Leslie Grantham: 'Every day for years I was on the front pages of the papers... it does cloud your vision'
His off-screen life was once almost as colourful as his EastEnders character 'Dirty Den', but now Leslie Grantham insists he has mellowed and moved on. Hannah Stephenson finds out about his latest chapter as a children's novelist
Looking tanned and healthy, sporting a navy Tommy Hilfiger shirt and beige chinos, actor Leslie Grantham, best known as shifty, adulterous former Queen Vic landlord 'Dirty Den' in EastEnders, has eased into his pensionable years well.
At 69, he says he's in "semi-retirement", and it's only his debut children's fantasy novel Jack Bates And The Wizard's Spell - aimed at 'kids from eight to 80' - which has lured him back into the media spotlight.
He was once a prime tabloid target - headline grabbers included his conviction for the murder of a German taxi driver when he was in the Army, verbal attacks on his co-stars and a notorious incident in which he exposed himself on a webcam to a 23-year-old undercover reporter (he later said he was set up).
But he remains philosophical about his misdemeanours.
"Life isn't a straight line. It's like travelling the motorway. Every now and then, you have to take a diversion. Unfortunately, some of my diversions have been quite catastrophic. But I'm safe in the knowledge that what I do now is good.
"Of course I have regrets, but you can't go round wearing a hair shirt all your life, otherwise you'll never get out of bed in the morning. I f***** up, now I'm going to move on."
Since his divorce from actress Jane Laurie in 2013 - they were married for 31 years and have three sons - Grantham seems to have almost disappeared from our screens. He left EastEnders 11 years ago, and since then he's done largely touring theatre work and panto.
He says he's mellowed in the last decade, and now enjoys nature walks in the countryside and admiring birds of the feathered variety.
He lives in Richmond, Surrey, and is currently single. "I've messed up so many people's lives, why mess up someone else's?" he says, half joking. "I don't get lonely because I have friends. And when I'm writing, that's the world I live in."
He remains tight-lipped about his divorce, ex-wife and children. "I've always tried to keep them out of the limelight and I don't want to draw attention to them," he says firmly.
He's much more vocal about his first children's novel, however, a fantasy tale chronicling the adventures of Jack Bates and his friends in the world of the OTHER, combining the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and the story of King Richard III with myth and legend, featuring faeries, pixies, dwarfs and trolls. He hopes it will be the first of a three-book chronicle.
So is this a new career as a novelist?
"I've always written, but I don't have much confidence. I've got half a dozen scripts half-finished. I've never read Harry Potter, but then I've never read Fifty Shades Of Grey, because the nearest thing to that was the Dulux colour chart, and there are only 40 (shades) on that."
Most of us, of course, still know Grantham as 'Dirty Den'. "I still get recognised for EastEnders," he admits. "People say, 'Hello Den, when are you going to get back in and sort that lot out?' I say, 'I've been killed twice', and they say, 'That doesn't matter. You're rubbish but you're better rubbish than they are'."
Grantham starred in the hit soap from 1985-89 and then returned from 2003-2005, leaving in the wake of the webcam scandal.
During this time, he also made hugely disparaging comments towards fellow cast members, branding Jessie Wallace (Kat Slater) 'a vile dog' and her screen husband Shane Richie 'big headed' and 'self-infatuated'.
Today, he's keen to move on, and says he's changed in the last decade.
"I haven't found religion. I haven't discovered God. I just feel happier with myself. For years, I was on the front pages of newspapers every day for whatever reason. It clouds your vision," he explains. "But I don't want to go into it and open up wounds that a whole generation doesn't know about."
He only catches EastEnders occasionally now, but clearly feels the show is not what it once was.
"Julia Smith and Tony Holland created a series which was a microcosm of what was happening in the rest of the country. Over the years, it's now become 'The Krays'. You expect violence. People still say to me, 'We hated you but you made us laugh'. In the bits I've seen, there are tough guys and there are comedy characters and the two don't interweave.
"With Den and Angie (Anita Dobson played Den's wife), one minute he'd make you laugh, the next he'd cut your legs off. There was humour. Everyone thought Den was a lovable rogue. He wasn't evil, he was just Jack the lad.
"When he came back a second time, he suddenly became this Machiavellian character. I'm not saying it was better when I was in it, but when you're doing four episodes a week, you can't keep up that level of consistency."
Today, he prefers to watch old movies and football. He has no desire to rejoin a soap and barely keeps in touch with his old co-stars.
Did the webcam incident close a lot of doors?
"Not that I noticed, but then again, I was probably in such a mindset that I wouldn't have noticed even if I'd been run down by a lorry. It suddenly dawns on you that you've made a terrible mistake..."
He says he's still offered plenty of TV work, but turns down a lot.
"I'm usually offered the same types of roles, and I can do gangsters standing on my head. I'm not a gangster. I'm at retiring age. In any other business, you retire at 65. I've got to the point where I don't want to work 52 weeks a year. If this book is a success, fine. If it isn't, I'll carry on doing something else."
He's been offered reality shows many times too - but isn't interested. "It's not reality TV, it's humiliation TV. Why would I want to humiliate myself more than I already have?"
He says he can afford to pick and choose, contrary to reports that he ended up living in friends' spare rooms after his divorce.
"Sadly, we had the divorce and that's down to me. My wife is a fantastic mother, it doesn't matter how acrimonious or non-acrimonious the divorce was, she was a fantastic mother and she was a fantastic wife. But things happen. You've got to deal with it and get on with it. I was very lucky that I had friends who supported me."
A victim of phone-hacking, Grantham was one of a clutch of celebrities who settled claims with News International in 2013.
For now, he's in the less high-profile world of the novelist, and is already thinking about the second book. He writes wherever he is, whether at home or on his iPad.
"The only thing I haven't got is a Pokemon Go and I don't want one of those. I grew up with The Famous Five.
"What I've tried to do is inform, educate and entertain," he adds of his book.
"If it's not a success, I'll write something else. I can't sit and watch Escape To The Country and Flog It! all day."
Jack Bates And The Wizard's Spell by Leslie Grantham is published by Mambi Books, £7.99