Interview: Derek Martin - I feared it was the end of my career and that maybe I was too old. EastEnders turned my luck around; How being the head of Albert Square's troubled Slater family has given Derek Martin peace of mind. By Sue Crawford.
As EastEnders' kind-hearted cabbie Charlie Slater, who has won our hearts as father of one of the most dysfunctional families in Walford, he has become a household name. Yet just two years ago, Derek Martin thought he was all washed up as an actor.
After a career spanning 40 years, work suddenly dried up and he struggled to make ends meet as a labourer and odd-job man.
``It was awful,'' says Derek, 68. ``I was out of work for 18 months. I drove a van, I was a labourer, I helped a fella pull down chimneys in a house, I worked as a chauffeur for a while, did some gardening, odd jobs, anything.
``I did whatever was necessary to pay the bills and the mortgage - you've got to. I'd worked all my life and suddenly I was worrying about money. After a while I thought, `This is it, Del. Perhaps this is the end. Perhaps people think I'm too old'.
``It would have knocked a lot of people sideways, but I thought, `I've got to do something else'. I'd work in people's houses and they'd say, `Don't I know you?' In the end, I'd tell them they'd seen me on the telly... I'm not the sort to sit at home. I like to have money in my pocket and my feet have always been on the ground.''
Salvation came out of the blue in the summer of 2000 when he was asked to screen test as the father of a new family coming to Albert Square. Three days later, the soap bosses called to say that not only did they want him, but it was for a minimum of three years, possibly longer.
``I thought it was a wind-up,'' says Derek, who lives in Hatfield, Herts, just a few miles from the EastEnders set.
``It was wonderful news and such a relief. I couldn't believe my luck.'' Since the Slaters arrived in Walford, Charlie has been kept busy dealing with the trials and traumas of his brood - including the revelation that hisbrother Harry (played by the late Michael Elphick) got Kat pregnant with Zoe, Ma Mo's dodgy scams, Zoe doing a runner, Lynne and Garry's marriage problems and Little Mo being imprisoned. No wonder the poor guy had a heart attack.
Despite all the heartache, the role of Charlie is a welcome change for Derek. In 1978, he was a bent copper in Law And Order and later had bit parts in The Sweeney, The Professionals, The Chinese Detective and The Governor. He was a hard-nosed detective in the 1986 series King And Castle and cut his soap teeth as Alex Morris in the doomed Eldorado.
If he made a convincing rogue, it was partly because he had first-hand experience to draw on. In his late twenties, Derek stood trial at the Old Bailey accused of stealing pounds 20,000 worth of meat while working as a porter at Smithfield Market in East London.
``I was guilty all right,'' he says. ``Me and some other blokes nicked a lorryload of meat and got fingered. I was interrogated for nine hours by the police, but I didn't grass.''
Derek spent five months on bail before the trial in May 1961.
``That first day still haunts me,'' he says. ``It was terrifying. Anyone who tells you otherwise is making it up. I was facing two years inside and I remember sitting in the cell at lunchtime. They brought in fish, mashed potatoes and haricot beans, but I couldn't eat it.
``Every minute in that cell felt like an hour. The sound of clanking doors goes right through you. Next moment I heard a voice saying, `Fetch the accused', and I was taken into the dock. Whenever I've had to play a prisoner since, I just transfer myself back to how scared I felt that day.''
He was cleared, largely thanks to the convincing performance he gave the jury. It made him realise he could try acting as a profession. Even when the going got tough, Derek, who went to the same school as the Krays, was never tempted to make a fast buck as a getaway driver.
``I have had phone calls asking if I want todo a driving job,'' he says. ``I've always said, `Thanks for thinking of me, but no'.''
He appeared as an extra on Z Cars and from 1966 to 1971 was a stuntman, before becoming a full-time actor.
``I've never been to drama school,'' says Derek. ``When people ask what rep theatre I've done I say, `Out there, the rep of life'. I knew how someone got hit, how someone got stabbed, what it felt like to get a kick in the stomach, so I knew how to act it.''
That's no idle boast. Derek grew up in Bow in the heart of London's tough East End. His nose was bent at 17 after he was hit in the face with a cue at a snooker hall and during a stint as a club bouncer he was stabbed in the leg. He has held down a variety of jobs, including debt collector, professional gambler, scrap metal merchant, RAF policeman, motor racing driver and rag-and-bone man, before he turned to acting.
Although he was on the shortlist to play both Dirty Den and cheating Frank Butcher, Derek feels more at home as genial Charlie.
``On my first day I wasn't nervous at all,'' he says. ``I did my lines and it felt as comfortable as putting on an old coat. I'm a lot more like Charlie Slater these days. We're both easy-going family men.''
Twice divorced and the father of 24-year-old twins Jonathan and David, Derek also feels protective of his five soap daughters in real life.
``At times I feel fatherly towards them,'' he says. ``I ask if they're all right and I check their cars. It's maybe because of my age or perhaps it's the part, but you end up taking on that dad role.
``I'd never stick my oar in and give them advice on anything personal, though. All I can say is, `Try and keep your feet on the deck'. Everyone wants a bit of them at the moment and if I was that age I wouldn't know how to handle it. You just hope they can work it out.''
Things certainly seem to have worked out for Derek.
``I believe in fate,'' he smiles. ``If I'd stayed in motor racing I'd have been dead because it's live or die with me. So fate said, `Don't take that road, take this road into acting', and, touch wood, I've been successful. I'm a lucky boy and I'd love to stay in EastEnders until I die. I'm as happy as a pig in mire.''
CHECK: Derek plays chess with his sons in 1987; SLATERS ON THE TILES: With Jessie Wallace (Kat) at the 2001 National TV Awards
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Sep 28, 2002|
|Previous Article:||Interview: Kate Buffery - Behind closed Doors; Trial And Retribution star Kate Buffery, 45, reveals what she gets up to at the weekend.|
|Next Article:||Who gets your vote in the National Music Awards?|