It was with a nervy energy and drug-addled Star Wars theories that Danny Dyer made his film debut in Human Traffic. As pill-popping club-goer Moff, he wore his character’s wayward approach to life like a badge of honour, as packaged with a cheeky grin and a distinctive drawl. The 1999 movie wasn’t his first on-screen role — that came six years earlier opposite Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect — but it helped shaped the course of the British actor’s career to follow.
And it certainly influenced his reputation. Dyer’s name is rarely uttered just on its own, usually rolling off the tongue preceded by two words. “Bad boy Danny Dyer”, he has often been called, a label that suits his penchant for playing hard-man types. In fact, it’s as much a part of his public persona as his recognisable Cockney accent and fondness for rhyming slang.
It’s an image that Dyer has leaned into. "I do walk with a bit of a swagger. I do swear a lot,” he told The Independent in 2011, in a candid interview about the wild-living ways that have made him constant tabloid fodder in the UK. That said, he’s also keen to stress the everyday nature of his roles: "I play quite endearing characters — working-class anti-heroes. A lot of the films I've done have been about working-class people, doing working-class things, in working-class environments.”
The attitude, the accent, the larrikin everyman vibe — all remain evident when Dyer delves into his family tree in Who Do You Think You Are? They’re accompanied by more than a few surprising revelations, but, thanks to more than two decades in the spotlight, there’s no separating the working-class bad boy from his familiar guise.
Everyone’s go-to geezer
If a low-budget British crime movie was made from the ’90s onwards and didn’t feature Danny Dyer, did it really exist? Good question. After Human Traffic brought Dyer to the big screen, he carved out a busy career as the go-to geezer in law-skirting comedies, thrillers and everything in-between. Mean Machine, alongside Vinnie Jones, may rank as the highest-profile entry on his film resume, but there are many, many more movies where that came from.
In titles such as The Football Factory, The Business, Vendetta and Assassin, one thing proves constant: Dyer’s love of his hard-man on-screen persona, served in his typical roguish manner. Indeed, the film’s premise and narrative almost doesn’t matter — if Dyer’s involved, you know the kind of character he’s likely to be playing. Sometimes, he’s plunging into horror in the likes of Doghouse and Severance. Sometimes, he’s diving into twisted takes on fairytales, as seen in Malice in Wonderland. Sometimes, he’s starring in Academy Award-winning social-realist shorts, such as Wasp by Fish Tank and American Honey director Andrea Arnold.
Along the way, Dyer hasn’t been a stranger to the small screen, with his laddish demeanour working its way across an array of TV series. And while he has Skins, Casualty and Hollyoaks Later to his name, it was perhaps only a matter of time until he ended up on EastEnders. Now best known for his six-years-and-counting stint as publican Mick Carter, his take-no-gruff geezer ways remain apparent. He’s not quite the bad boy of Walford, but he is playing a soap opera version of his regular guise four nights a week - while working in as many Cockney phrases as possible.
Keeping a sense of humour
Never one to pass up a chance to unleash his Cockney phrasing upon the world, Dyer has also proved to be a common presence on British television as himself. It’s another reason the bad boy label sticks — put Dyer in front of a camera, and he’ll ooze a devil-may-care attitude and ask you to have a butcher’s.
Fronting Danny Dyer's Deadliest Men, a documentary series chatting to gangsters, clearly aligned with his usual persona, but his appearances on UK comedy panel shows have more than a small part in keeping his reputation going. Unapologetically standing out from the standard comedian-heavy line-up of shows such as Would I Lie to You?, 8 Out of 10 Cats and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (a comic version of British game show Countdown, a predecessor to Australia’s Letters and Numbers), he’s frequently playing up his familiar bluster while having a laugh about it.
On his first appearance on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, for example, he sat with the show’s resident lexicographer, owning his distinctive approach on the English language and trying to disprove the idea that the Cockney accent doesn’t work well with tongue twisters.
Watch Who Do You Think You Are? on Tuesday 6 February at 7:30pm on SBS.