|Portrayed by Leslie Grantham|
Created by Tony Holland
Son Dennis Rickman
Creator Tony Holland
|Duration 1985–1989, 2003–2005|
Played by Leslie Grantham
Daughter Vicki Fowler
TV show EastEnders
|First appearance Episode 1
19 February 1985|
Last appearance Episode 2891 18 February 2005
Introduced by Julia Smith (1985) Louise Berridge (2003)
Similar Dennis Rickman, Sharon Watts, Vicki Fowler, Chrissie Watts, Pauline Fowler
Dennis Alan "Den" Watts is a fictional character from the BBC soap opera EastEnders, played by actor Leslie Grantham. He became well known for his tabloid nickname, "Dirty Den".
- Casting controversy
- Character development and impact
- Dirty Den
- Den and Angie mania
- Arrest and demise
- Controversial return
- Impact on popular culture
Den was the original landlord of The Queen Victoria. He perhaps is best remembered for his stormy love-hate relationship with his alcoholic first wife Angie (Anita Dobson). After nearly 19 years of marriage, he finally handed divorce papers to her in the 1986 Christmas Day episode that was watched by a record-breaking 30.15 million viewers, more than half of the UK population at the time. He was also well known for his later involvement with the criminal gang known as The Firm that eventually led to an attempt on his life in 1989. For 14 years, it was believed that the Firm's attempt on his life had been successful, but he returned to Walford in September 2003. Seventeen months later, his character was killed off again, this time for good, at the hands of his manipulative second wife Chrissie (Tracey-Ann Oberman).
His character has been described by EastEnders executive producer Louise Berridge as being arguably one of the most iconic soap characters ever.
Den and his wife Angie Watts (Anita Dobson) are landlords of The Queen Victoria pub in Albert Square, Walford. Despite being married, in his late thirties and having a mistress in Jan Hammond (Jane How), Den is unable to turn down the advances of his adopted daughter Sharon Watts's (Letitia Dean) 16-year-old best friend, Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully), in 1985; they have sex one night after closing time in the Queen Vic. When 16-year-old Michelle falls pregnant, she refuses to name the father, fearing repercussions for Den and herself. When she gives birth to a daughter Vicki in 1986, Den is not allowed any contact with her; he is allowed to hold his daughter once and supported Michelle financially in secret. For many years the secret is kept hidden but Michelle's mother, Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard), is one of the first to realise the truth, igniting a feud between her and Den, which intensifies when he admits to her in January 1988 that he is indeed Vicki's father.
Den and Angie's marriage continues to sour, despite their strong professional personas. However, Angie struggles to contain her jealousy regarding Den's mistress, she grows depressed and attempts suicide during 1986. Still, Den makes plans to leave Angie permanently; hoping to stop him, Angie claims that she is dying and has only six months to live in October that year. Den chooses to stay with her and tries to rebuild their relationship, promising to be there for her until her death. He takes Angie to Venice for a second honeymoon, but liaises with Jan, who is also there. Feeling guilty about her lie, Angie gets drunk on the way home via the Orient Express and admits to a barman that she is not dying, unaware that Den has overheard her drunken confession. He bides his time and gets revenge by serving her divorce papers on Christmas Day.
The couple's divorce is finalized in 1987 and Angie damages Den by demanding a large divorce settlement. Den runs The Queen Vic alone, initially assisted by Jan, but this relationship ends when Jan grows disillusioned with Den's treatment of her. Den has a fling with the Vic's caterer, Magda Czajkowski (Kathryn Apanowicz), but is scorned when she eventually opts to date Simon Wicks (Nick Berry) instead. When he discovers that they are seeing each other, he punches Simon, sacks him and throws him out of his home in the Vic. Whilst single again, Den begins to realise that The Vic's trade is floundering without Angie. With some meddling from Sharon, Den and Angie decide to reunite as business partners and she returns to live at The Vic. However, it is short-lived, because Angie falls in love with her friend, Sonny. Realising that Angie is planning to leave him, Den visits a solicitor and makes certain that Angie has no claim on The Queen Vic. Angie leaves Walford for Spain in May 1988 with nothing, and they never see or hear anything of each other again.
