He murdered a man in a botched robbery and served 11 years of a life sentence. But while most old lags struggle to make their way in the world, Leslie Grantham launched an acting career and became a soap star known to millions. It's an extraordinary story by any standards but talk to the 59-year-old actor and he'll tell you that his life is "pretty boring really". This is a fairly odd assessment, particularly when you're driving around the country promoting your autobiography.
But Leslie Michael Grantham doesn't do things in a conventional way. Ever since he shot and killed a taxi driver when he was a 18-year-old soldier stationed in Germany and desperate for money, his life has been in turmoil. He seems to attract trouble. Along with fame as "Dirty" Den Watts in EastEnders, he has endured headlines of the worst kind. Controversy is never far away.
Two years ago, just as he was making his highly publicised return from the dead in EastEnders, the tabloids went into overdrive with claims that he had indecently exposed himself on an internet webcam. It tipped the already fragile Grantham into freefall and he tried to kill himself... three times. He tried to slash his wrists and ended up with scratches, he tried to hang himself from a tree but the branch broke and he even crawled into a lake with a pack full of bricks on his back but he couldn't make himself sink. It doesn't take much of a psychologist to conclude that these were classic cries for help
If it weren't so sad it would be funny. You soon realise, talking to Grantham, that what he perceives, as boring is in fact simply tragic. I caught up with him as he drove home from a book signing and into what The Sun newspaper would gleefully report earlier this week was a row with his wife and sons that "woke neighbours".
Enders Den Is Kicked Out... screamed the headline over a story describing how, fed up with his moods, his family had shown him the door. Another chapter in the chaotic Grantham life, and not an unfamiliar story. It only made page 19.
As we chatted a few hours before this latest crisis, Grantham, whose book Life and Other Times turns a painfully honest spotlight on his turbulent existence, seemed resigned to be dogged by guilt and regrets. He doesn't make excuses. The internet incident for instance was, he tells me, the result of "the total, total stupidity and vanity of an old fart who should have known better".
Talented, famous and presumably reasonably wealthy, he has long learnt to accept that he attracts trouble. Even when he was in Bournemouth playing the Pier Theatre he bought a strange woman a baked potato and she ended up stalking him. It's that funny/tragic dynamic again. He doesn't talk much about the stalking incident saying that he fears attracting the attentions of lawyers and anyway he's saving the material to turn into a TV play. He does tell me, though, that the woman in question claimed she was dangerously ill.
"There was a part of me that thought there was something weird going on but I didn't want to be responsible for someone dying again." He sounds just a little frightened. He admits that the anxiety he feels about shooting that German taxi driver 40 years ago is with him every day of his life. A huge section of his book is devoted to his time in jail. Its title, Life and Other Stories, refers to the sentence that he served. In the preface he says that the guilt and remorse he feels will never go away. "I can't change the past," he states bleakly. "It happened. I don't seek forgiveness. What I did was unforgivable."
Grantham says he has never complained about being jailed. "It's not like I was a prisoner of war in Colditz or something. I deserved to be in prison. I could have spent pages and pages going on about how depressing and sad it is to be locked away and the things that go through your mind at night, but that would have been boring."
Instead he says he's tried to concentrate on the positive. "What was that saying that used to be on the side of the Golden Syrup tins? 'Out of adversity comes sweetness and strength or whatever' That's what I was trying to get through in the book."We are all human, we all make mistakes but it's what you do after those mistakes that counts. But equally when the door closed behind me after 11 or 12 years in prison, it didn't mean it was all done and dusted. I still have to live with it."
He says that after learning to act in the prison drama club there were friends and colleagues in the theatre who helped him readjust to life outside. "I was very lucky because there were people who made that transition easier and there's a part of me that knows that however bad I am I can't really be evil because they wouldn't be interested in me if I was." It's a poignant piece of cod psychology and probably at the core of Grantham's survival mechanism.
"I didn't set out to write a book," he tells me. "I just decided to write what was in my head, as therapy. I don't know, maybe I'm a lapsed Catholic and I was just looking for a confessional."
Has it done the trick, do you feel unburdened? I ask. "No, no," he tells me. "I liken it to a pint of milk. You know how if you empty a pint of milk into a jug then the bottle's empty. Well I've emptied my pint of milk and the bottle's still full. People keep telling me that I seem to blame myself for everything. But maybe it's just me putting it all down on paper, seeing what a terrible man I am. I'm just telling it like it is. I've got some wonderfully loyal fans and if they still like me, that's fantastic. If they don't then it's my loss and I'll have to work to claw them back."
- Life and Other Stories by Leslie Grantham is published by Timewell at £18.99.