Dennis Waterman’s daughter, Julia, keeps slipping into the present tense when speaking about her very famous father. He died from lung cancer six weeks ago, and his body has since been cremated, but as she says: ‘There’s this incredible sort of disbelief. I still think he’s not gone. I don’t know when that’s going to change. It’s funny when your dad’s on TV because he’s kind of always there.’
The legendary actor has always been ‘there’ since the 1970s when he starred as The Sweeney’s tough-guy copper DS George Carter. He then cemented his reputation as the nation’s favourite womanising hardman, playing reformed jailbird Terry McCann in the TV classic Minder. So much so, that Dennis never dared take his daughters, Julia, now 43, and her sister, former EastEnders actress Hannah, 46, to the sort of places dads normally do, like funfairs, for fear of being mobbed.
When he died aged 74 in May, Julia’s phone ‘practically blew up with so many people messaging me: “Your Dad was a legend”; “He was a hero, an icon.” That’s a word I hear a lot.’
She removes her glasses to wipe away the tears that threaten.
Dennis Waterman’s daughter Julia today
‘It was so quick. He played golf on Christmas Day and he said he was fine. He just complained of a pain in his leg.’
Dennis was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer less than three months before his death, after a tumour was discovered in a bone in his leg following that festive round of golf.
Julia’s stepmother, Pam — Dennis’s fourth wife — rang from their home in Spain to break the terrible news.
‘She said: “Jules, it’s not good.” I had a bad feeling about it,’ says Julia, in this, the only interview with a member of Dennis’s close family since his death.
‘There had been quite a few weeks of tests and scans after they found the tumour in his leg. When people start to find tumours you turn to Dr Google, don’t you? I read that bone cancer tends to be secondary. You think, “Oh s***, there’s a primary somewhere.”
‘Something told me this wasn’t going to go well. The drinking, the smoking and just the hard living — he hadn’t really followed doctors’ orders, had he?’
Indeed, her father lived his life as hard and fast off-screen as the characters he played — think Terry McCann ‘on steroids’ (Julia’s words) — until he finally found contentment with Pam, his much-loved wife of 11 years.
Dennis was, as Julia says, ‘a bloke’s bloke’ with an extraordinarily turbulent love life, that included a frighteningly volatile relationship with his third wife, the actress Rula Lenska.
Their explosive love affair, which ended his marriage to Julia and Hannah’s mother, Patricia Maynard, in 1981, provoked endless headlines about violent break-ups and slanging matches, until Rula finally left in 1997 amid accusations of domestic abuse.
Dennis later admitted he had sometimes hit Rula in a defiant TV interview with Piers Morgan that prompted widespread outrage as he insisted she ‘wasn’t a beaten wife’ but a ‘strong, intelligent’ woman who could argue and that, frustrated, he’d resorted to ‘lashing out’ to stop her.
For Julia — caught up in this ‘craziness’ with her sister, Hannah, and Rula’s daughter Lara, now 42 — those years were traumatic.
Dennis with Rula Lenska
For most of her teenage years, she says, she ‘shut Dad out’, preferring a calm life with her mother and stepfather, Jeremy, now a retired judge, in Norfolk.
‘As a child, I had this dream that this fairy-tale dad would be revealed who would choose us instead of this craziness, and we’d all live happily ever after. But life wasn’t like that,’ says Julia.
‘Being at Dad and Rula’s was this Technicolor whirlwind of an experience with mad screaming fights. If you’re a kid, they’re amazingly unsettling.
‘I’d hear Dad and Rula shouting at each other. Rula would be going on a lot and he’d be saying: “Just stop it. Shut up. I don’t want to hear this.” Then he’d leave the house.
‘He’d probably go to the golf course or wherever. She hated that. Then there’d be slammed doors in the early hours and music would play very loudly.’
Today, Julia is a larger-than-life woman with a rich laugh and warm heart. She lives in a pretty, painted clapboard house in a small Hampshire village with her lovely six-year-old daughter, Coco, and partner of two years, Simon.
Upstairs is the gold disc her father received for singing the soundtrack to Minder, I Could Be So Good For You. Co-written by her mother, it reached No 3 in the charts in 1980 before their marriage was shattered by Waterman’s turbulent affair with Rula.
Julia was three when Dennis left.