Having had a lengthy association with the criminal organisation known as The Firm, Den's involvement escalates over the summer of 1988. He hands over the tenancy of the Vic to Frank Butcher (Mike Reid) and takes over Strokes wine bar, which he runs with Joanne Francis (Pamela Salem). The wine bar is merely a front to the Firm's illegal gambling den. When Kathy Beale (Gillian Taylforth) is raped by James Willmott-Brown (William Boyde), Den manipulates a Firm member, Brad Williams (Jonathan Stratt), to burn down The Dagmar (Wilmott-Brown's wine bar) in revenge, but this is against the Firm's wishes so when the police investigation starts suspecting the Firm's involvement and what the Strokes wine bar is really used for, The Firm's bosses force Den to take the blame for the arson in order to distance their organisation from the attack. They take Den to a safe house in Manchester, promising to alter his identity, but Den realises this is a cover and that the Firm are planning to kill him. Den escapes and hands himself in to the police to save his life and is remanded in custody in September 1988 at Dickens Hill prison.
In Dickens Hill, Den struggles initially, as many inmates refuse to trust him. Homosexual inmate Queenie Price (John Labanowski) takes an instant dislike to Den and suspects him of being a "grass", leading to Queenie and his friends beating him up in his cell. Despite this, Den unveils Queenie as the true prison-snitch and gains respect, rising through the ranks to become "No.1" of his landing. On the outside, the Firm still feel that Den is a liability; fearing that he will tell the police about their dealings and decide that Den has to die.
They ambush and kidnap Den when he is being accompanied to trial on 23 February 1989 but Den escapes again and makes plans to leave the country. He contacts Michelle, requesting that they meet by a canal where they have held secret meetings in the past, so he can say goodbye to her and Vicki. Unaware that the Firm is following her, Michelle unwittingly brings them to Den and he is shot by a man who is hiding a gun in a bunch of daffodils. A splash is heard, indicating that Den has fallen into the canal. The police search for Den's body but don't find anything until Sharon finds Den's signet ring for sale on a market stall in May 1990 and requests that the canal be searched again, unaware that Den was not wearing it when he was shot. This time, a body is found, and Sharon identifies it as Den. The body is buried that year.
In the intervnening years, Sharon and Vicki grow up, although not always living in Walford, and in early 2003 they discover that Den has a son he did not know of, Dennis Rickman (Nigel Harman), who joins them in Walford. Dennis was the product of Den's fling 30 years earlier with a woman called Paula Rickman.
Like Den, Dennis has involvement with the Firm, and after some digging he discovers that Den is not actually dead; after surviving the shooting in 1989, he fled to Spain with help from Jan and went under cover. Hearing this, Vicki traces Den and brings him back to Walford in September 2003. Sharon has mixed emotions: upset and anger, having assumed him dead for so many years. Den explains that the body found in the canal was that of Mr Vinnicombe, a senior member of the Firm, who was murdered as punishment for Den's escape and dumped in the canal, his teeth having been bricked out to prevent dental identification. Vinnicombe's body had wrongly been identified as Den's and Jan had assisted in this cover-up by planting Den's signet ring by the canal. Den's grievances with the Firm are pardoned by its acting boss, Andy Hunter (Michael Higgs), and Den returns to live in Walford to assist Sharon in managing her nightclub.
Den gets embroiled in a feud with Sharon's ex-boyfriend Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) after hearing Phil has hit her. He sleeps with Phil's sister Sam (Kim Medcalf), then dumps her promptly as part of his revenge tactic. He then promises another of Phil's former girlfriends, Lisa Fowler (Lucy Benjamin), that he will help her get back her daughter, who is in Phil's custody. Den talks Phil into accompanying him and Dennis on a warehouse robbery, but during the robbery, Den takes the money then obstructs Phil's getaway, and Phil is caught by the police and remanded. Phil manages to escape several weeks later, confronting Den on Christmas Day; in order to stop Phil attacking him, Den pays Phil off and Phil flees.
