Interviewee: Harry Fowler [HF]
Interviewer: David McGillivray [McG]
With occasional interventions by Mrs Catherine “Kay” Fowler [KF]
Transcription by David Sharp.
NB: Some background noise is present from time to time. Where possible I have clarified points made, and inserted missing or forgotten names. [DS]
[preliminary setting up conversation]
David McGillivray [McG]: Here we go. Harry tell me where and when you were born.
Harry Fowler [HF]: I was born in 1926. There was a great strike and we had a recession, like we’re having now. I think the day after I was born it all changed for the good. I was born at a place called Lambeth Walk which was put on the map, the “famous” map that is, by a man called Lupino Lane who was doing a show called Me and My Girl which has been produced many times since, and it put Lambeth Walk on the map. Lambeth Walk was a very famous- typical of London – market streets, that were open until Saturday night at midnight, when eventually butcher’s shops and fish shops auctioned off, which was when most people, which was why it was packed at midnight. I suppose people didn’t have a pot to pee in, everything was cut [price], it was packed, like Piccadilly Circus. The other anecdote I’ve got about it is – I think it was the early part of the war - a man called Wendell Willkie who was a potential president of the United States, he was a Republican. He came over here obviously to get publicity and so on, he did London, and one of the things that he did because it was on the map at the time was visit Lambeth Walk and he went into a pub there that my granny frequented, and who I was brought up by, by the way, by granny, and he was telling everyone [American accent] “how wonderful the British are.” And he left the pub and he was interviewed again by somebody on this newspaper and he said “yes” and as they left, he put his hand into his inside coat pocket and his wallet had gone. [laughs] So I mean that’s what went on and that’s why I remember the name Wendell Willkie. You know it could have happened to Robert Donat and I’d have remembered because it was Robert Donat. I can see him now, bragging outside the pub [Does American drawl] “Your ‘re all wonderful people” as the English always are to American people, “Gahd you’re a wonderful people”. So that was it, I was born there and I had a very happy childhood albeit it was like so many people, ten people living in two rooms, spending most of the night killing bugs. But, however in the long run of course I realise that the transition to my later life was much more appreciated than if I’d been to Eton, or somewhere like that.
McG: What’s the name on your birth certificate Harry?
HF: Henry James Fowler, cos I had an uncle who was called Henry and Henry sounds much more dignified and middle class than Harry.
McG: When did you become Harry?
HF: Not very long after I’d started school because Harry was a sissy’s name, I mean Henry was a sissy’s name. Harry was a nice down to earth first name. So Harry – I became Harry. And it’s with me to this day, when I started in the business I was, by that time: self-inflicted: Harry Fowler. It’s not deed of poll or anything like that.
McG: Can I say nobody suits a name more than you. I fact you often play people called Harry, don’t you?
HF: Yes, I have done, yeah. It’s all based on the early childhood, all those characters.
HF: As we carry on, I’ll tell you what was my greatest asset when I came into the business, and which if I wasn’t retired now, I’d still be in today. It was in fact that all I knew was cockney, which was the local accent so when I went to do my first picture at Elstree in 1940, 41, they were all a bit astounded because this was the first genuine cockney voice they heard. Because all those kids who were in this film came from acting school. Where it seemed to me, they were deemed to have the great talent taken out of them. In other words, the way they normally spoke, they were submitted to elocution lessons, so everybody – if you go and see any early English films - bus drivers [puts on “posh” voice] “tork laik that. There’s no more room upstairs” We used to have policeman who say “Hello, hello, what’s going orn he-ar” [Laughs] I thought “cor blimey”. Happily, there were enough liberal directors about who said “the cockney kid’s the real Mccoy” you know.
McG: Tell me about your parents. Why were you brought up by your granny?
HF: Because my parents split when I think I was a year and a half old. My mother came and took my sister and when she came to take me, my Granny told her to “piss off!” And, er, grannies are wonderful people, everybody loves their granny. I don’t know why but they always seem to be of a kinder origin and they infuse it into you so Granny , a kind lady, brought me up. My father was at that time a travelling scenic artist and didn’t spend a great deal of time at home. In any case he’d have had to sleep on the floor because there was no room anywhere. I actually slept the first ten years of my life between my granny and grandfather in the bed at night, which OK when you’re one, two, three, four or five, but if it had to happen now, I think I’d go into a working mans’ home or something. [This may be a reference to a hostel or workhouse. DS]. In retrospect, not very pleasant.
McG: What did your grandmother do? Did she work?
HF: Granny, Granny did everything. She – if I was writing a book, if I wrote a bit about Granny’s life, this is the way she got her living. They used to go on a rota to wash bodies out at the local undertaker. I think they got two shillings [10p] for it called washing up time, kind of embalming and so on. Granny used to make toffee apples on a copper [a water boiler, more often used for boiling/washing clothes. DS] in this kitchen and sell them at the window of this funny little house to passers-by – I don’t think she made much at it. Any kind of work that was going, washing up lavatories and places. Apart from that she lived on ten shillings a week pension supplemented by – wonderful, all working class people did it in those days, there was a thing called the tally man who would come to the door – another little anecdote - we’d say “you got any sheets, lavatory cleaner” that sort of thing, and it was the custom to buy a pair of sheets: two bob [Two shillings, i.e. 10p] or something. My granny bought those sheets and they were never ever opened. In fact, the day she was killed – she was killed by the bombing – [they were] still in a - rather tattered nevertheless-polythene cover. Because Monday she bought them, you pay a penny a week after that, until the two bob is paid. Friday I always went to the pawn shop with her to pawn them for a tanner [ Sixpence, about 2.5 pence]. Went back on Monday and paid eight pence to redeem them, and got rid of them again on the following [Friday].
And so it became part of, a subsidy if you will, for your living expenses and that’s a very hard life for her looking back. This is why when I come to it, the extraordinary gap between what I was earning, as you know, and what I got on my first picture.
McG: Where did you go to school?
HF: I went to four schools. I must have had, I was anxious, I’d a feeling in the back of my head that somehow, I knew I would have to get out of this way of life. It wasn’t – kids around me I saw of 14 and 15 had left school: A lot of them were thieving and things like that. So, I used to take great interest in English, the language, and I did quite well at compositions. I was admired by teachers for it. I eventually got to grammar school which took a bit of doing in those days. I was going to go into college but granny said I couldn’t do that because I’d have to go out and work to do that at fifteen, no fourteen. I think I actually lowered my age in order to get a job, or it didn’t help the economic situation indoors, the expenses. I still, as Kay will tell you, I often talk of my granny, she was the great love of my life and I always remember too, most of my friends have [a] sense of humour which immediately draws me to them, and I hope I can say the same about myself, and my granny undoubtedly had a sense of humour. When I reflect the hardship of that life and she rose above it. Always telling neighbours stories that were funny and so on and I think she gave me a personality.
McG: You’re a very funny man Harry. Do you think you got most of it from your gran?