‘I just remember he wasn’t there any more,’ she says. ‘It was in the news. It was the first time I’d realised there was something different about my family.’
Hers was a childhood of first-class flights, premieres, and parties peopled with her father’s ‘tribe of colourful and lively actors’, such as George Cole, famous as TV’s Arthur Daley, and Dalziel And Pascoe’s Warren Clarke.
‘At Dad’s, there were always tons of people in the house, with barbecues and parties,’ she says. ‘I remember vodka, lots of vodka, and the clink of ice cubes. I’d feel as if Rula became more and more vivacious — you know, bigger — and Dad would get smaller.
‘They’d either be all over each other — it was obviously a very powerful sexual relationship, but you don’t understand that as a child — or rowing.
‘When Dad was happy he’d get out his guitar and I’d burst into song. I’d be this tiny little thing belting out some sort of number.But those moments didn’t happen often. The more unhappy he was, the more he withdrew [from the house] and the more alone I was with Rula.’
She never much liked her stepmother. An intelligent, articulate woman who is now something of a high-flier in financial services, Julia knows jolly well few children take kindly to the person who has destroyed their parents’ marriage, but, in this instance, her animosity is visceral.
Her first memory of the flame-haired actress is of her ‘click-clacking around calling me “darling”.
‘I found her quite scary. She was massive and had this crazy hair and really deep voice. There was never a part of me that thought “Oh she’s nice” and wanted to sit on her knee.
‘There were only six months between [Rula’s daughter] Lara and me. We were always being told we were like sisters and had to share a room. Rula wanted me to call her Mamma. I told my mum about it and said I didn’t want to. And I never did.
‘I remember once — I must have been pretty young — she was reading a book to Lara and me. We were lying on the bed on each side of her and I had my head there.’ Julia gestures to her right breast. ‘Nothing specific happened, but I just felt really angry and bit her.
‘It caused an absolute s*** show, as you can imagine. I meant to do it. She leapt up and went, “Dennis, your daughter’s bitten me.”
‘It went off. I just remember Dad standing in front of me, saying “Why did you do it?” I said: “I don’t like her.” I never regretted it. I really, really hated her.’
Indeed, when Rula and Dennis married in 1987, six years after the beginning of their tempestuous relationship, Julia wept.
‘I was only seven, but even then I thought it was a bad idea,’ says Julia. ‘The wedding was huge. Rula kept saying: “It’s this amazingly special day for me and your father.” Me, Hannah and Lara were all dressed up as little flower girls. I remember we wore white dresses with flowers in our hair. I was quite a sturdy girl who liked to climb trees and ride horses. Lara was quite ample too, bless her.
‘I felt we were supposed to be thin and pretty like Rula. Sometimes we’d weigh ourselves and measure round our tummies to see who was bigger or smaller.
‘The wedding was in the garden of a big house. When they got married, all three of us burst into tears. Rula was horrified.
‘When Dad and Rula broke up [three years later], I was jubilant.’
Julia, then 11, had been due to spend a three-week summer break with her father when he began an affair with TV producer Fiona Black. When her mother dropped her off at her father’s huge Buckinghamshire home — complete with billiard room, tennis courts and a swimming pool — she didn’t have a clue her dad had already left.
‘I remember asking Rula after a couple of hours, “Where’s Dad?” She sat me down and said, “He’s left me. He doesn’t live here any more.” So I had to spend three weeks with Rula. I was miserable. Rula would say, “Do you know who he’s with? Have you met her?” I felt trapped.
‘I remember sitting on a bar stool in the billiard room — there was a phone on the bar. Mum was in France with my stepdad, and I didn’t know who else to phone to get me out of there.
‘I just dialled and dialled numbers trying to get the right one. I must have sat there for 20 minutes.
‘When Mum eventually picked me up, I just wanted to get the hell away. I didn’t say anything to her until I was home. She was fuming and said I didn’t have to see her [Rula] again.
‘Mum always stood up for me when Dad didn’t . . . I felt he’d abandoned me.’
The affair with Ms Black lasted for 18 months. When it ended Dennis returned to Rula. Julia, by then 13, was beside herself.
‘I did say to him: “Please don’t go back to her.” He didn’t say anything.
‘I felt he’d chosen her and Lara instead of me. You think, “It’s because I’m not worth it to him. I’m not attractive enough. I’m not as clever as her daughter.”