Family problems arise when Den discovers that Sharon and Dennis are in a romantic relationship; Den accuses it of being incest, despite Sharon and Dennis not being blood-related. He attempts to split them up, goading Dennis about his neglected childhood and the sexual abuse he experienced in a children's home. In fury, Dennis assaults Den and accidentally hits Sharon in a rage. Den tells Dennis that, in order to remain part of the Watts family, he must split from Sharon; Dennis obliges and begins a relationship with Zoe Slater (Michelle Ryan).
In 2004, it is revealed that Den had remarried whilst in Spain in 1999, and his estranged wife Chrissie (Tracy-Ann Oberman) arrives in Walford to collect some money from him. They then continue their romantic relationship. Den however still cannot remain monogamous, and when Chrissie discovers that he has been sleeping with Kate Mitchell (Jill Halfpenny), she threatens to kill him if he ever cheats again. To rebuild his family, Den attempts to regain the Vic from the Mitchells just before Christmas 2004; he blackmails their lawyer Marcus Christie (Stephen Churchett) into convincing Sam that Phil, who is still on-the-run, needs immediate money. Sam sells the Vic to Den at a vastly reduced price and he reinstates his family at the pub in time for Christmas. Things go awry when Den discovers that Sharon and Dennis have resumed their affair, and in order to split them up, Den persuades Zoe to lie that she is pregnant with Dennis's baby. Unwilling to allow Dennis to leave his unborn child, Sharon leaves Walford with Vicki leaving Dennis and Zoe unhappily together. In apparent retribution towards Dennis for inadvertently being the cause of Sharon's departure, Den manipulates Zoe into having sex with him so she can get pregnant and pretend the baby is Dennis's; when Dennis catches them having sex, Den appears pleased.
In the wake of this, Dennis leaves in search of Sharon but not before telling Chrissie about Zoe and Den's affair. When Zoe discovers she is pregnant with Den's child, Chrissie persuades her to abort and concocts a plan of revenge on Den to ruin him in the eyes of Sharon and gain ownership of the Vic. She recruits Zoe and Sam (both scorned by Den) and they confront him, setting it up for Sharon to discover Den's deeds. Sharon subsequently disowns Den in February 2005 and in a rage, Den violently throws Chrissie against a fruit machine and is only stopped by Zoe, who hits him over the head with an iron doorstop in the Vic. Den is assumed dead, but when Chrissie is alone with him, he stirs and grabs her ankle exclaiming "You'll never get me out of the Vic!"; Chrissie responds by hitting him on the head with the doorstop. He dies moments later. Sam secretly witnesses the fatal blow, but Chrissie continues to allow Zoe to think it is she who has killed Den. The three women bury Den in the Vic cellar and concrete it over. Arguments between the women occur, and Sam and Chrissie become embroiled in a feud to regain ownership of the Vic, with Sam blackmailing Chrissie and digging up Den's body in the hope that Chrissie will be imprisoned, and Chrissie subsequently framing Sam for Den's murder, which leads to Sam's imprisonment. Eventually the truth is revealed, and Chrissie is imprisoned after pleading guilty. Den is finally given a proper burial in his 'original' grave next to Angie.
In 2015, it is revealed that Den was once in a gang which included Eric Mitchell, Henry Hubbard, Ted Hills (Brian Croucher) and Gavin Sullivan (Paul Nicholas). Gavin is revealed to be Sharon's birth father, and it is said that Gavin and Den did a deal so that Den would adopt Sharon in exchange for Gavin being part of a criminal job that Den knew about.
Den Watts was one of the original twenty-three characters invented by the creators of EastEnders, Tony Holland and Julia Smith. The character of Den was originally going to be named Jack and he, his wife and adopted daughter were to be the occupants of the soap's local pub, now famously known as The Queen Vic. Holland, who had worked as a barman in his youth, called upon his own personal experiences to invent the Watts family and the pub they lived in. Holland and Smith had always been critical of the way pubs had been portrayed on television feeling they lacked vitality and life, so they were determined that their pub and occupants were going to be more realistic. The Watts were seen by Holland as integral to the show's success, partly because he had already guessed that the pub was going to be a monstrous battleground where emotions would run high on a regular basis, and also because the occupants would be providing the majority of the drama.
