The Curious, Magnificent Englishness of Danny Dyer
An ode to an actor whose greatest role is himself.
Illustrations by Dan Evans
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Imagine explaining Danny Dyer to an American. "So he's, like, a joke person?" He is not a joke person. "But he is, he is an East London kinda guy?" He is all of East London, distilled crystalline into one single utterance of the word "slags." You're reading "slags" in his voice. You always do. Read this in Danny Dyer's voice: a tiny Danny Dyer lives inside your fucking head, doing your tart nut in.
But who is Danny Dyer? Danny Dyer believes in aliens, so let's go with this analogy: aliens land on earth, hovering over Essex, bright lights and high sounds, and they hover over Danny Dyer's house—the kind of house, you imagine, that has those plastic covers on the sofas; the kind of house that has a gnome outside it and a rain-soiled box from a big new TV that Danny Dyer has not phoned the council to dispose of yet—and Danny Dyer cockney-walks outside, and he goes, "Here, aliens," and the aliens go, "Who are you?" And Danny Dyer adjusts his one-size-too-small Superdry leather jacket and he goes, "I'm Danny Dyer, aren't I?" and the aliens go, "But we don't know who that is," and Danny Dyer goes: oh.
Because you can't imagine Danny Dyer has really had to explain who he is to anyone in England for the past 16 or so years, since Human Traffic gave him his first big career break at the age of 22. You cannot imagine he'd need to on the Costa del Sol, either, or anywhere else where clots of British ex-pats assemble on plastic garden furniture outside pubs that are open till 2 AM. Danny Dyer appeals to all of us, yes, but most especially to that curious sub-section of the British public who, if they saw Paul Gascoigne in a pub, would buy him a pint. He seems like he would gladly pose for photo after photo with wave after wave of brassy nans, always doing the same weak, single-handed thumbs up, struggling to close his hand into a fist properly because of that one time he punched a wall and put a knuckle out.
Because he's salt of the earth, isn't he, Danny Dyer; he's one of us. And he's one of us in that honest way that Britain appreciates these days. Take your TOWIE cast members: sold to us as real people with real lives and fake weaves, they are like real people on reality steroids, muscular bulls of reality to Dyer's streamlined colt. You take a Gemma Collins, for example: Gemma Collins's life is that of a pantomime dame making an especially angry entrance into a Hell in a Cell match, forever. But she is sold to us—with her range of kaftans, and her autobiography, and her tan—as real: People look at her and go, "She's very real, and that's why I too will buy her broad-sized For Her range of muumuus, because I too like pasta and shouting, for I, also, am real." But she isn't real. She is a projection of a person shouted in front of an actual person. She is a cartoon supervillain that somehow managed to step out of the frame and the Toy Story toys are currently trying to figure out how to take her batteries out and, ultimately, kill her. But Danny Dyer just is.
Again, try explaining the following iconic tweet to an American: "Can't believe it's been nearly 11 years since them slags smashed into the twin towers it still freaks my nut out to this day." Unpackage: The word "slags" is spat instead of typed, Dyer's contempt for the terrorists responsible for the disaster evident like saliva in the sand; "freaks my nut out to this day" is Dyer's way of saying that the clumsy, basic implements of the English language are not fine enough tools to fully describe the enormity of the World Trade Center's collapse. There is the unsaid, too: back when he tweeted it in 2012, Dyer's unique memorial was made on September 10, a day before the traditional worldwide remembrance. The timing begs the question: How often does Danny Dyer sit alone on a sofa in his conservatory and just freak his nut out over 9/11? Where does he find the time?
A theory: Danny Dyer has the time to freak his nut out over 9/11 so much because, crucially, he doesn't even act any more. He lives Danny Dyer, he breathes him. Danny Dyer is so Danny Dyer that you just assume producers are writing "A Danny Dyer type" in lieu of actual character names, actual character descriptions. And Danny Dyer just goes there and gives it two barrels of Danny Dyer. If previously he was a parody of himself, he's now become something more inescapable: typecast, forever, as himself. Danny Dyer's existence reads, from the top down, like a punishment from an especially pernicious Greek God: chained to a red hot rock in a deep echelon of hell, cursed to be Danny Dyer, forever.
The answer, as he's found for the last year, is to embrace it: to play Danny Dyer on EastEnders, swaggering alpha male-like to the top of the show's roster as Queen Vic landlord Mick Carter. Your mom likes him now. Your mom's biggest fantasy is to have Danny Dyer sprawled across her sofa, and she brings him a cup of tea, and he turns to her with a cheeky wink and says, "Thank you, darling." Depending on how freaky your mom is, she might be imagining him calling her a "dopey tart," but the basics are always the same: Danny Dyer, sprawled on the sofa in some neat jeans and a long-sleeved polo, holding out his two savage hands to take the cup of tea, happily accepting a biscuit. Mums up and down the country dream in unison of such erotic frisson. "Got any bourbons going?" he's shouting through to the kitchen. "No, but I've got some Cadbury Fingers!" The scene has to end there.