Rula and Dennis threw a party to celebrate their reconciliation. Julia didn’t go. ‘I couldn’t. I felt he’d made his choice.’
Julia had the odd ‘stilted, difficult’ conversation on the telephone with her father, but remained estranged from him for the next five years. Then, in 1997, his relationship with Rula sensationally ended amid her claims of having to flee the family home because of his physical abuse.
Julia, who was doing A-levels at the time, was ‘devastated. People at school were saying, “We all read what your dad’s like in the newspaper.”
Waterman with baby Julia
‘Mum made a statement saying Dad had never been violent to her. I phoned him and he said, “It didn’t happen like that. I’m sorry, love. And I’m sorry it’s hurting you.”
‘He was destroyed by it. He kind of aged overnight.
‘The divorce was carnage and Dad became quite sick with stress. His skin started peeling off, he had deep anxiety. The work started drying up. With Rula gone, I felt like I could have a relationship with him, but it was difficult because he was in a bad way.’
Julia was struggling, too. She was at university in London and was, she says, ‘drinking really heavily. I remember saying to a mate I felt I’d had my childhood stolen’.
Once the divorce was finalised a year later, Dennis turned to pantomime which ‘paid quite well. He wasn’t in a position to choose at that stage’, says Julia. ‘That’s when he met Pam, which was a massive turning point.’
Pam, a warm-hearted, instinctive woman, ‘had a way with him — good and bad — and he wasn’t always the easiest man to get. She told us we need to talk.
‘We had some difficult conversations because I was angry with him and he felt horribly guilty.’
But, slowly, her relationship with her father grew as his romance with Pam flourished.
In 2001 he starred in My Fair Lady as Alfred Doolittle to sell-out performances, reviving his career.Julia, by now studying as a postgraduate at London’s prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, was delighted in the ‘change’ in her dad.
‘We’d sit in his dressing room, chat, eat takeaways. Our relationship started to glue. I’d always thought I’d act, too — that’s what my family did — but then . . .’ Julia’s jolly smile slips.
‘Dad’s career was going great, Hannah’s took off, then Mum appeared in EastEnders with her. There was lots of publicity around it which really unsettled me.
‘I was passionate about acting, but think to be famous is one of the worst things that can happen to your life — and they go hand-in-hand.’
Instead, Julia began a career in financial services and, in 2006, she moved to Australia.
‘I thrived. I had a really happy relationship with Coco’s father, Mark, and was out there when dad did his [now infamous 2012] interview with Piers Morgan.
‘I told him not to do it. After he did, he said: “I guess you were right. I shouldn’t have done it.’
‘I replied: “I didn’t want to be right Dad.”
‘I wasn’t surprised when he moved to Spain.’
Julia returned to the UK where she separated from Mark, who remains a hands-on parent to Coco, three years ago.
‘Dad was sad, but supportive during my divorce. He said, given his history, it was one thing he could give me advice on, and we both laughed.’
Today, she is happily settled in her relationship with Simon, who has been a huge support over the past few difficult months.
‘When I last saw Dad in hospital [shortly after his cancer diagnosis at the end of February], we talked . . . it wasn’t like in the movies where there’s some kind of big moment. It was just about being with each other. He was very calm and very sweet.
‘When we were chatting about Simon, he asked, “Are you happy?” I said I was. He then said, “The most important thing in life is to find someone who knows who you are. The last thing you want to do is to have to explain yourself for the rest of your life.”
‘I know he was trying to say that it had taken him a while to find the right person, which had caused a lot of unhappiness, but he’d found her in Pam.
‘When I got home, he rang and said something that stuck in my head: “Thank you for making it OK.” I said, “That’s all right. That’s what I do, isn’t it?” He said, “Yeah.”
‘I felt a lot was said in those few words. Years before, I had to decide whether I could forgive him and accept who he was, warts and all, or whether I should walk away.
‘The question I asked myself was: “If he died tomorrow, would I be OK with it if we didn’t have a relationship?’ The answer was no.
‘That’s what he was thanking me for: letting the past go. I’m so pleased I did because, in a funny way, we did have our happy-ever-after but it was . . .’
Her voice catches as the tears return. The words ‘cut short’ hang in the air. She doesn’t say them. She doesn’t need to.