Den's original character outline as written by Smith and Holland appeared in an abridged form in their book, EastEnders: The Inside Story. In this passage, Den will be referred to as Jack, his wife as Pearl, his daughter as Tracey and his dog as Prince (known now as Angie, Sharon and Roly respectively)."Jack and Pearl are not criminals. They're not angels either. Villains perhaps? Well, he certainly is. They've been married for fifteen years, and haven't had sex with each other for thirteen of them. The marriage is a front for the sake of the pub's image. The daughter, Tracey is adopted—maybe for the same reason. They have a dog too—Prince—an Alsatian...Even with a marriage on the rocks, Jack still likes the area. His mates are here, it's friendly and it's his territory. "Local lad makes good"...People look up to him. If you've dragged yourself up by the scruff of the neck and moved up a notch, you need a few people around you who didn't quite make it, or you might as well be invisible. He's had a mistress for five years...Unlike Pearl, she's a very up-market woman, a lady, real class. Jack's her bit of rough, and they're happy. They actually talk. With Pearl, you shout - or shut up...He's a smart dresser. Changes his shirt twice a day and his shoes sparkle. He runs a good pub. He's firm and fair with the staff (if you've got any problems—go to him, not her.) The cellars are well organised and spotless. His masculinity is the key to his character. It was called into question at an early stage in his marriage and he's defended it ever since. Some call him a ladies' man (because of his good looks) others - a man's man...He's a con man and has the gift of the gab. He can defend himself smartly in a brawl. (He's only ever thumped Pearly once.) You can accept Jack being a snob—because it's not malicious: it's done with a grin. Like Pearl, he's also trapped by is background...Jack and Pearl's relationship is pretty heated...The smooth public face (workers in pubs are always on stage); the trial reconciliations; the rows; the fights and the tears...Will Jack ever bring his mistress into the pub, which is Pearl's territory? Will Pearl accept too many free drinks from punters and lose control in public?...They were lovers. They are husband and wife. There was affection...love...if it came to it, could they give each other up? The private grins and winks to each other when they're working as a team—which usually means taking money. The love turning to hatred...Jack the lad and the artificial Pearl...They're an electric couple." (page 74).
EastEnders' lead director Matthew Robinson recommended the actor Leslie Grantham for the part. Grantham had previously appeared on the London Fringe in a stage play Robinson had written. His only TV appearance at that point had been as Kiston, a small part in a 1984 Doctor Who serial Resurrection of the Daleks directed by Robinson. Julia Smith remembered that she had taught Grantham at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and regarded him as a "mature student", although she had never seen him "in action". They needed the character of Den to have "panache, charisma and electricity". They were initially uncertain about casting Grantham, but they both felt that the actor had "something", which they went on to describe as a "tensed up internal emotion of some sort, that was being held in. There was something behind the eyes, too. Barely contained violence almost..."
After a successful reading with the actress Jean Fennell (who was originally cast as Angie), he was offered the part. However, shortly afterwards Grantham contacted Smith and asked to speak to her urgently. He revealed that he had been found guilty of killing a German taxi driver while on army service in 1967, and spent 10 years in prison. Although there were fears that if this story got out, the resultant publicity would do enormous damage to the programme and the BBC, Smith decided not to withdraw Grantham from the role. In her opinion, he had paid the full penalty that society requires for a mistake committed in his past and it was a "Christian duty to forgive".
The story found its way into the British press much faster than expected. Three days after the transmission of episode one, EastEnders made the front page of a national newspaper for the first time with the headline "EASTENDERS STAR IS A KILLER." The security gates at Elstree Studios (where EastEnders is filmed) were swamped with journalists and photographers, and so began a "double-edged" relationship between EastEnders and the popular press. The devisers of the programme were quick to realise that whilst a newspaper's publicity may sometimes boost a soap's position in the ratings, it could equally help to tarnish it. In conjunction, soaps could help to sell newspapers, and from then on stories about EastEnders and the cast began to fill their pages. Grantham was hounded by the press and the BBC was forced to put out a statement supporting him and their decision to employ a convicted murderer. In order to keep the press at bay, Grantham was smuggled out of the studios by the back route and decoy cars were used to lure the press away from his home, all of which put an increasing strain on the actor. Eventually the furor quieted down, but it never went away entirely and nearly every article written about the actor during his first stint in the show referenced his past. Press began to blur the characters in the show with the actors and it was at this point that Julia Smith — in an attempt to dispel confusion about reality and fiction — introduced the rule that no actor was ever to appear in public "in character".