HF: My gran and the living conditions. You were that poor, the only thing you could do was rise above it by being cheerful. It’s no good sitting down in the [air raid] shelter during the war and saying “its gonna come on me tonight”. You went in that shelter knowing it wasn’t going to happen to you. After ten minutes of community singing people would say “ere what do yer fink ‘appened to me yesterday?”
You didn’t even know there was a war on. You know, you’d immediately attach yourself – you know really the only weapon they had was neighbourly, neighbourly[ness] and community which of course, sadly, is lacking today. Mainly because of all the foreign [high rise] architecture. They were all streets then, albeit, they might have been slums but they were streets, I lived in a street of I think eighteen houses: I knew everybody in those houses – absolutely everybody. And when Granny Fowler hadn’t got any tea, Mrs Grimes next door would say “Ere you are” and give her half a cup full of tea. And vice versa and that’s how they lived.
McG: Well Harry you have had a remarkable life. You’ve worked with some of the greatest directors in British film history from the forties right up to the 21st century, with virtually everyone whose name we know. We look at your career and think it seems wonderful. As you look back now, what are your feelings?
HF: I feel, I’m ever grateful that I got into showbusiness as I did. I was overwhelmed by this: the first thing that struck me or strikes me now was the personality of these people. They had no reason to feel hard done by because they were all on a fairly good living. Even the technical workers, the assistant directors, a reasonable comparatively good living. But they all had personality which I didn’t know. My granny had it in retrospect, but most people didn’t, they were so down trodden. I always like the English way where people say, they’ll have one day of sun, a nice sunny day, half way through that day of sun, they’ll say to each other: “We’ll pay for this on Thursday – it’ll rain on Thursday.” That seems to be the major characteristic of these poor souls, you know, but that was how it was round there, and when I got into film business, extraordinary: the extravagance and generosity of the people in terms of companionship and friendship and they all had anecdotes. I’d never heard anecdotes ‘cos we all lived in one street and we never moved out of it, it was territorial. But these people all had anecdotes. You find yourself listening – I’d never heard it before.
McG: What was your earliest ambition?
HF: To be a newspaper man. That’s how I got in showbusiness, inadvertently.
McG: You wanted to be a journalist?
HF: [laughing] yes, yes. That’s how it all really began. I was doing a job. My first job was coiling armatures, which were part of, for airplane engines. A very boring job, you just coiled and coiled.
McG: In London?
HF: In Lambeth, opposite Lambeth Church where incidentally Rear-Admiral Blyth was buried with his two stillborn children. We used to run round his grave and say if you run round three times, he comes out and grabs you, so nobody ever ran round that grave three times: two and a half, and then [they] ran away. Well, I was working at this place and it was about, I think it was six, seven shillings [30 – 35 pence] a week, plus a war bonus.
McG: You were fourteen.
HF: Yes, I was fourteen or just under, and the second week I got a penny war bonus, and I thought that was a bit of a liberty, so I told the foreman, and he said “if you don’t like it ‘op it”. So, I found myself saying “alright then, alright, I’ll leave it”. So, he said “Alright then come back here tomorrow and get the rest of your wages”, your six bob or whatever it was. And I straight away bumped into a kid In Lambeth. He said “ah, there’s a great, fantastic job you can have.” I said “What’s that?” He said “I work for the Star newspaper.” “What,” I said: “The Star?” “Yeah” he said, “you come up to Bouverie Street on Blackfriars Bridge there.” So, I did, I went to the Star and a big man came out he looked like an FBI man really. He had a big overcoat on and a Stetson hat. And he said “now what do you wanna do?” So, I said I’d like to be a reporter. And he said “what, on The Star?” I said “Yes, crime preferably, I like a little bit that covered crime” He said “Well” – we reflected on this, this man and I years later – he said “well. That can happen but you have to start at the bottom”. “What’s that doing?” He said “Deliver to news vendors. The newspapers”. So, it all became very, very lucky. His name was Harry Foster. Lovely, lovely, man. And I got the pitch in the west end of London.
HF: Right: I used to wait for the van three or four times a day: I’d get a bus and I go to – well I’d get the first edition from Bouverie Street, and the van used to drop me at the stage door of the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street. Then I’d have to return there three or four times a day to pick up the other editions, and that’s how it all began on this newspaper job, which I loved. Had a great driver and his assistant, Billy and Joe, two wonderful men. Very kind. They said “keep in this job, you’ve got a job for life. Strong union, get what we want, you know what I mean.” I have to say – the West End in those days was Hollywood. It was fantastic.
HF: It was integration at its very best. Italian cafes, Cypriot people, French people, Italians, all very big. I’ve always taken to people with big personality and all of those, people, they move their hands when they talk, they gesticulate and I’d been born in a street where “Doomsday” you know. “ ’ere, did you hear about ‘er dying?” Or “In a bleedin’ ‘ospital she was” – and why shouldn’t they be like that because their lives were destined to be nothing but doom, you know.
McG: Were you subconsciously copying these new people that you were meeting?
HF: Oh, it was all sinking in. You don’t realise it at the time but it’s in your subconscious. But, yes, I was finding myself not mimicking them but – mimicking them in a way – I was adopting their gregarity [gregariousness] They were gregarious people so different in those days to the people I’d come home to. And they were all, there were all, there were a lot of characters there. To cut a long story short I eventually tumbled, through my driver and his assistant, Joe and Billy, that one of the privileges you had was that you could get a few papers for yourself to sell locally if it was possible. Well, the only place you could do that was in the West End and I discovered clubs, drinking bars. So, I’d go in, remember the war was on and shout out things like “Here’s the Star Paper: Germans in Berlin” and all that, and I became a bit of a character. And the guys in the bar and other people used to give me a bit of silver, give me a tanner [Sixpence, about 2.5 pence DS] for a penny paper. Fantastic. So, I got known in these bars. Also, another attribute there was you couldn’t get cigarettes during the war. They were always under the counter. There was one edition of the Star newspaper that was entirely dog racing, and racing, the whole paper was racing and they only printed a limited number so they were hard to come by, so I did deals with newspaper shops and various others around that area right down as far as Trafalgar Square almost: “I’ll give you a couple of these papers if you let me have a few cigarettes”, which they did. And one of my best customers was a girl on the front office of the Leicester Square cinema. Couldn’t get her Players fags [slang: cigarettes] or Ardath or whatever it was So, she’d give me tickets to there. “Are you going to Leicester Square cinema? Cor Blimey” I mean I’d grown up in the cinema in the Methodist Church, run by a man called Reverend Thomas Tiplady, and that’s where I watched – that was our escape, that was our major escape, going back to combining it with my career.
McG: You brought this subject up. What sort of films did you enjoy as a boy?
