Crossroads star Paul Henry takes on a role which has an air of familiarity about it, writes Lorne Jackson.
Paul Henry is remembered for playing Benny Hawkins in the TV series Crossroads during the 1970s and 80s.
Benny wasn’t the brightest character to emerge from planet soap opera. Underneath his soft woolly hat lurked a soft woolly brain.
Gazing into his eyes was like staring at the backdrop in a John Wayne flick. An empty vista of echoing sky, stretching all the way to the horizon, with only a few clouds drifting past to break the monotony.
If Benny had been a cartoon character, cute little bluebirds would have fluttered and chirped round his head, just to emphasise how dumb he really was.
Henry played stupid to perfection, making his character slightly smarter than a plank, though not quite as intellectually curious as plankton.
Maybe the Aston-born actor was too good. After the Crossroads years, precious few juicy parts came his way. Although there was another reason his career juddered to a halt, which we’ll get to eventually.
But first the good news.
Paul Henry is back, tackling a very different role from the one that made him famous. Next week he’s playing Tony Hancock at the Alexandra Theatre.
Hancock’s Finest Hour, a new version of an old play, focuses on the comedian’s life-defining face-to-face TV interview with John Freeman, which took place in 1960.
In the course of the interview, Freeman asked Hancock a series of penetrating questions which had a disastrous effect on the performer.
Afterwards, the funny man began taking himself very seriously indeed, questioning his purpose as a popular entertainer.
Eventually Hancock attempted to break free of the familiar persona that had made him Britain’s most lauded comic actor.
All he succeeded in doing was ridding himself of his own spectacular success.
As his popularity waned, Hancock sunk into depression, eventually taking his life in Australia, where he had been struggling to resuscitate his career.
Heavy stuff. Much heavier than playing a goggle-eyed goofball in a woolly hat.
In preparation, Henry has had a few practice runs, performing the play in small towns. But he admits the Birmingham gig is the crucial date in the calendar.
If all goes well, he hopes to take the play all the way to London’s West End.
So how did he prepare for what could very well be a career regenerating role?
“This is probably the biggest challenge of my career,” he admits.
“However, I decided early on that I wasn’t going to do an impression of Hancock. I think if I could do an impression of somebody like that I’d be a genius. “Even attempting it would be a really bad idea. I’d just get caught out, and people wouldn’t enjoy it so much if I was doing a crude version of Tony.
“Anyway, it’s not that sort of play. This is a story that’s far more interested in the inner turmoil of the man, not the outside mannerisms.
“Saying that, quite a few people who have seen me performing, have said that I’m sounding like Hancock, and looking like him. But that’s probably because the piece is quite well written.
“All I’m concentrating on is trying to really show someone who is going through a huge emotional shake-up in their life. That’s at the heart of the play, and that’s what makes it an interesting piece.”
Perhaps Henry didn’t spend hours studying the life of Hancock, or watching classic performances of the lad himself.
But the truth is that he didn’t need a map or compass to discover his inner Tony. The striking similarities between Hancock and Henry were clear enough already.
“We both were famous for wearing a hat,” chuckles Paul. “To get into character for this role, all I’ve had to do is change the hat!”
The actor pauses for a moment, then opts to be less flippant. “I suppose in a way we both had to wage a war against typecasting. Just like Hancock, I ended up playing the sort of popular character who got trapped in the public imagination.
“That’s certainly what the Benny character was.
“People ended up expecting me always to be Benny, so I had to try and break away from that if I wanted a career beyond Crossroads.
“Hancock lived at a time when typecasting was prevalent. And I was at the end of that era. I also suffered from the fact that I had been in a soap. Things have changed, now. But when I was younger, actors didn’t want to get too involved in the world of soap opera. I had even turned down Crossroads in the past, before agreeing to take the part of Benny.
“So starring as Hancock, I can certainly understand how he felt that his success had ended up being a sort of prison.”
The trauma of typecasting and a Birmingham background aren’t the only things that Hancock and Henry share.
Both performers wrestled with deep unhappiness.
Hancock, of course, never recovered from that struggle with his inner demons. Henry is still standing. Though his wounds smart and sting.