Character development and impact
Despite the controversy surrounding Grantham, the Watts, with Anita Dobson as the newly appointed Angie, were the surprise hit characters of the show. Angie and Den were a live-wire couple whose on/off relationship made the Queen Vic pub exciting and unpredictable and the viewers tuned in their millions to watch the destruction of their relationship on-screen. Den's clashes with Angie brought EastEnders to a peak of popularity and toppled rival soap Coronation Street from the top of the ratings chart.
In 1985, Den was the first person to speak on the first episode of EastEnders: "Stinks in here dunnit?" just before he found out that Reg Cox (Johnnie Clayton) had been murdered. Early on in the series, the character of Den became central to the programme and was the focus of a controversial storyline involving the teenage pregnancy of Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully). Press interest in the show escalated as journalists continuously tried to predict who had fathered Michelle's baby. In true whodunnit fashion, the audience had been kept in the dark as to the real identity of the father and were given teasers implicating several residents on the Square. The audience finally discovered the culprit in episode 66 of the programme, October 1985. The episode was written by series co-creator/script editor Tony Holland and directed by co-creator/producer Julia Smith, and was considered to be a landmark episode in the show's history. Four possible suspects were seen leaving the Square in the early half of the episode: Tony Carpenter (Oscar James), Ali Osman (Nejdet Salih), Andy O'Brien (Ross Davidson) and Den Watts. As Michelle waited by their rendezvous point a car pulled up and finally the fluffy white legs of Roly the poodle bounded out of the car, and gave it all away: Den Watts was the man meeting Michelle and it was he who had fathered her baby. It was when Den was revealed as the father that his famous nickname "Dirty Den" was created by the British press. The rest of the episode consisted of just one long scene, where Den and Michelle discussed whether or not to keep the baby. Up to that time it was the longest scene ever done in a soap-opera, lasting fifteen minutes. For a series that in its first eight months of existence had established a reputation for being fast-moving and rapidly cut, this was a bold experiment. It relied on just the one story and two actors to hold the audience for over half an episode. Tony Holland's handling of the awkward scene between a teenage girl and the father of her best friend is deemed as one of the highlights of EastEnders first year. The finishing touch was the use of an alternative end title music, a variation of the normal one which replaced the dramatic drum beats with a longer, gentler piano solo introduction.
After this storyline the programme started to appear in newspaper cartoons as it moved more and more into the public mainstream. One such cartoon showed the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, telling her cabinet that the best way to alert the country to the dangers of AIDS was to give the disease to Den.
Den and Angie mania
During 1986 the series became dominated by Den and Angie's storylines and the focus of the programme was very much concentrated on their combustible relationship. The emphasis began early in 1986 with the arrival of Den's mistress Jan Hammond (Jane How). Jan had been a powerful off-screen presence for the first year, a menacing voice at the end of the telephone, which severely affected the mood of both Den and Angie and kept the audience on edge every time the phone rang. Jan's physical arrival at the Vic in January 1986 was one of the show's dramatic highlights. Her invasion of Angie's territory was a springboard to future emotional fireworks and a precursor to Angie's further dependence on alcohol and her attempted suicide.
Den and Angie's traumatic two-hander episode in October 1986 was another risky experiment for EastEnders — A thirty-minute episode with only two people in it had never been attempted in a soap before. Holland and Smith feared that the episode would not hold up, however press and audience alike were in agreement that it did. Once it was done, it set a precedent and the programme has featured two-handers ever since. The episode was structured like a "tennis match" between Angie and Den, with a non-speaking window-cleaner forever strolling innocently into the action. It began with Den trying to tell Angie that he wanted a divorce. Angie was shocked and for a moment defeated, but she then dropped her bombshell and told Den that she only had six months to live. At first Den didn't believe her, but eventually Angie's hysterical performance convinced him. He crumbled and promised to stay with her and only after he left did Angie smile in triumph, letting the audience in on her secret that it was all a big lie. Written by Jane Hollowood and directed by Antonia Bird, this episode is considered to be one of the finest episodes in EastEnders' catalogue.