HF: First thing we used to say is if there was a good picture on, so the first thing you ask was “Any love parts?” So, they’d say “no, not in this.” Because we hated love parts. If blokes started kissing Rosalind Russell or somebody we’d say “come on, hurry up, get on with it”. [laughter] The kids would revolt. I fell in love straight away with the Cagneys, and the early Bogarts, Paul Muni and all these people; cowboys like Ken Maynard, and Tom Mix; and I’ve often told Kay, my wife, this was escapism, and it had an enormous effect on me when a lorry driver in an American film came home with a brown bag under one arm, full of groceries, opened this door and opened a fridge and the bloody thing was fully illuminated and he’d take some milk out, put the bag down take a little swig and [loud American accent] “Hey, I’m home darling!” and this fridge was all alight – “What the hell is that?” I realise now, I thought “that’s for me” Of course you had to find out what it was. Every working man in American films did this – they all had fridges. [I’d] never heard of a fridge never heard of an inside lavatory. Never heard of a bath, never heard of those things and all these were ordinary working-class men. The other thing was a conception I now realise was that in American films, working men were the leads. In English films there were no working men leads. I mean it was tried eventually with pictures like Love on the Dole but if you see it there are a lot of actors [“posh” voice] “talking like thet” and they are meant to be miners and things, and the English- there was a class thing. It had come, I think, from the theatre. The theatre was sacred to actors because that was their only means to being known.
McG: Were you drawn more to Hollywood than to British pictures?
HF: The movies yes. Because in later years when I thought of going on the other side they had a technique, they employed a technique that James Cagney could be talking to George Raft and he’s got plot lines – I didn’t realise this until years later, so he’d start his plot lines, saying “listen we’re going down” or whatever, you’d cut to George Raft listening, not saying anything, then you’d cut back to the speaking actor, Cagney “we’ll be there at nine”. You’d cut to Raft. The point was they were assimilating the audience by cutting to the man listening to the speaking actor: he was just playing the audience, who are listening, then at the end you’d cut back to remind you who was doing the talking. Of course, American actors like Raft and Bogart, and Paul Muni, they developed a character that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. It became their billing, if you like. You knew exactly what you were going to get from Cagney; certainly Bogart, with the teeth like that. Muni was a serious stage actor but his seriousness he applied to films very well. Great people. William Powell and Ronald Colman, the Englishman with the velvet voice - I didn’t think he was the greatest actor in the world but [he] was very successful. He followed in the footsteps of people like C Aubrey Smith, because they kept their voice [“posh” English] “like thet” very constricting but I liked Cagney and refrigerators and they liked the way the English spoke. [laughter].
McG: We must talk about the war as well because, as you say, it was going on while you were working as a newspaper boy. What are your memories of the war?
HF: Well, I was so taken up with this job, this newspaper job, I realise now in retrospect that it was a kind of showbusiness. I had no bosses. I only had to go once a day to Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street which is where all the newspapers were. As soon as the van took me to the West End which wasn’t very far away, and dropped me, I realised I was my own master. Just these two men who gave me a few newspapers to sell for myself and the war was irrelevant [background aircraft noise] and at that age it didn’t have the effect it would have on everybody else. I look back now and think my poor granny, she must have been frightened out of her bloody life, when that [air raid] siren went.
McG: What happened when the siren went?
HF: The siren went, the kids of the street used to come out. I saw every air fight that was in the air, people coming down on parachutes, and we were excited. That sound of [imitates bomb falling] shshshshshsh, that sound of a bomb hailing [sic] through the air, it had no frightening effect on us, not children. Obviously, it did later, because you know “am I gonna be here tomorrow? If your number is on it, I’ve ‘ad it, who knew”, but children found it terribly exciting.
McG: Did you play on bomb sites?
HF: Oh yes, of course. Always. I have seen one blow up; a house. I was in one once. And the dust would sit in the air for oh a good half an hour. It lingers, and there’s a smell involved in it, you know. There was a bomb dropped opposite on this extraordinary house lived in…
McG: Why was it extraordinary?
HF: Because there were twelve people living in four rooms. And I look back, and you know, you look at people like Gypsy folk, Romanies and so on, on sites and you think Christ, you’re in bleedin’ heaven, compared with what I’ve put up with. I don’t …think the war had that much effect on me until I was a conscript later on, then of course it became very relevant: one, I was older and therefore I had taken on slightly more responsibility – regardless of the fact I didn’t want it, you have to take it on but until then, the Blitz and then of course the Blitz finished because of that extraordinary air force that we had. I don’t think people acknowledge that The Battle of Britain actually won the war ‘cos if the Germans had come here, the Americans couldn’t land here with supplies, and so on and so forth. And it was taken on by Russia. I think those airplanes and those guys. Unbelievable! One feels privileged at what one saw in the sky. “one of ours” they used to say and the bomb would come raining down on them “oh no it ain’t, it’s one of theirs” [laughter].
McG: Well we are going to talk about the RAF in a moment, but first of all let’s talk about this very important visit you made to Broadcasting House?
HF: Yes. As a newspaper boy, as I say, I used to make little bits of silver. One of my clients, coming out of a club, always slightly inebriated was Charles Hawtree. Another great client of mine was Hermione Gingold who with Henry Kendall was doing Sweetest and Lowest at the Comedy Theatre and she always gave me a shilling or something for a paper. I think she was a bit of a betting artist, I think she liked a bet, I don’t know, but years later when we met she said “I remember you well, that funny little chap who plays kids.” She was very sweet again, enormous sense of humour, wonderful, wonderful, woman. So, because of that, I didn’t worry about too much, that was my profession and as I said earlier, it was a kind of showbusiness, because of this extraordinary cacophony of different types of people in Soho, who were all bigger than life. All of them. Even now if you go in an Italian café, the guy behind the bar, well counter, will talk to you as though he’s known you for thirty years. And his hands gesticulate, and everything’s exciting – but here still take [hand ?] out first thing. [Laughing] even through bleedin’ traffic, you’re in the City where the cars outnumber the people, what do you expect? Think about it and say “well I made the best of it” but it is our characteristic and there’s something rather nice about this, it’s a modesty really, because the English can’t show off. They get too self-conscious. They can sing in church but once you put the cameras in on a Sunday morning, they’re all looking anywhere but [at the camera]. It’s self-consciousness. This is why I’m worried about next year’s Olympic Games , please God we’ve got somebody to produce our – that equals China and Australia, because it takes a bit of doing- we have some great producers here in the theatre and I hope they’ll apply those people to the opening of the Games. I’m sure they can’t do [anything] else but, because that’s a very vital part for this country; for any country that holds it. Who, ever, can forget the Australians with Kylie Minogue and the masses of Chinese choreography? Made the Olympic Games.