Just after he left Crossroads, his teenage daughter, Justine, was killed in a car crash.
“This year my daughter would be 40,” he says. “We’re having a little thing at the cemetery with friends of hers from school. You see, she’s been dead 21 years, now. The memories never go away. If she was to walk in now, I’d be like, ‘Where have you been?’ Like she has been gone five minutes.”
More than the struggle against typecasting, it was the death of his daughter that really damaged his career. The lets pretend profession no longer seemed important. A once ambitious actor started to drift.
“I got involved in pubs and stuff, but... I did some silly things over those years.
“I was getting involved in businesses where I was putting money in, but not doing anything, if you know what I mean.
“I just don’t remember a lot of things. I don’t think I had the enthusiasm, or that sort of drive, or the motivation to do a lot. It was at a period when, perhaps, I made mistakes by not doing things. But I just didn’t have the drive, as such. Even now, after all these years, I don’t think anything’s healed. You just get used to it. I guess you have to take it on the chin, as Hancock says in the play.”
It’s entirely understandable, though a great pity, that Henry’s ambition was replaced by an extended period of mourning and meandering.
He could have been a more highly regarded actor if tragedy hadn’t struck his household. The talent was there – and the training.
Before the Crossroads years, Henry spent many years as a stock actor with the Birmingham Rep, playing a variety of roles opposite performers who later reached the pinnacle of their profession.
In A Midsummer’s Night Dream he traded lines with Ronnie Barker. The older actor must have been impressed, as he later wanted Henry to star alongside him in the sitcom, Porridge. (Though the role of Lennie Godber eventually went to Richard Beckinsale.)
“When I came into the business, there were Reps all over the country,” recalls Henry. “The great thing was that if you went into Rep, that was where you could make all your mistakes, learn your craft.
“I’m not saying the kids today aren’t good. But you have to make your mistakes before you can get good.
“And I worked with so many who impressed me. Ronnie Barker had impeccable comic timing. Derek Jacobi was one of the hardest working actors I ever met. When I worked with him at the Birmingham Rep, he’d spent an hour after rehearsals going through his script on his own.
“My first season at the Rep, there were people like Mike Gambon, Brian Cox and Tim Dalton. They would be there for six months, or a year.
‘‘It was so much fun. I’d leave the house at nine o’clock in the morning and wouldn’t get back to the house until midnight. We’d rehearse all day, then play the show at night.
“I remember a little old bar round the back of the theatre, where we would all end up, including stage hands. But with the move from the Old Rep to the new one, we all split up, because everybody started getting posh.”
Henry believes it wasn’t just theatre workers who were becoming increasingly upmarket.
When he first trod the boards, a revolution was in progress. The lure of the theatre was attracting people from all stations in life, not just the middle classes.
That ticket buying expansion has now been reversed, he fears.
Appearing in a touring version of Run For Your Wife last year, he noticed that the audience was largely made up of the Pringle pullover and pearl necklace brigade.
As the proud son of working class parents, Henry hopes his turn as Hancock will attract a more egalitarian audience.
There have already been encouraging signs. At least that’s the way he chose to interpret a recent performance that resulted in him getting heckled and almost manhandled.
“This bloke in the audience must have been a big Hancock fan,” says Henry.
“He was screaming out all his phrases. You know, ‘Oh, stone, me!’ That sort of thing.
“At the end of the show, he jumped up on stage, and I thought he was going to chin me. But he was just there to shake my hand.
“He said ‘I’ll buy you a drink after.’ Though I never saw him again. I think he might have had a few.
“It was a bit worrying, because I was concentrating so hard, as I wasn’t fully into the role at that point.
“But to be perfectly honest, I’d like to see more of that sort of thing in the theatre. People are meant to get excited and over-emotional.
“The story of Tony Hancock is pretty powerful stuff. Hopefully it will have audiences on the edge of their seats. Though leaping onto the edge of the stage is probably going a little bit too far.”
* Hancock’s Finest Hour is at the Alexandra Theatre from Monday until June 26. For more information, www.AlexandraTheatre.org.uk