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Star People: Dirty Den's my dad!; His real life is happily poles apart, but EastEnders' new boy Nigel Harman tells SALLY BROCKWAY why he loves following in Dirty Den's footsteps...

Byline: SALLY BROCKWAY

There's a real air of disdain about him. His stare is icy cold, yet he can turn the charm on for the ladies when he wants. He's Albert Square's new bad boy Dennis Rickman and he's the son of the smash-hit soap's best-ever rotter - Dirty Den Watts.

Played by unknown actor, 29-year-old Nigel Harman, Dennis is set to cause havoc in Walford. He's got an evil temper (he's just spent 18 months in the slammer for GBH) and he's a serial womaniser - just like Dad.

"He's going to be causing an awful lot of trouble," Nigel admits. "He's only in Walford five minutes when he gets off with Kat Slater, and I'm assuming he'll work his way through many more women. He really is a chip off the old block.

"The scary thing is, people have said that I look a bit like Leslie Grantham, who played Den Watts. There are photos of both of us in Albert Square, leaning on railings, and we look spookily similar.

"But, in real life, I'm nothing like my character. I'm much nicer. In fact, when shooting scenes, I've been told off for coming across as too amiable and I have to toughen it up a bit."

Traced by his half sisters, Vicki Fowler and Sharon Mitchell, Dennis arrives in Walford looking for a place to stay. "He looks round, thinks about what he can get from people and decides it's as good a place as any," reveals Nigel.

Actually, it's not Nigel's first visit to the EastEnders set as he once appeared three years ago as a copper. "I got called back again and told I might be right for another character, but nothing came of it. Then I suddenly got a call about Dennis.

"The first thing I did was to phone my flatmate, Ian, and we just creased up with laughter at the idea of me being Dirty Den's son because he was a legend!"

In real life, Nigel is the son of a bank manager and grew up in Surrey with a brother and sister. After his mum died when Nigel was young, his dad remarried and had two more sons.

Both his father and birth mother were involved in amateur dramatics and Nigel got involved at just six, going to a dance and drama school three years later.

"Lucy Speed, who plays Natalie, was at the same school. The last time I saw her she was in a pink tutu, but she won't thank me for telling you that!

"I remember going to auditions with my mum and she said: `We'll do six and if we don't get anything, we'll give up.' I got the sixth job - for an Oxo advert."

Nigel spent much of his early acting career in musicals. One of his first TV roles was a part in the BBC series Doctors followed by a small role in BBC1's Red Cap.

"Musicals were my first love and I did a lot of them. I'm a trained singer and dancer and my first ever job was in the show Tommy. In 1999, I was in the Abba musical Mamma Mia, but after singing Dancing Queen six times a day, I thought I might go mad. So I decided to branch right out and this is where I've ended up," he says.

And Nigel knows it's a great honour to play one of EastEnders' biggest character's sons. "I did think: `Wow, he IS The Man and now I'm playing his son.' There's definitely an aura about him. It's strange because there was a time in my career when I played boy- next-door types, but as I've got older the characters have become darker - my role in Doctors was as a wife beater."

In real life, Nigel confesses he doesn't have Dennis' way with the ladies. "Women fall for Dennis even though he's a bad boy, just like they did with his dad. I can't pretend I'm dynamite with the ladies, because I'm not. But maybe it'll rub off on me. That would be nice," he laughs.

Nigel is currently single and in the absence of a woman in his life, his passions are motorbikes and football. "My dad said to me: `Whatever you do, don't get a motorbike.' So when I bought one, I couldn't bring myself to tell him. I just rode up on it.

"Dad and I are very close and we see a lot of each other. We try to sneak in as many games at Crystal Palace as we can. When I got the part of Dennis, I called him and said: `There's something I need to tell you.'

"He thought I'd had a bike accident and was really worried. So when I told him I was going to be in EastEnders, he was hugely relieved, and will definitely follow the fortunes of Dennis."

Nigel is loving every minute of his new TV role and it helped that his first screen kiss happened to be with Jessie Wallace, who's one of his best mates in real life. "I know Jessie from bumping into her at auditions. It was no trouble doing a screen kiss with her. She's a lovely girl and we get on really well. I wasn't nervous at all. In fact, I'm looking forward to more on-screen romances - I can think of worse ways to earn a living!"

EastEnders, BBC1, Mon & Fri, 8pm; Tues & Thurs 7.30pm

CAPTION(S):

DENNIS THE MENACE: Do his half sisters Vicki (left) and Sharon know what they've let Walford in for by tracing Dirty Den's son?; WATTS NEW: Nigel's Dennis is a worthy successor to Leslie Grantham's Dirty Den (left)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Apr 27, 2003
Words:947
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