McG: Well I’m going to bring you back to more important part of Harry Fowler’s life, and your visit…
HF: Right. Well I was doing these clubs. Now one of the clubs was frequented by journalists -I didn’t know it at the time – and reporters at the BBC which was radio in those days. And I went in with my papers as I did once a day, shouting out “Germans in Berlin, Star paper” and a man behind the bar said “There he is, that’s him. ‘Ere, come here.” And there was a man sitting on a high stool at the bar. “Hallo” and I thought “Blimey, what’s this?” He said “I’m with the BBC. You’re a newspaper boy.” And I said “Yes” and he said “Well, we would like you” – and these were the exact words he used to me -the biggest word I’d ever heard in my life was marmalade and I knew what it meant ‘cos I ate a lot of it – he said “we want you to come on In Town Tonight and relate your vicissitudes as a newsboy at the heart of London’s West End” [laughs] and I thought “this geezers at it” and I said “What do you ‘ave to do then?” and he said well you’ll come to the Monseigneur Theatre at Marble Arch and there’ll be a few people on, relating, there will be airmen, there will be various people, swam the channel, people like that and you’ll be the newsboy and you’ll be interviewed by Roy Rich or Elizabeth Cowell and you will relate your vicissitudes”. Well. I said “’Ow much you get?” He said “Two guineas” [Two pounds and ten pence]. “Two guineas” I said. “’Ow long do you ‘ave to be there?” “Well just for the interview.” To cut a long story short, I went along and I did it. The two guineas I got, I spent finding out what vicissitudes meant! [laughs]. Since when I ‘ve never stopped using it! Had any good vicissitudes lately?
McG: Was your interview scripted?
McG: What did you talk about?
HF: About being a newsboy in the heart of London’s West End. I talked about the race horse owners, they asked me to be a jockey, because I was a tiny little chap.
McG: How tall?
HF: Oh, very small. I was the smallest airman, they’d ever had. I didn’t start growing until I was, I don’t know, around the twenties. You see me in my, er, you see me in Hue and Cry nobody knows I was an airman; I wasn’t a young kid, I was in the Air Force: I’d been let out to do that film. I had those young looks. So, I just related these – well I exaggerated a bit. I quite liked the idea of being on the wireless. When I told my granny, I was going to be on the wireless, she hit me round the head and said “don’t tell bleedin’ lies. It doesn’t happen to people like us.” And I said “but I am, gran”. Of course, we had to go to somebody’s house to hear it, there was only one radio in the street. And that’s how it happened. When it finished, the producer, a wonderful man I’ve known over the years, a man called C F Meehan he said “just before you go, don’t go just hang on.” while everything wound up he said to me “there’s been a phone call – now carry this on, this could be in your thing [interest] there’s a phone call from a film producer, he’s making a film, a film about evacuees and he’s heard you on this programme and he wants you to go along and see him.” Well, I said “you don’t know how much you get do you?” He said “Well you’ll get more than two guineas”
McG: So, at the moment the most important thing to you is the money.
HF: Well, ‘cos I’d never dreamed of money like two guineas. Granny only got ten shillings [Fifty pence] a week pension to keep a family. Two guineas – I mean it’s a joke, so I was very aware, very guided by this.
McG: You had no ambitions ever to be an actor?
HF: No, none whatsoever. It was in me, because when the teacher used to go to the lavatory at school, I’d get up and tell a story. One of my great stories was The Phantom of Blackfriars Bridge. A story, it was about this ogre that was on the bridge, when darkness fell, when dusk came and all the other kids would listen. I didn’t know then but that was part of showing off, which is part of acting. A lot of acting is showing off. If you’ve got the bottle to go on a stage and dare to infringe on people yourself for 15 minutes you got to be egotistical, you show off.
McG: Were you nervous when you went on the radio?
HF: Not at all. I looked forward to it. Again, it was the people there. Roy Rich spoke [“posh”] laik thet. I actually saw a man I’d listened to saying “This is Bruce Belfrage reading it.” The News. As they had to. Alvar Lidell. And there they were. I remember the Monseigneur Theatre, they did a series of things, like radio plays and variety shows, and I remember seeing Jack Train at the Monseigneur, and I thought “Bloody hell …He’s nice” and it had a big effect on me; anyway to go back to the story, I‘d got to see a man called Lou Jackson…
McG: Sorry, I’m just going to take you back a moment, to Jack Train you related to him because he was of a similar class to you.
HF: He was – not really because he spoke quite ordinarily you know, but he’d been on cigarette cards, like all kids in Lambeth, like all working-class kids, one of the great attributes was having a hobby. And the great hobby was collecting fag cards, because part of it was an adventure, you would stop people in the street if they were smoking and say can I have your fag card please? It was time consuming, it was exciting, and you came back and say “ere I got Clark Gable”, and all of that. And Jack Train was one of the radio celebrities and I’ve still got that set today – not the same card but I have the set of radio celebrities. Syd Walker; Stanley Holloway. And seeing that, it never occurred to me I’d be anybody who’d be a household name. Why should I? And then I went to see this man, Lou Jackson, the following morning, ‘cos by the way they were about to start the film which I didn’t know and he had a big office, exactly everything I’d seen in Hollywood. There’s this vast desk, which you wouldn’t have got in my whole house, let alone … and I realised then-
McG: Was it in Soho?
HF: It’s Wardour Street, and he had a cigar on and he says “Sit down.” And I sat down. He came from a working-class Jewish family, which was again very lucky because he was very simpatico he understood what he was dealing with here. A little kid, and he was very, very, kind. He said “so this is what it’s all about” he told me about the evacuees “you’d better be one of the naughty evacuees you can do it”. So, I said “well where do they do it then?” “He said they do it [at] Boreham Wood. I almost said to him “is that in England?” and he said “It’s just the other side of Edgware.” So, I said well “How will I get there then?” expecting him to say “Well a Rolls-Royce will pick you up and take you home at night.” He said “Where do you live?” I said “I actually live in Lambeth Walk.” So, he said “Well you get a tube at Lambeth North, you go to Edgware, you get a 144 bus drops you right at the studio.” [Laughs] That’s the first let down in showbusiness. Oh dear, I walked all the way home, I was so hoping I could brag to my granny about it: “Here if a Rolls-Royce comes here, it’s for me… and I said, and I told her and she said “we’ll see what happens” so I did go to Lambeth North to get this train…
McG: Hang on, did you have to read for Mr Jackson?
McG: You didn’t do an audition?
HF: No, not at all.
McG: Because he’d heard you on the radio?
HF: He’d heard me on the radio and then he’d talked to me about Lambeth and he talked to me about my background and he told me a bit about himself and I was very forthcoming, because I was very impressed with this office and this great mogul there: he was a Jack Warner, a Sam Goldwyn who I knew because of my love of films as a child. He was a very, very nice man.
McG: When did you first see a script?
HF: When I got to the studio. First day.
McG: Tell me about your first day.
HF: Well I got this train, this underground from Lambeth North: every time I pass it now, I say I can see myself getting down there in 1940, and getting excited all the way from Lambeth to Edgware, I had to change once, because it’s on the Northern Line, Edgware, and getting on this bus going upstairs. I always liked the upstairs of the buses and trams and it was virtually like sitting in a chimney. Everybody was smoking it was, one or two cigarettes at six, half past seven in the morning [laughs]. I look back and wonder how I survived getting to these studios, and it was Boreham Wood Studios, still there to this day, where they do Eastenders and various things. A most magnificent place, they’ve got a corridor it was straight out of those Hollywood films, those Hollywood classics. It went on and on, and on the wall were pictures of all the people I’d got on fag cards: there’s Leslie Howard, Robert Donat, all those incredible people: Madeleine Carroll, and as I’m going down, I’m swelling with each one, my god. When I got on the set there was quite a nice man in a beret, called Maurice Elvey, who it transpired was the director…
HF: Was it Maurice Elvey?
