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Wednesday 22 May 2019

Obituary: Leslie Grantham

'EastEnders' actor who served 11 years in jail for the murder of a German taxi driver, committed as a young soldier

FAMILY: Leslie Grantham with Anita Dobson and Letitia Dean
FAMILY: Leslie Grantham with Anita Dobson and Letitia Dean

Leslie Grantham, who died last Friday aged 71, played Dirty Den in the BBC soap opera EastEnders and became television's best-known rogue - but he struggled to live with a secret from his distant past that was only revealed when he started playing the role. Unknown to the BBC producers or the other members of the EastEnders cast, Grantham had served 11 years of a life sentence for murdering a taxi driver in Germany in 1966. His conviction only came to light as tabloid journalists started digging into the actor's background.

The story broke in The Sun three days after EastEnders launched in February 1985. Grantham, as Dennis Watts, landlord of the Queen Vic, had uttered the deathless first line in episode one - "Stinks in 'ere!" - as he kicked down the door of a council flat in the fictional Walford to find Reg Cox dead in his chair. Seventeen million viewers were watching.

"EastEnders star is killer" was The Sun's splash headline. From the off the newspaper had a mole in the EastEnders production office prepared to sell stories. To protect the source, The Sun pretended Grantham had been sold out by a former fellow prisoner who recognised him on television. The paper had known the story for weeks but editor Kelvin MacKenzie held his nerve and ran the scoop after the show had launched for maximum impact.

During his first three and a half years in the show, Grantham became one of its principal stars, benefiting from storylines featuring his marital squabbles with his screen wife Angie (played by Anita Dobson), the eventual break-up of their marriage, and Den's subsequent disappearance and suspected murder.

The name "Dirty Den" was bestowed by The Daily Telegraph in the autumn of 1985 after the 16-year-old Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully) fell pregnant and the search began for the father of the baby, other contenders being "Randy Ross" and "Naughty Nedj". By the time Den was revealed to be the father, EastEnders had ousted Coronation Street from the top of the ratings. A year later, the two episodes screened on Christmas Day 1986, when Den served divorce papers on his unsuspecting wife, attracted an average 30 million viewers, then a British television record.

By 1988 Grantham was the highly paid heart-throb star of Britain's most popular television show, which was delivering an average weekly audience of 19 million viewers. After nearly four years and 410 episodes, in 1989 Grantham's character was supposedly shot dead by the side of a canal during an attempted bid to leave the country, his adopted daughter Sharon (Letitia Dean) identifying his body.

But as audiences learnt 14 years later, instead of going to a watery grave in the canal, he had embarked on a new life in Spain and in 2003 made a sensational return to the series, greeting his daughter Sharon with the familiar line "Hello, princess".

In May 2004, however, the actor was exposed in a tabloid sting operation after taking part in a webcam sex session, during which he also made disparaging comments about fellow cast members. Grantham later issued a grovelling apology for what he called "a moment's stupidity" and Dirty Den went on to wreak further havoc on Albert Square before he was killed off for good in 2005 when his second wife, Chrissie (Tracy-Ann Oberman) hit him over the head with an iron doorstop.

Leslie Michael Grantham was born on April 29, 1947, in Camberwell, south London, and brought up in a council house at St Mary Cray, near Orpington.

Making his stage debut aged seven, he played Joseph in a nativity play. He left school at 15 with no qualifications and joined the Army as a boy soldier in the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers, his father's old regiment, with the British Army of the Rhine.

In April 1967, when he was a 19-year-old lance-corporal, Grantham was convicted by a court martial at Bielefeld of the murder of a German taxi-driver at Osnabruck the previous December. He had shot Felix Reese through the head after demanding money, but claimed he had not realised that the pistol he was carrying was loaded. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, reduced to the ranks and discharged with ignominy. The story that emerged years later was that he had been threatened by four soldiers in his unit over the repayment of a debt. He had robbed the taxi driver only after his tormentors had laid a red-hot steam iron on his forehead and threatened to kill him. Two appeals were refused and he served 11 years in jail.

Leslie Grantham's marriage to the actress Jane Laurie ended in divorce after 31 years and subsequently he moved to Bulgaria, where he spent time filming the drama The English Neighbour in 2010 and decided to stay.

He is survived by three sons.

Sunday Independent

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