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I Shot Dirty Den
Written by Richard Stamp   
Published on Sunday, 17 August 2008

DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAY the daffodils went bang?  Pavel Douglas, the co-writer and performer of I Shot Dirty Den, is telling a bit of a porky pie with his one-man show's title; he didn't actually pull the trigger hidden inside that famous EastEnders bouquet.  But in his on-screen persona as villainous accountant Gregory Mantel, he did have the distinction of ordering the 1989 offing of "Dirty" Dennis Watts.

If you've no idea what I'm talking about, never fear.  This isn't the story of a soap; it's the story of the life of an actor - and whatever your views of the shows he's been in, there's no doubt Pavel is a hugely talented practitioner of his craft.  Effortlessly holding the stage for the hour-long performance, he speaks on behalf of an impressive range of characters.  But he's most compelling when he's playing his younger self, son of a famous thespian in communist-era Poland.

There's a real sadness about the childhood story: about how his father's success drove a wedge through the middle of his family, severing his connections with his homeland, even the ability to speak his own mother tongue.  At times it's intensely personal and deeply affecting - all the more so for being shared in backward-looking reminiscences, alongside the story of Pavel's more recent life.  The two trains of thought are so thoroughly mixed that you can't tell whether the history punctuates the modern-day narrative, or the other way round; it could all have got very confusing, but Pavel and his fellow script-writer, Andy Burden, prove skilful enough to carry the complex production off.

Pavel's parallel portrayal of himself as a struggling bit-player - forever trying to recapture his moment of greatness - was compelling too.  If you've read the biography you're handed as you come in, you'll know the most self-deprecating parts of the story aren't entirely true, but never mind; I still rooted for the little guy, hoping he'd get the voice-over work, the corproate gig as an alien, and one day, that elusive leading role.

Over his varied career Pavel's collected a good few names to drop, which he augments by some fine impressions of fellow TV personalities.  Brian Blessed, though hilarious, was perhaps a little obvious - but I truly relished his Paul O'Grady.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the insights into the twin worlds of the screen and the stage; the former characterised as rushed and intense, the other, perhaps, as intensely dull.

Towards the end, Pavel's musings take a more philosophical turn, as he fears his on-screen nemesis's implausible return from the dead has erased a whole chunk of his own life.  But it hasn't, of course: as the biography reveals, he's very much with us still.  Pavel never quite made it to the A-list, but his narrative tells us you can find happiness and fulfilment without the celebrity so many of us crave.  So I Shot Dirty Den is a fine, touching, and aspirational piece; and on this form, who knows - maybe one day we'll yet get to see Pavel Douglas's name written in lights.

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