Nobody would have seen his career pan out like this. At 22, Dyer was Harold Pinter's protégé of sorts—he cast him in Celebration at the Almeida, and again in The Homecoming. His early film career was a string of bangers—brutal and twitchy in The Football Factory, cherubically violent in The Business—and his Deadliest Men documentaries, where Dyer would turn up to some renowned gangster's gaff in a double-collared polo shirt and then go out for a grim drive and a game of pool, played to his strengths. Then there were a few swings, a few misses, a few films called Pimp about a pimp, a few straight-to-DVD Tamer Hassan team-ups, a few projects where the tagline might as well have been "Danny Dyer Did Not Expect His Latest Tax Bill," and a slow slide into perpetually playing himself. Then, the much-derided, not-much-watched career nadir of Run For Your Wife, Dyer's Tyson-at-the-Tokyo-Dome moment: Dyer, cocky and out-of-shape, flat on his back in the tenth round, staring at the stars while Neil Morrissey peers over him like a surprised toddler.
With the right role, Dyer could've been a contender. Vinnie Jones has a Hollywood career, for fuck's sake. He resisted the lure of EastEnders for years—EastEnders is quicksand, it pulls you in—surely in the hope that a blockbuster would happen, that he could string some high-paying, low-working projects together, that he could be the go-to whenever Hollywood needs someone hard and exotically accented. If Vinnie Jones can stand in front of the world and say, "I'M THE JUGGERNAUT, BITCH," what's so outlandish about Danny Dyer, in a full robot suit that still allows him to walk like he's smuggling an assfull of cocaine into a Kasabian gig, grittily calling Iron Man a slag?
Because he has the chops— in the introduction to 2010's BBC Three madumentary I Believe in UFOs, Dyer is pure, jolting, movie star charisma: he looks like he's just bowled into the middle of Epping Forest from some gakageddon in Camden, his head tilting, his jaw clicking, nothing but contempt for the fine art of TV presenting; acting the part, not playing it. "My name's Danny Dyer," he snarls. "And I believe in UFOs."
Instead, he stays back and slowly takes the long route to national treasurehood. Last week, Dyer made two-part headlines: firstly, for accepting when his partner of 20 years proposed to him; then, for absolutely ruining Katie Hopkins—the closest thing we have to a spluttering, hateful, right-wing Fox News opinionator here in the UK—when she went after him for it. "I agree," he said, when Hopkins questioned why any woman would want to propose to a man so gruff and squinty, "especially when ya face should be on the side of a gothic building... have a nice day ya daft sexist ya."
The UniLAD caliphate quickly rallied to the side of Dyer, as, really, did most people who saw the exchange. Because you would, wouldn't you? On one side, Hopkins—all bluster and pretense, opinions loaded like bombs and flung into the general atmosphere, hoping one hits hard enough to garner her another appearance on This Morning, the ouroboros of modern media; and then you have Danny Dyer, who's so honest he's basically a caricature of himself. "I've always taken drugs and I probably always will," he said, in his 2010 autobiography Straight Up. "It's not like I'm a Blue Peter presenter is it?" The man has a figure 8-shaped astroturf lawn at home, is how much he hates a grass. He is as straightforward as it is possible to be.
Such is the root of his curious Englishness. Say "Maggie Smith" or "Judi Dench" to an international audience, and they know what to think: damely, matronly, cut-glass accents. Ian McKellen is Shakespearian projection and sincerely saying the word-pair "luvvie darling"; Michael Caine is a slightly hard butler. Even famed wife slapper Sean Connery has a sort of British shorthand abroad: gravitas, growling, four decades spent furiously clawing on to the remains of his hair. But what is Danny Dyer? How can he translate? There is no American equivalent. There is no British typecast beyond him. He is an anomaly in his pure, untranscribable Englishness. He is a Dads 'n' Lads haircut waking up a cul-de-sac by shouting "OI, OI!" He is tipping a cabbie a tenner and shaking the hand of everyone at the party before he leaves. He is standing in the freezer aisle at a big Tesco and saying, "What the fuck's a rosti?" He is honest and English in a way that is impossible to explain, and Hollywood's loss is our gain. He cannot believe it's been 11 years since them slags smashed into the World Trade Center.