McG: Are we talking about… Those Kids from Town? No it’s Lance Comfort.
HF: Lance Comfort: of course, it is.
HF: Yes. Very well-spoken man, a very nice man. He said “look what you have to do, you haven’t done this before.” Now by that time I was a seasoned pro. I’d made up my mind, seeing these photographs and the aura of that corridor and the very feel of everybody being important. People walking up and down the corridor with bits of paper looking as if they were going somewhere, and I’d never met anybody that was going anywhere, except to the dole [laughs]. So, it was quite a thing, and Comfort was a very nice man. Maurice Elvey did the next one.
McG: He did.
HF: But Comfort said this is what you’ve got to do, you’re an evacuee, told me what I had to do. You’re cheeky, which you obviously are and so on. You’ll come on set, they’ll call you on the set and these are the lines you’re going to say. They gave me lines daily, from the script, there was a script, it was already a screenplay as it were and George Cole – it was his second film, he’d done Cottage to Let George Cole was in it and because I’d seen Cottage to Let, I felt a kind of familiarity, I felt a kind of friendliness, which George is, a very kind, sweet, man, which to this day he is, and he was very kind, very helpful.
McG: You got on.
HF: We did and I got on particularly with him, because all the other kids [“posh voice”] “spoke laik thet.” They’d come [from] you know people like Italia Conti and schools like that where elocution it seemed was the thing. You talk like that [cockney] they’d “talk laik thet” [“posh”], they’d taken all the character out of the cockney, particularly for films. So, all the other kids, although I was doing a sort of comedian cockney character who played “look out guv, here come the rozzers”, I didn’t know what the rozzers were for three years [used as slang for The Police DS]. “Rozzers – what’s that?” George was very good, George was by then an educated actor, he’d only done one film but that man was an actor from the beginning, that boy, and he was very helpful to me.
McG: You were working with another - a woman that you knew from radio.
HF: Well the cast was full of people who, again, were on cards. Percy Marmont silent film star, one of the handsome ones, and there was a lady who we used to love on the radio called Jeanne de Casalis. Her act was picking up a telephone and mugging the phone: “what? Oh Hold on!” It was a very funny act in those days. She again was a kind woman. Of all my years and I had sixty years or just over, I think I can only count on one hand the number of people that I wouldn’t commend and I wouldn’t be thankful to for friendliness or for help and so on: its full of great people, great people. And a lot of them willing to share and help. Anyway, I did this film. Now, I’ve forgotten the most important part. I don’t know if I’d asked Lou Jackson, I think it was Lou Jackson, again the famous question “’ow much you get for it?” He said “Well you have to start somewhere. You understand that?” I said “yeah, but how much you get?” He said “Well you’ll be doing eight days”. He said “You’ll get five pounds a day”. [Implying pleasurable shock] “Give me ten minutes, Mr Jackson, would you?”
HF: Then we worked out that is forty quid [pounds DS] What!!! When I got down the studio, I thought I’d better tell them I’d do this for nothing, ‘cos it was such fun. It was – a child my age, fourteen, it was Disneyland, long before Disneyland was invented. It was a wonderland. Everybody, as I say, had these big personalities. It was very infective, you know it got you, after a week there I was beginning to talk like Beerbohm Tree for a couple of weeks. [Laughs]. It just infected you. A first assistant came up to me after about six days on this film -Those Kids From Town – and he said “I’m not supposed to tell you this but there’s another film starting straight away, and I’ve heard your name mentioned. You’ve been talked about here and they want you for it now the reason I’m telling you is this: ask ‘em for another three pounds a day”. [Laughter] Incidentally, in the interim, because Equity was a strong union in those days you had to have an agent. C F Meehan at the BBC had arranged for me to have an agent, who I was with for sixty years: Essanay they were called. Lovely people. So, I told her -it was Pat Trenfield, who was the secretary there. Co-partner; I said “A bloke’s told me I’m going to be on the next film and he said ask for another three pounds a day.” She said “well if we are going to ask for that, I’m going to ask for ten.” I said “no, no, don’t spoil it.” [they laugh]. She rang – no she didn’t ring me up because I didn’t have a phone till I was 28 – she would send me telegrams, phone this number GERard 5158 [old-style London telephone numbers had named exchanges preceding the actual number, letters for which appeared on the telephone dial. DS] or whatever it was, and I phoned her and she said “Are you standing up?” “Yes” “Well”, she said “listen, they’re going to pay you ten pounds a day. It’s only five days and it’s called Salute John Citizen. I think it was Edward Rigby and that’s Marcel Varnel I’m sure.
McG: No, that’s Maurice Elvey.
HF: That was Maurice Elvey, yeah. There were so many of them in those days. Marcel Varnel used to wear jodhpurs. Famously directed in a beret so you were frightened out of your life for starters. I thought he’s going to whip me if I get it wrong. So, I did this film, I made a great friend of a man called Edward Rigby, and was to work with him many times over the years. And again, as I say the smell of the greasepaint… By that time, I was a born actor, there was nothing else I was going to do.
McG: When did you give up your newspaper job?
HF: I went back to Harry Foster and I said “’ere Mr Foster, I’m very sorry about this.” He said “We already know, you’re going to be on the front page of The Star tomorrow.” “What!” I said. He said, “Yeah, that’s why we’ve called you here really, we want to take pictures of you. We wanna take it where you sold the papers.” And there I was on the front page of The Star.
McG: You’ve still got that, haven’t you?
HF: Got it here somewhere, yeah. Star newsboy becomes film star as they said. Didn’t become a film star but that’s what they say. Well I was over the moon. My poor granny cried for three days. In a newspaper! We couldn’t even afford a newspaper! In Lambeth; the only thing newspapers were used for was cut them up in squares and use as lavatory paper. You know. I mean I had four papers printed on my backside one time. [Laughter] But that was that and it went on from there.
McG: Did you take to it like a duck to water?
McG: Did you get everything right? Did directors have to prompt you?
HF: Yes, I had no problems at all
McG You always remembered your lines?
HF: Yes, I had no idea I could learn lines or anything like that-
McG: Where did it come from?
HF: I think I was so enamoured of the whole thing, I think at the back of my mind [I thought] you’ve got chances here. This is unbelievable. Apart from the enormous fun it is to come here every day. There is a smell in film studios you know, there is and there’s an ambience that’s not repeated in the theatre. The theatre has great ambience, but one of its own. But film studios, the minute you go through that front door, the excitement. Even the girl on the desk says “Good Morning Mr Fowler” or whoever it is. It’s very, very exciting and marrying it to my love of the cinema as a child, because I may not have realised it at the time, but it’s the greatest form of escapism for working classes. This is why they queued all around the theatre and here I was, part of it. No idea that one day I was going to meet half those people I adored on the screen.
McG: The cheeky bad boy we remember from your early career, was that Harry Fowler?
HF: Yes, absolutely.
McG: You absolutely weren’t acting?
HF: I was putting it on, but I wasn’t acting. But then, acting is putting it on.
