Charles Dance was being grilled about his new status as the "thinking woman's pinup," as one British women's magazine labeled him, and he was plainly embarrassed.

"I don't want to be stuck with a handsome sex symbol image, and when they call me Britian's answer to Robert Redford, it makes me shudder," said the tall (6-foot-3), elegantly handsome actor, one of the start of "The Jewel in the Crown," which will wind up its 14 weeks on American public TV Sunday night. "Just think of it--it would mean I can't have bloodshot eyes in the morning."

Dance's eyes are anything but bloodshot as he sits straight-backed and lean, sticking to a diet of fish and fresh orange juice in a restaurant close to his home in North London. The eyes are hooded and ocean green under short-cropped sandy hair, an image that is making an amazing impression on women whereever "The Jewel in the Crown" plays.

TV's newest heartthrob turns out to be an incurable romantic, by parts old-fashioned and modern--the assertive, yet vulnerable, man.

"Women like to be wooed and then won," opined Dance. "They want romance. They yearn for it. For most women vulnerability in a man is attractive. To be shy is attractive. For a man to blush turns a woman on...Gentleness means more to them than some great hulk, flexing his muscles, who's into wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am."

There was certainly none of that as far as Sgt. Guy Perron was concerned, going off with the colonel's daughter to a lavish but unused summer palace to make love to her in the afternoon, a scene that brought Dance a flood of fan mail. Almost overnight, it turned him into the Ronald Colman of the '80s.

"Men have come to realize that macho is not necessarily masculine," insisted Dance, 38, as he set off for a promotional trip to Boston, Washington, New York and other points east. "There's room for the romantic hero in the cinema again. Women are tired of being sex objects; they want romance. And quite right!"

It was this passionate but sensitive attitude that he conveyed in his performance in the 15-hour $7-million "Jewel," which is set in India during the 1940s as the Raj's crown slipped sideways and finally toppled altogether. It also caught Meryl Streep's fancy as she looked for a leading man for her new movie, "Plenty." She watched five hours of it in a viewing theater in New York--then approved Dance as her co-star.

He's been called "enigmatic...leaving women wanting to know more about...," and "that's just the way it should be," he agrees. "They're the most interesting ones. It's always better to leave people wanting more. Everyone is attracted to actors who underdo it rather than overdo it.

"The mail I get--the women are writing to Guy Perron, not me. That's all they know, the man they saw on the screen. If they met me, I know they'd expect me to behave like him--I'm sure of it. But I'd stay me. I'd never act the part in public. Women just fantasize over the romantic character they see."

Dance has been a long time arriving--15 years an actor in the wings with occasional forays into the spotlight. The sone of an engineer, he was born in Plymouth, complete with a boyhood stammer that vanished at the age of 12, before he caught the acting bug in college.

A brief spell in graphic design and he decided to plump for acting, full time. But instead of heading for drama school, he found two local worthies in the West Country who taught acting on the lines of the ancient strolling mummers. One was named Leonard Bennett, the other Martin Burkhardt, colleagues of Laurence Olivier. Their base was the local Royal Oak pub, where they charged eager young recruits two pints of mild been per lesson.

"There was this huge man in a battered suit with two mangy dogs at his feet and a pint of beer in his fist. He called me over and said: 'Buy me another drink, boy!' When I'd done that, he sat me down, opened my mouth and peered inside before pronouncing: 'You've got a closed throat. We'll have to do something about that!"

That was Leonard Bennett. For 18 months he gave young Charles daily lessons in an old printing works behind the pub.

"I still remember him shouting: 'Go back to the first line, boy.' Their cottage was filled with five goats, two dogs, a cat and racks of commentaries on Shakespeare." It became Dance's springboard to a new life.

Summer stock in the seaside town of Colwyn Bay led to the prestige trappings of Chichester Rep and finally the illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company, where he served with distinction, producing a memorable Coriolanus in a tour of Shakespeare's somber and overlong tragedy.

Dance tried "bits and pieces" on TV and managed a "spit and cough" in the James Bond thriller, "The Spy Who Loved Me." You'll have seen him as a German heavy, predictably called Klaus, with one one--or rather two words, "Get in!"--before being knocked off on a beach with a harpoon in his back just as he was about to eliminate Roger Moore. Exit Klaus.

"I hated that film. Three weeks in Corfu for two words. I rehearsed them over and over again in front of the mirror, but in the end I lost out to all the hardware. But it was a lesson."

It was his first film.

"Plenty" is only his second--in a starring role opposite one of America's most bankable actresses. The film, from 20th Century Fox, is scheduled for release in the fall.

"I felt a bit bemused," he admits now, "like a new boy on his first day at school. The rules are different, the pecking order is absurd. They brought me a chauffeur-driven limousine, gave me coffee, called me 'sir.' Once it was all over I was traveling by bus again...

"Meryl I found a little distant. I hardly got to know her. We had dinner a couple of times, and all we talked about was the script. But that's all right; it's fine with me. You have to be selfish as an actor because in the final analysis it's you up there on the screen who's being judged, and no one else."

In "Plenty" he plays the ineffectual diplomat husband of a fiery, independent woman who was a wartime resistance heroine, chasing her like a pet poodle, decked out in a thoroughly English blazer and cravat.

It was the four months he spent in India on "Jewel" that changed his life--and his fortunes. "You can't spend that long in India without being overwhelmed. It's so big and so full of contradiction. I tried to keep a diary but in the end I gave up.

"But the experience is still there, inside me. I'll never forget it."

When Dance strode onto the small screen in "Jewel," something happened. the postman was the first to notice--sacks of mail from ardent women fans.

"Women wrote extraordinary things," he says. "One wrote from Scotland asking me to bring the family up to stay in her manse for a month. I knew it was me she was after, but she figured that if she could get the others along I might be persuaded to go."

He didn't. His marriage is alive and well after 15 years. He married his artist wife, Joanna, after a youthful romance in Plymouth, and they have two children--Oliver, 10, and 4-year-old Rebecca.

The only sign of his new fame and fortune is that they might move out of their three-bedroom terrace flat in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's constituency of Finchley, North London, for "something bigger--with a studio."

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