Charles Dance talks about the incredible thriller why-dunnit Fallen Angel

Charles plays David Byfield

Playing an Anglican priest was a challenging role for Charles Dance, who has no interest in organised religion.

I had to film a communion sequence during a mass scene, so I had the full clerical regalia on and I did think, what a load of old rubbish, he says.

I spent a little time researching the role with a vicar, and I had been a choirboy as a kid and so I know what happens around an altar….the theatricality is quite impressive but the whole paraphernalia of organised religion doesn’t interest me one iota.

Charles doesn’t believe his character David Byfield can be separated from the religion that has shaped his life.

They are interwoven. He seems to be able to separate himself not from his own clerical self but from the congregation’s perception of a priest. People see a dog collar and words like pious and good come into their minds. This is why people get such a shock when yet again a case of child molestation by a Catholic priest is exposed in the media…they believe men of the cloth are above human failings.

I know one vicar who swears like a trooper, has no truck with Christmas, and is not far off David Byfield.

Talking of his character, Charles continues: David starts out with his eye very firmly on climbing up the career ladder within the Anglican Church, but he is elbowed out of a key job by someone else. People think that a priest with ambition is an odd thing, because the job is usually considered to be a vocation.

For the people in his parish, he is a shepherd to their flock and perhaps they wouldnt consider for a minute that a vicar wants to become a dean and that dean wants to become a bishop and that bishop might like to become an archbishop; it’s a bit like a back bencher thinking I want to become the prime minister one day.

It’s an odd dichotomy for someone in a vocation. In Fallen Angel I show ambition and how the priesthood is a job. Words like pious and good don’t necessarily apply to David.

And a lack of understanding of the opposite sex does not help David.

I think circumstances provoke a crisis in David. He is a very human priest, he just has the misfortune to marry women who aren’t interested in much sexual activity, he doesn’t have a lot of luck in that respect. I think he has a problem understanding, but he doesn’t actively dislike women, on the contrary….

But in religious terms he certainly is a traditionalist, which is why he is involved in a high Anglican church. I don’t think Anglican priests dislike women, even if many are against women priests – I think it is to do with the breaking of tradition.

David is opinionated and he has a very strong belief, at the beginning, (which is the last of our three films) in his sense of rightness. He is a bit pedantic but he believes in his opinions and what he is doing and he certainly believes that he is right most of the time. In the first film (the last chronologically) he is a broken man because he has had those beliefs shaken so many times, by either his family or his career not turning out how he had hoped it would – and especially by his daughter and the terrible person she has become.

David blames himself for Rosie, as I think all parents would. There is something claustrophobic about a vicar’s household.

A vicars wife and children might not be as devoutly religious as him and I think it would take a very strong, understanding family not to be cynical about the head of the household’s beliefs. It might also encourage what is a naturally rebellious period in a child’s upbringing (the teen years) because of that claustrophobia.

Davids dragging guilt around with him, like the ghost of Jacob Marley. He takes it all upon himself, of course he does, but circumstances are such that they conspire against him really, so I think he must share some of the blame but not all.

The role of David Byfield reunites Charles with co-star Emilia Fox.

This will be the fourth time we’ve worked together. We did Rebecca for ITV back in 1996. Then I did the first episode of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) which she was in with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and we were on stage together at the Donmar Warehouse in Good. So we’re very relaxed acting with each other now.

The part also requires Charles to play a vast age range on screen.

This put a lot of demands on the skills of make up designer Caroline Noble. I grew a beard to play the older David, which was useful as it put 10 years on me straight away. There’s a lot of white in it now!

The second film is more or less who I am but for the young David, a man of about 40, I spent a couple of hours in make-up with pins and clamps and elastic bands under the wig. I could have had many early nights, drank sensibly and done all the right things but I couldn’t have carried that off without Carolines help!

Charles has just returned from Sydney, Australia where he appeared alongside Penelope Wilton in Samuel Beckett’s short play Eh Joe.