Brian Blessed doesn’t really talk like that, but what a wonderful put on it is, what a fabulous put on. I took to it like a duck to water: I guess I’d been acting all my life. I don’t really know. Looking back on it, telling the classroom stories when the teacher went out, and things like that, I always slightly exaggerated, anything that happened to me. I don’t know, I subconsciously realised this story is mundane unless you make it colourful. Make it worth listing to. I don’t know, but it was in me, there’s no question about that.
McG: Have you ever thought that your life has been very much a case of being in the right place at the right time; your career could have gone in a completely different direction?
HF: This is unquestionable. Of all the stories about the right place, the right time, how on earth does a barman in a club say to a journalist, “Here, there’s a kid comes in here, you want to listen to him: he’s very funny, he does a little act for a couple of minutes about the Germans and all that, and what are the chances of the fellow being a journalist and always looking for someone to be on In Town Tonight. Anyone: a dustman who has just won the [football] pools [betting on soccer results], anything; and that was it , he heard me and went back to CF Meehan and said “Try the kid. He’s going to be all right”. Didn’t have to audition or anything, he just took a chance.
McG: And you’ve never had any acting training?
HF: None whatsoever; none whatsoever.
HF: You do look back in retrospect at certain facets of one’s early life that you attribute to your ability to do well, and one was a teacher called Mr Clark. Everybody has a teacher: Richard Burton never stopped praising his, he was the great man that put him where he was. A teacher in Wales. Mr Clark had a lot of confidence in me, I’ve never known to this day why. Because I was in Lambeth, they used to send me up to where Waterloo Station crosses the road. He had a bank account there and he sent me up to get a cheque changed. It was only for one pound, though a pound was a lot in those days. It occurred one day because my granny mentioned it because one day, they gave me two pounds in the bank, when it [the cheque] was only one and I trembled. I walked back past the Archbishop of Canterbury’s home [Lambeth Palace] to get back into Lambeth Walk, and all the way I was trying to decide whether to tell the teacher they’d given me two pounds for one pound. I didn’t tell him I took it home to Granny, who nearly fainted. She insisted that I tell the teacher. I said “I can’t tell him now, I’m already a thief” and she said “All right, well Mr Clark won’t mind anyway.” In later years I wondered if they charged two pounds but a man at the bank said “Impossible if it’s made out for a pound. Alright when the bank counted out the money, they’d be a pound short, but it isn’t down to you, it’s down to the teller.” So, that was wonderful but Mr Clark urged me to go on with the English, and he said “you’ve got it there:” I once wrote as an essay, the story of a penny that fell down a drain hole, and it was pulled up by that thing that goes down, and brought it up and dropped again and somebody picked it up. And the vicissitudes that followed with this penny, where it went. Years later I think I saw a film with Charles Laughton in it, a coat, about a coat that changed. The something, something coat. He finished up with it as a tramp. And, Christ, there was my story, there was the penny, the various places it got to, posh places, poor places, charity boxes; and he liked this. He said “you must carry on with your English.”
McG: We’re going to come to your first important film, and you know which one it is.
HF: Ah, there are a lot of them I have to say.
McG: But the first one?
HF: By sheer luck – again – all based on luck, a man from South America saw this cockney kid in a film one of the films at Elstree and he said “that is the boy we need for Champagne Charlie.” And the man was a man called Cavalcanti. A foreigner. And Cavalcanti was making this film, a foreigner making a piece about old English music hall, and they couldn’t have got a better man, as often people say “tourists know London better than Londoners” ‘Cos they are looking for more. Cavalcanti cast me as the call-boy at the Gaiety, no the Canterbury Theatre, to run between two people, The Great Vance [Alfred Vance] and George Leybourne. Leybourne was played by Tommy Trinder and the Great Vance by Stanley Holloway. And if you see the film, it’s a wonderful part I’ve got – fantastic little cheeky boy part – I could use my eyes and all that, and because he was such a great director, everyone-Jean Kent’s [BEHP Interview No 549] first film, she was virtually in the crowd, saying two lines, and very good she was even with two lines and a lot of people were in it: James Robertson Justice, these great, bigger than life people, Stanley Holloway was a gentleman, Trinder who was a flash Harry, but a great guy, terrific guy. I’m working with Tommy Trinder, and he’s saying “Are you alright Harry?” Cor Blimey! And as for Stanley Holloway, who’d been singing about the lion [Novelty song: The Lion and Albert]. I mean, again, I thought there’s nothing else I can ever do, I’ve got to keep doing this. Again, in the middle of a film, they said “Cav wants you for his next.”, which was a classic and wonderful film. I’m so proud to have been in it. It’s called Went the Day Well.?
McG: That’s the one!
HF: It was before its time, because it was The Eagle has Landed long before they made it, and I dare say, so much better. About this supposed German invasion of England. I love watching it now. I don’t watch it a lot but when I do – I’ve got it on DVD – I watch it because of the actors in it. There’s Patricia Hayes: brilliant. There’s Thora, Thora Hird. All these little character parts, are played by extremely talented English character people. And, now I watch it, and I love seeing these people. Early Thora was wonderful, as was Patricia Hayes, and I’m trying to think of the nice gentle lady that was in it, Muriel somebody, Muriel - can’t think of it but they were all there.
HF: Muriel George yes, it was. Muriel George. And then you had Leslie Banks. I knew all these people. I made a great friend in it again: I was always lucky with somebody always “adopted” me during the days of filming and this was Marie Law who played the woman in charge of the mansion we were all evacuated to. What a wonderful, wonderful lady. And any sides I had of acting in a serious film, this was serious, this was serious this stuff. It really had to be played. The others were good fun, but you know, you didn’t have to be Beerbohm Tree to play them. This was serious; with Cavalcanti directing – he was a serious director.
McG: Tell me about Cavalcanti as a director.
HF: Lovely man. I used to have to – on Champagne Charlie he didn’t like Tommy Trinder.[Laughter] Cavalcanti was a gentleman, a total gentleman, underneath he had a heart of gold and if somebody told me they heard Cavalcanti swear, I’d have said “You’re lying, it must have been an echo from somebody else.” He was the epitome of what you regard as a gentle lion/man. As a director I was too young to understand the techniques of filming really although I was interested, although I realised that this man knew his job backwards and if you look at the film now there are set-ups in it you don’t get these days: the man was a genius. I think a man called Douglas Slocombe [BEHP Interview No 68] was the cameraman. And Douglas and I - if you like – had a continuation in the business, he as a cameraman, me as an actor – He went on to be very famous, doing Bond, the Bond film. Douglas is still alive to this day. I think he’s a hundred and thirty. [Laughter]. He’s still alive. Isn’t life wonderful! This brings out the joy of working on these films because it was to begin eight years at the best film studio in the world, called Ealing. Balcon ran it like a university. People could end up starting as a tea boy and if it was in them could become a director within three years. Most of the great directors there had been film cutters and film cutters as David Lean will tell you, David Lean, anybody, cutting, editing in other words is the basis of what films are made of. The editors can make them or break them.