The Den/Angie/Jan triangle was to continue for many months. The climax was a trip to Venice when Angie — convinced that Den had finished with his mistress — was taken there for a second honeymoon, returning to London on the Orient Express. This gave the writers and producers an opportunity to open the show up from the confines of Albert Square. However the trip to Venice was fraught with problems and Dobson, Grantham and Jane How were hounded by the press at all times. Their photographs appeared in British newspapers, thus ruining the shock surprise that Tony Holland had created, by including Den's mistress in the episode. Despite huge efforts from all involved the Venice episodes were only moderately successful, although the revelations discovered by Den in the episode set the scene for one of EastEnders' most renowned episodes, which aired on Christmas Day that year. After over-hearing his wife confess that her illness was fabricated, Den filed for divorce. 30.1 million viewers tuned in on Christmas Day in 1986, to witness Den handing Angie her divorce papers, giving the soap its highest ever episode rating, which has yet to be beaten by any other plotline from any other soap in the UK.
This storyline saw the separation of Den and Angie. Holland and Smith had anticipated that Den and Angie would be popular, but they had not guessed how hysterical the reaction to them would be. It was decided that Den and Angie would have to be played down for a while so that other characters would have the opportunity to shine through. The next few years saw Den and Angie struggle to get by without each other and eventually they reunited as business partners.
Arrest and demise
However, at the beginning of 1988 Anita Dobson decided that she wanted to move on after three years playing Angie. She made her final appearance in May that year. Leslie Grantham had also decided that he wanted to move on, but Julia Smith didn't want the programme to suffer the double blow of losing both Den and Angie so close together. The solution to the problem was one of the soap's most complex and creative exercises, that required intricate planning. The idea was to enable Den to stay as an on-screen presence until 1989, while keeping Grantham working for EastEnders only until the autumn of 1988. Tony Holland and writer/editor Bill Lyons came up with a story to put Den in prison for a year, intending that material recorded in a block of intensive filming would then be included in the programme for the rest of the year. The programme didn't want to make Den into a criminal, however, so he had to be put in prison for doing something that could be justified to the viewing public — otherwise there would be no sympathy for him. The answer lay in a storyline that was running with another character — the rape of Kathy Beale (Gillian Taylforth). After simultaneously getting in way over his head with a criminal organisation (The Firm), Den torched Kathy's rapist's winebar in retaliation, and was then made to take the blame for the deed by the firm. After he refused, went on the run, and was nearly killed by the firm's heavies, Den turned himself into the police and was put on remand at Dickens Hill prison in September 1988. For the next five months he was seen, in the company of a small group of new characters also confined in the prison, on a regular basis in EastEnders. This material was shot in less than a month at Dartmoor Prison, Devon. When these segments were written and recorded, they were done so entirely in isolation and in advance - the production team had no real idea of other material that would have to fit around it.
The character was eventually to bow out on 23 February 1989 in one of the programme's most famous episodes which attracted more than 20 million viewers. After escaping from custody, Den returned to the famous canal (in Alperton) for one last rendezvous with Michelle. The episode ended with Den being shot by a member of the firm (who was carrying a gun concealed in a bunch of daffodils) and then falling into the canal. The scene where Den actually hit the water had to be taped at the BBC's Ealing Film Studios using a water tank, because the waters of the Grand Union Canal were deemed unsafe. When the episode was finished, however, Jonathan Powell, controller of BBC1, requested that the final shot be removed to allow for the possibility of Den returning at a later date. In protest, Tony Holland and Julia Smith had their names taken off the episode's credits. Den's exit ended up being the creators' final contribution to the show.
