Updated: 20th April 2018

Charles Dance: ‘Thank God the BBC didn’t make Game of Thrones’

From The Jewel in the Crown to Tywin Lannister, the actor has been in era-defining TV dramas and he suggests the best are no longer made in Britain

Its an old cliche that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would be writing scripts for Coronation Street and EastEnders. But given the financial incentives, it might now be more accurate to say the fantasy epic Game of Thrones.

Take Charles Dance. On a visit to Washington last month, strangers approached the actor to say his 1989 Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company had changed their lives. He was here to collect the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre at the Harman Center for the Arts annual gala.

But the ceremony began, inevitably, not with a clip from the Bard but a compilation video of Tywin Lannisters greatest hits, culminating with the Westeros patriarch being shot dead on the toilet with a crossbow by his estranged son Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Dances friend and fellow actor Tim Pigott-Smith sent a video message that tried to make the case that some Game of Thrones dialogue has a Shakespearean metre, at least the way Dance delivers it.

Finally, the honoree himself took the stage and, evidently gratified if a little bemused, said his thank yous with a few digressions then delivered a rendition of the seven ages of man speech All the worlds a stage/ And all the men and women merely players, from As You Like It. He added, by way of a parting shot: Finally, if I may, I would just like to wish you all a Trump-free future.

In Washingtons arts community, where Donald Trump voters are rarer than BlackBerrys, there was rapturous applause.

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Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister: youve got a great death scene! Photograph: HBO USA

Dance, who shares nothing with Trump but age (both are 70), is an Englishman to his boots with disarming mix of tall, aristocratic bearing and demotic earthiness and candour; he would doubtless be at ease both in the club and the pub. He casually admits he had little idea what he was getting into with Game of Thrones, having been put off the books by their frightening thickness.

I didnt know what it was about and I hadnt read and I havent since read any of George RR Martins books, he muses in an interview at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Do you happen to know what the RR stands for? Neither do I. Nobody can seem to tell me.

The answer, Google reveals later, is Raymond Richard.

Was Dance ever concerned about the series extreme sex and violence? No, he says frankly. They screened the first couple of episodes of season one for a whole bunch of us. I didnt come into episode seven or something in season one, so this was all stuff I wasnt involved in but I wanted to see what the flavour of the piece was.

So theres all this rumpy pumpy going on, it was all doggy fashion, and I said to David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], the two writers and theyre also executive producers Well, obviously the missionary position didnt come into vogue in the Seven Kingdoms for some time to come. They said, We wanted it to be animalistic, Charles. I said, Well, its certainly that! Wham, bam, thank you mam.

He laughs, not quite a dirty laugh. I mean, if people are going to be offended by it, they can turn it off.

As for his own notorious demise, which rivals anything in King Lear or Titus Andronicus, the news was broken to him by a man in the street. Dance puts on a cockney accent as he recalls the stranger saying: Youve got this great death scene!

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Charles Dance as Guy Perron in The Jewel in the Crown. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features

Few actors can speak of TV drama with the authority of the Worcestershire-born performer. His career spans The Jewel in the Crown (1984), set in the last days of the British Raj in India, and Game of Thrones (2011- ), which few could have predicted would have become such a phenomenon.

Dance reflects: The pilot they made was not that successful but HBO kind of nurtured it, thought there was mileage in this, and embarked on the first series.

If that had been the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], theyd have pulled the plug on it immediately and I was told that there was a time when the BBC were going to be part of the co-production and thank God they werent, because HBO knows how to spend money, and it was HBO and Sky Atlantic.

When it comes to the BBC, Dance pulls no punches. They think they can get a hundred dollars worth for spending 10. Its crazy. I know a lot of crew people and indeed actors whose enthusiasm for a project is dampened when they know its going to be made by the BBC because they know theyre going to be penny pinching.

Its a pain in the arse and they expect crews to work on very minimal deals and less than their usual fee. Its just stupid, you know? They pour money into junk reality television. I know its struggling, it really is, so when I say theyre trying to make $10 go as far as $100, its probably because they have very little choice, but having said that, if they have a choice between making a piece of shit reality television and a terrific piece of drama, I think they should go for the terrific piece of drama and let the commercial companies make their reality television.

In recent years Dance, seen in the magnificent BBC adaptation of Bleak House, has been impressed by British productions such as Sherlock, Wolf Hall and Happy Valley. But the past two decades in America have famously yielded a historic crop including The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

We rightly used to say we have the finest television in the world, he says. We dont necessarily any more. Some of the best television now is being imported from America. Theres some really great writing going on and the production values are cinematic, especially Game of Thrones. There are some scenes in Game of Thrones that take my breath away.

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Dance as Tulkinghorn in the BBCs Bleak House. Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan/BBC

The image of 8,000 Unsullied soldiers marching out of the city was, he recalls, like a scene from a movie by Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi propagandist with an epic vision. Wow, this is sensational!

The show has certainly boosted his profile in America. But in the course of a four-decade career, he recalls, he has only had one extended period, about 15 years ago, when the phone stopped ringing. That apart, he has been indefatigably clocking up the air miles.

I dont really relish the travel. I relish the getting there. The travel is a pain in the arse. There was a time people used to list in their list of hobbies, travel and art. The art is fine, the travel no. That whole bloody security thing is just a pain.

Improbably, in 1994, he went to Sun City in South Africa to be a Miss World judge along with Iman, Patrick Lichfield and Nelson Mandelas daughter Zindzi. It was six months after the end of racial apartheid. I didnt get to meet Nelson Mandela, unfortunately. I met [his wife] Winnie, who scared the shit out of me I have to say, actually.

In 2003 he was in Beirut, Lebanon, to play a professor called Charles Lushington in the movie Labyrinth. Sometimes, he admits, he does it just for the money (or the travel). No shame. Purely because every now and again its called no money. You go and think, OK, Im going to try and do the best I can with this pile of shit, and Im doing it because it will enable me for a few months to perhaps say no.

The Beirut job in particular: one of the worst scripts Ive ever read. Its far too late now; it will never see the light of day, I hope. But I did it purely because I wanted to go to Beirut. I thought, Thisll be interesting, and I asked for a ridiculous amount of money, assuming they would say absolutely not, and three weeks later I get a call saying, Remember that job in Beirut? Well theyll pay. Fuck.

Dance went, hooked up with the journalist Robert Fisk and spent a couple of fascinating evenings discussing the history and tragedy of the place.

Visiting America, he now finds New Yorks commercialism overwhelming but Washington charming, at least while it remains Trump-free. If he makes it into the White House, were going to have to find another planet to live on, Dance sighs. Its alarming, really.

He was no less depressed about Britains vote to quit the European Union. Its kind of xenophobic, little Britain, pull up the drawbridge. Yet, soon hell be on the road again. Hes off to Botswana to promote Savage Kingdom, six National Geographic films he has narrated about nature red in tooth and claw. Its as violent as anything youll see on Game of Thrones.

Indeed, the Seven Kingdoms keep cropping up in any conversation with Dance these days. But he is philosophical about having been killed off in a series where a being a lead character offers no armour. In his video message, Pigott-Smith urged him to brush up his Shakespeare.

So, with retirement apparently off the table, what would be his dream role? Id like to do a bit more of the Scandinavian plays, just because of the way I look, and I havent done enough. Theres a fair amount of Shakespeare I havent done. I love the history plays, actually, much more so than the comedies. It would take a brave person to ask me to do it but I would love to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Hes wonderful.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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