McG: Did you know Ealing before you made Went the Day Well?
HF: No, no.
McG: Did it have a reputation?
HF: Oh yes. I tell you its reputation was far removed from Went the Day Well? and even Champaign Charlie. Reputedly because of George Formby and Will Hay who had made pre-war films there with a man called Basil Dean, who was the mentor of Basil Dearden who directed films. Anyway, it was on and off, it was intermittent at Ealing. I can’t remember all the ones I made there, I did Hue and Cry, I Believe in You. I was up for Passport to Pimlico but I was somewhere else-
McG: You did Dance Hall.
HF: Yes, that was a spit and a cough, I’d just come out of the services. ::
HF: And the director was Basil. I thought he said “Come in here skip”-
McG: Oh no that’s
Charles Crichton [BEHP interview No 72].
HF: Crichton, my old friend Charlie. He got me that – I was on leave I think, either that or out of the services. Nice daily rate he said, bit of pocket money you know. Well coming out of the services, you don’t go straight back in, you have to work your way so it was very helpful.
McG: We’ve got to talk about your RAF [Royal Air Force] career, but what came first, because you did work with George Formby in Bell Bottom George. Was that before you were called up?
HF: Oh yes. I was very young then.
McG: So, George Formby, memories, because you got a scene again as a cyclist in there.
HF: As a little boy. Well first of all, he was a great star. So, when my agent told me that I’d got this, at Islington it was, with George Formby, I began to shake really. Anyway, I went along, and he was as he was on the screen – a simple man: talented but simple. If you really dissect his act it was a simple act. It was man who played the guitar [ukulele banjo? DS], and he’d sing what we’d call nowadays, not like Max Miller, risqué songs, suggestive songs and it went down well, it was [a] good form of entertainment. But the thing that stands out in my mind was – I didn’t do much of it, it was very exciting being there. I saw Graham Moffatt there and er, the fat boy who had been lift boy at the studios, before he became an actor but Graham – what was his name?
McG: Graham Moffatt, yeah.
HF: Graham Moffatt, and that again was exciting and I’d never worked at Ealing, erm, at Islington, but that was before my Ealing days, practically. And the one thing that struck me was that George Formby had been touring the middle-east, entertaining troops, which he did a lot of and he had a strange wife, a lady who I don’t think was too happy about not being in the limelight herself and I remember her coming on this set with a bunch of bananas and making a big ploy of having these bananas, because none of us had seen a banana, there were no such things during the war, you didn’t have merchant shipping to bring home the bananas. Tanks and aeroplanes, yes, but not-
McG: Where did she get them from?
HF: Oh, from the tour, they’d been on tour in the middle east, where they grow on trees. All you’ve got to do is pick ‘em. “’ere” she said to somebody “let’s have a bunch of them” and she was so over the top that I thought in later years it was such an unnecessary thing to do. Because it did make people think, you know something we can’t have. Bit out of order. In later years of course we were reminded how fairly unhappy the man had been, in his life, you know. But he was a nice man and I loved being able to say “I’ve been in a George Formby film” you know because again he was one of my fag card heroes. So that was lovely.
McG: Were you now being recognised in the street?
HF: I got recognised in the street mainly after Hue and Cry. That was the biggest until television came along, and then, you know if you went down the sewers, they’d recognise you, on television, whatever you did. [Laughter]. But after, er, I’ll tell you, when I finished Hue and Cry, I’d been got out of the air force, for a period-
McG: Shall we talk about – when did you join up?
HF: I was called up in 1944. But not the air force. I opened up the letter, I nearly fainted – I was called into the coal mines as a Bevin Boy. I did everything I knew to get out of it, paying a solicitor in Brixton, but although they sympathised with me they said “it’s the law, that’s what it is” so I went, and I went to a place called Worksop, in Nottinghamshire. Within a week, all my fear – although I did still fear going down there – had gone because the miners, like my first introduction to actors was a great education. These were people who I was brought up to believe “bloody up north, they’ve got no brains”. We were tribal in England, we probably still are. West Country, you know everyone talks [posh voice] like a major, not [rural accent] loik aat. It’s weird, there is this big class division, South and North: still exists. Anybody suffers in recession: the North, not so much the south. The miners were all educated, they were all self-educated. They’d read Dickens, they knew all about politics. All men that read when they went home at night; I was introduced to Dickens by them. I wasn’t taught that in school I was taught privately, there was some rogue who ran around, took liberties, but never Dickens.
I can’t think why. The greatest writer, God ever put breath into except Shakespeare. But I was never taught him. So, I went into the coal mines.
McG: What did the life of a Bevin Boy consist of?
HF: Going down, in my case the deepest pit in England. Thoresby Colliery, in the heart of the Sherwood Forest. At four o’clock in the morning, driving from Mansfield in a bus full of miners, with their helmets on, [chuckles] sitting there, just sitting there, and somebody vaguely mentioning… [Northern accent] “The whippet won you know on Tuesday. You know my whippet”. That was their great sport. And hobby, whippets – which I used to go to; And getting in a cage as they call it, which drops – it doesn’t go down like a lift, it drops, and at the bottom it bounces a bit before you get out. Well it was interminable, my first drop. My nose bled of course, or my ears. “Don’t worry about that, surry” They call you surry [sic DS] if you’re a mate. “That won’t ‘appen next time, your body gets used to it, you know”. I’ve come out at this pit bottom. I thought this was fabulous, it had electric lights. But once you leave the bottom, pitch black. In areas you really do crawl along.
McG: What were you doing?
HF: I was – I did every job down there. I did coal face – not pick-axing that was to them, ‘cos you could harm yourself. Seeing men working in their underpants ‘cos the heat was incredible. Eating your “snap” – there was a thing called snap: I stayed in digs [lodgings DS] with an ex-miner’s wife – he had died, the miner. She gave me a round tin – a snap tin they called it – she put in it bread and jam. Last thing you want in a coal mine is bread and jam because coal dust gets everywhere – and you’d get a quarter of an hour stop for this, where you were all really rubbing your heads rubbing the sweat off your heads. I look back on it now with a nightmare – at the time it wasn’t. I thought – I’ve always been a fatalist, I thought if this is what you’ve gotta do, you do it – make the best of it. You know there may be worse things to come, like can happen to a lot of people – they go to hospital and lose legs and things like that. I would rather than that, [do] coalmining.
McG: How long did you do it for?
HF: Not long. I got a knock on the head which they took very seriously and they said they didn’t want me down the pits anymore, with this damage. So I thought “this is incredible. I’m out of service now, I’ll go back to the film industry”. Within five days I received another letter, saying now that you’re Class B I think they called it, we want you in the Air Force. [they laugh]. Well I could go on for hours because my career in the air force matches my career in show business. It is an unbelievable two years I had.
McG: Where did you serve?
