People can get the wrong idea about Phil Daniels. This probably makes the actor still best known for playing totally wired self-destructive uber-mod Jimmy in Quadrophenia, Franc Roddam’s big-screen adaptation of The Who’s bombastic 1970s rock opera, the ideal candidate to take on the twin title roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Audiences will get their own chance to see how things balance out this week, when Daniels appears in Edinburgh in a touring revival of David Edgar’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic split personality yarn. Kate Saxon’s Touring Theatre Consortium production sees the story effectively make a prodigal’s return to its spiritual home. Daniels even gives Dr Jekyll a refined Edinburgh accent, while Mr Hyde speaks in a coarser form of Scots.
“It’s still set in Victorian London,” says Daniels, “but doing it in Edinburgh, with all those streets, you can see where Stevenson got it all from. Dr Jekyll’s a bit lost, and isn’t doing much with his life, and I think when he does this thing that turns him into Mr Hyde, he does it for the good initially, but it turns him into a nutter, and this horrible side comes out. There’s a bit more to it than that, which you see how it goes along, but you can see how it happens in real life when people change so dramatically. The demon drink does that to people.”
Playing both parts makes considerable demands on an actor, particularly when required to turn nasty in an instant.
“It’s tricky,” says Daniels, “because it’s easy to slip into pantomime villain if you’re not careful, but hopefully we manage to pull it off.”
Like Jekyll and Hyde in reverse, Daniels’ image as a bit of a tearaway and an angst-ridden handful was defined early on through Jimmy. Daniels had already set the template for this in street-wise kids TV drama, Four Idle Hands, which focused on a pair of school-leavers on the dole. In 1977 he appeared alongside Ray Winstone in the original TV version of borstal drama, Scum, which gained notoriety after its broadcast was cancelled by the BBC. Daniels also appeared in the big-screen remake in 1979.
A few years later he co-starred with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in Meantime, Mike Leigh’s TV film which again looked at life on the dole in Thatcher’s post-punk Britain. Between them, Winstone, Oldman, Roth and Daniels pretty much cornered the market in edgy twenty-something London tough guys of their era, grown-up Dickensian urchins gone gangsta with a cheeky chappie wink.
It was an image Daniels parodied fifteen years after Quadrophenia when he appeared on Blur’s Brit-pop smash hit, Parklife, in 1994. Over a jaunty music hall guitar riff, Daniels motor-mouthed spoken-word verses that gave way to a cock-er-knee sing-along chorus sung by Damon Albarn. With a video featuring Daniels and Albarn as dodgy double-glazing salesmen, the song was the height of post-modern geezerdom. As with Quadrophenia, Parklife became iconic. Daniels maintains, however, that it wasn’t the case for either when they first appeared.
“It’s a funny thing with Quadrophenia,” he says, “because it only really got any attention when video came out. When it first came out in the cinema, it was ignored because it was seen as being too working class. It’s only really the last twenty years it’s had any kind of cult status. Parklife was a slow burner as well. Not many Blur fans know it’s me doing it. A lot of them think it’s Damon.”
Prior to Parklife, Daniels already had a musical past. That was from when he sang with Phil Daniels and The Cross, the new wave band he formed with fellow actor Peter Hugo Daly, with whom he appeared in Breaking Glass, the 1980 film in which Daniels played the manager of Hazel O’Connor’s doomed rock star.
Daniels’ stage career ran parallel with all of this, from early roles in Nigel Williams’ schoolroom-set play, Class Enemy, at the Royal Court onwards. He’s a veteran of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has played The Fool in King Lear twice, once when he was 22, the second time more recently at Chichester. Musical theatre too has been a thing, with Daniels appearing in The Beggars Opera, Les Miserables and Carousel. More recently, Daniels appeared in the original production of This House, James Graham’s epic study of Westminster during the 1970s, in which he played the Labour Party’s chief whip
“People don’t really realise I’ve done all this theatre,” he says. “They get an image of what I am, but that isn’t really what I’m like.”
Born in North London, Daniels began acting at the Anna Scher Theatre School, the rightly celebrated Islington primary school hall based acting school that gave a lifeline to so many of Daniels’ generation who went on to become familiar TV names. As is often the way, Daniels didn’t go looking to become an actor.
“Me and my mate went to pick up his little sister,” Daniels remembers, “and Anna got us involved in the improvisations, which I quite enjoyed, so went back.”
Daniels’ contemporaries at Anna Scher included the likes of Gary and Martin Kemp, who would go on to form Spandau Ballet before the latter did a lengthy stint in East Enders. Kathy Burke was there too, as was future sit-com star Linda Robson. As numerous others have made clear in recent tributes to Scher to mark her fiftieth anniversary of teaching drama to children and young people, for a bunch of rough-neck teenagers, it was “like a family.”
Daniels is careful, however, not to be prolier than thou, and while he recognises the inequalities that might prevent working class kids like him from becoming an actor these days, he also understands that it’s not always clear cut.
“It’s a tough one,” he says. “I don’t want to start bleating about being working class, but it is harder these days. People do get through, though, and there are working class writers who manage to get stuff on.”
As with many of his Anna Scher contemporaries, Daniels did a stint on East Enders, but it’s the less well known stuff he remembers most.
“I enjoy everything I do,” he says, “but I did a series called Outlaws, which got lost.”
The series ran for twelve episodes in 2004, and featured Daniels as the cynical head of a shifty legal firm.
“It’s one of the best things I did on TV,” says Daniels, “but it was too good for the BBC, really.”
Whether a slow burning cult hit or a lost gem, Daniels takes a pragmatic approach to everything he does.
“I like doing the work and the fulfilment it gives me,” he says. “I’m not very good at sitting round on my own. I’d rather do something I’m good at than sit on my arse. That’s what’s so good about doing Jekyll and Hyde. You don’t get to sit still for a second. It’s fun, but it scares you as well. It makes you jump a bit, and that’s fun for me as well.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, April 10-14.
The Herald, April 10th 2018