However, after 14 years presumed dead, executive-producer Louise Berridge made the highly controversial decision to reintroduce the character to the series and reunite him with his daughter Sharon, played by Letitia Dean. Grantham has alleged that the producers of EastEnders asked him to reprise the role many times since 1991, but he turned each offer down as he was unhappy with the returning storylines. Subsequent offers between 1995 and 2001 were also rejected because Den's screen family were no longer in the show and Grantham felt that a return at this time would have been little more than a publicity stunt. However, he accepted Berridge's offer to return in 2002 as he approved of the storyline and because Den had family ties within the cast - his adoptive daughter Sharon had returned after six years away, his other daughter Vicki was due to return, and Dennis Rickman (Nigel Harman) - the son Den hadn't known existed - was also due to join.
The reintroduction of Den was part of a plan by scriptwriters to fight back against the continued success of ITV's long-running soap, Coronation Street. The character made his "dramatic return" in an episode that aired on 29 September 2003. On-screen, Den walked into Sharon's nightclub, Angie's Den, and greeted his stunned daughter with the words "Hello, princess." More than 16 million viewers watched his long-awaited homecoming, attracting 62% of the viewing public; it has been voted as the favourite TV soap comeback in an AOL online poll of over 23,000 viewers, taking over a third of the vote (37%).
Although the character's return was popular with many viewers, the British press branded the plot unrealistic and felt that it questioned the show's credibility. A severe press backlash followed after actor Leslie Grantham was outed in an internet sex scandal, which coincided with a swift decline in EastEnders ratings. Newly appointed executive-producer Kathleen Hutchison then made the decision to axe the character and he was killed off in a high-profile storyline, which saw his body buried in the cellar of The Queen Vic.
Grantham has denied that he was dismissed from the show as punishment for the internet sex scandal. He has claimed in his autobiography that he only ever intended to return to the soap for 18 months so his character's second demise would tie in with the show's 20th anniversary.
In 2006, EastEnders' scriptwriter Tony Jordan revealed how it was his idea to bring Den back in 2003. Jordan had started working at EastEnders in 1989, after Den had already left the series. Jordan had always wanted to write material for Den and Angie and so he campaigned for the return of Den for many years. He told the Daily Mirror, "At story conferences I'd say, 'How do we know he's dead? They never found a body'. Eventually, just to shut me up, they made me write an episode where Den's body was found and identified by his ring." Jordan finally got his way in 2003; however, according to the writer, Leslie Grantham's internet sex scandal spelled the demise of the character. Commenting on this, Jordan said, "If [the scandal] hadn't come out I think it would have worked and he'd still be in the show. When I saw him on screen after those revelations came out, suddenly I couldn't believe in the character any more. I was starting to love the character and buying into all of it, but after that I saw him as Leslie Grantham - not Den Watts. He was older, and flawed in all the wrong ways. I think a lot of viewers felt the same, and the cast as well, probably."
Despite the controversy surrounding Grantham, the character of Den remains one of the most popular and high-profile characters in EastEnders history and was voted the 75th greatest television character of all time in a Channel 4 poll. He has also been branded the villain "you most love to hate" and was voted the number one TV Bastard in a 2002 poll In addition, the moment when Den served Angie divorce papers has been voted the number one soap moment of all time in a 2004 poll.
Impact on popular culture
In the short story Brief Encounter: Mistaken Identity by Gary Russell, published in Doctor Who Magazine Edition 174, the mercenary Lytton meets Den Watts in the Queen Victoria and mistakes him for Davros's adjudant Kiston. Leslie Grantham had played Kiston in an early television role in the Doctor Who serial Resurrection of the Daleks.
The 2006 episode of Doctor Who entitled "Army of Ghosts" features a scene where Peggy Mitchell tells the "ghost" of Den to "get outta my pub!" as the only spirits that will be served are vodka, whiskey and gin. Leslie Grantham is not seen in this episode.
In 1986 the duo Whisky and Sofa released a single called "Dirty Den", with lyrics making direct references to the character.
In an episode of the fifth season of Old Harry's Game, Satan (the main character), takes control of the BBC and, in an effort to improve human morality, decides to insert moral messages into EastEnders, including reintroducing Den as a "force for good", when executives challenge Den's reintroduction, stating that he can no longer feature in the show as he was murdered, Satan replies dismissively "Oh, he's always being murdered", a reference to Den's 2003 resurrection.