HF: Served all over. I went to Liverpool first. Cosford[?] where you do your training. I went from there to Greenham Common which has become famous in later years, with the ladies, against the wretched bomb. Royston in Hertfordshire. I was in charge of twelve-year old prisoners there. What a strange thing isn’t it? I used to cheer them up, because they wanted to know when they were going home – when would the war end and would they go home straight away? I used to say to them “Listen. You’re alive. A lot of your mates are dead, look back when they got killed and you see your mum and dad” or whoever it was. And the guy in charge of them thanked me very much, “you’ve done a lot for me for ze boys, you cheered zem up” I said “I’m sorry I can’t give them a date ‘cos I’m not that well up”. But eventually thank goodness the war was- we put in the right terms – people went home. Thirty thousand Germans stayed here and married, which is a nice thought. But – I came out – a man walked in a pub in Wardour Street and Julian Wintle was there, with a man called Geoffrey Dell. And this fellow said “excuse me, what were you saying?” And he said “well, we’re doing this documentary, sort of film for the army, called Call Up and all these people, a cockney, a northern bloke, and we were trying to think – Ronnie Shiner’s too old – who to get for the cockney” “Well his agents across the road, in Film House” “Really”, he said, so they contacted him – they’d got his number because they’re in the business, and she said “He’s in the Air Force” so they said “Thank God for that, we’ll get him for nothing!”. They had me. A man once said to me, a lieutenant once said to me, I was on a course called “Fitter mechanic: engines” and like a computer today, give it to me and I haven’t the slightest idea what to do with it. Engines were mundane to me, I didn’t want to work and get all greased up, and everything, so I just couldn’t do it, a tutor threw a bit of chalk at me one day and I said I’m going to invoke King’s Rules and Regulations – KRRs – and they said, this lieutenant called me before him and he said “now look you have no mechanical aptitude”, I’ll never forget the phrase, I thought it would make a good play title, No Mechanical Aptitude. I said “no I haven’t sir” so he said “what do you think you are good at?” and I literally said “I’d be very good sweeping out hangars.” He said “Very well, that’s what you’ll do”. So, I was on my own sweeping out hangars. I forget where it was. Anyway, I came out to do this – I was seconded to the army the barracks at Kingston, to do this film Call Up. It was a great part for me, I could have done it on my head. Typical cockney soldier, saying “Ah what’s ‘e cryin’ for?” “homesickness getting me down” and all that, but it was perfect absolutely perfect. Julian Wintle was a nice man Geoffrey Dell was another English speaking Cavalcanti. Absolute gentlemen. So of course, the major who was in charge of me in the army said “Oh we can’t let you walk about in your RAF uniform, not in the barracks, it will demoralise the men”, you know. The war was still on. So, they gave me digs in Wembley, where I was still in the air force, and then I had to go back to the air force when the film finished. So, I went back and they said you’ve got to report to XXXbert Street by the BBC. What’s there? It’s a COP, I’d no idea. I went there and there was a little Welsh sergeant there, a flight sergeant. He said “Oh we’ve had Richard Attenborough here you know.” “Really” I said. I thought this must be another film in the air force. “Now the reason you’re here, you’ve got choice of postings.” “What’s that mean?” “He said well there’s the air attaché in Washington, where we send some people as staff.” Anyway, he carried on and he said “There’s the air ministry, where you could do secretarial work.” I said “where, which air ministry?” He said “Bush House.” I’d almost started my career at Bush House [Aldwych, London] broadcasting on the BBC Overseas Service, to Germany. I said “Oh I’ll have that, Bush House.” And I finished up at the Air Ministry, typing, and I learned to type, don’t ask me how. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and if you’re a cockney you’ll find some way. And I finished up in the Air Ministry. [laughter]. I kept the card, and it says AC [Air Craftsman] Fowler 2276864. Air Ministry pass with a big blue cross on it, and there was just myself and a Wing Commander, who rather like Geoffrey Dell and Cavalcanti was the epitome of the perfect English gentleman, lovely wonderful man. And there I was in the Air Ministry and of course I could go off and do the odd day’s film work. Oh, it was the joke of the century and dear Brutus [?] said to me one day “God forbid anyone in power is listening to this he said – what is your demob [demobilisation] number, because you had a demob number for when you were coming out. Well I forget what it was, but say it was 281, he said “well I’ve put it down to 271, so you’ll be out a month before… that’s the kind of gent he was. And I came out. And there I was in the extraordinary – but, in between, waiting for the posting to the Air Ministry, the Welsh sergeant said “Look we can’t put you in there for about four months, six months, so we are posting you to Bury St Edmunds. There’s an ex-wartime airfield there called Chedburgh – Halifax bombers.” I said “Well that’s all right. What goes on there then?” He said “well, you’re going in there as liaison. There’s only twenty-six English airmen and you’re going in as liaison for us.” “Liaison to who?” I said. “Polish Air Force”. So, there I was, two thousand Poles and twenty-six Englishmen, highest rank Flight Lieutenant. All called each other by our first names. The paymaster came up to me one day and said “Look here, you’ve got to collect some wages. Your service pay.” Which I’d never bothered [about]. It was wonderful, to get the service pay whilst there. I had the most marvellous experience – I can honestly say that I was the only man out of the twenty-six who bothered to learn some Polish.
Therefore I was a great favourite with the Poles.
McG: Can you still speak any?
HF: Yes, well when we go to cafes I speak with the girls from Poland, so I can say Jak masz na imię, “What is your name?” [Harry speaks some more Polish] The things you learn. All the first things I learnt needless to say were swear words; but it was a lovely experience, it was really wonderful. One other story about the air force was – I forget where I was at the time, but I’d come out of the air force and done Hue and Cry so I went back slightly richer than I did before I came out, I went back and I remember because I had this money it went to my head a bit, and getting my pass – you got a pass when you were getting, what do you call it, a week off or something, there’s a name for it, they gave you a pass to travel with, but I was a bit cocky, so I get first class, I paid for a first class ticket. Nothing like it is today, but nevertheless it was first class and I was in a carriage – and I always swore I’d write a play for tv and put this scene in, and sitting opposite me were three officers –
McG: [interrupting] Hang on a moment there Harry because we are going to change disks. Do you need a break?
HF: They’ll edit this out?
McG: Oh, no, no, no, they’re not going to. Unless you want to edit it out. Do you need to take a break?
HF: No. Do you want a cup of tea or anything?
McG: I’m fine.
HF: [asks Kay for a cup of tea] Katy. Are you all right Kelly? Please make me a cup of tea.
KF: All right.
HF: Thank you very much. I hope you’re taking all this down.
KF: Me, I’ve got it down word for word in long hand.
HF: This is the first chapter of the book. Sore but satisfied.
KF: [slightly resigned] Yes.
HF: Where do you want to pick it up. Go back a bit?
McG: Hmm, just back a couple of sentences.
HF: [resumes/repeats start of anecdote]. Yes, I’d come out of – I forget where I was posted – and I got back into the Air Force slightly richer than I’d left it to do Hue and Cry. Hue and Cry was a long shoot. I was quite well paid. By that time, I was a notoriety at Ealing. My fourth film there. Oh, I did a picture there called Painted Boats which I forgot to remember. Which is the documentary about the canals. Again, Chrichton directed. