994-95).
In 1997, he co-produced the sci-fi thriller The Uninvited (in which he also played an alien policeman) and was co-host with Melinda Messenger of Channel 5’s gameshow Fort Boyard from 1998 to 2001. He published his autobiography, Life and Other Times, in 2006 and had been living in Bulgaria since 2013, where he appeared in a local television drama.
Leslie Michael Grantham was born on April 30, 1947, and died on June 15, aged 71.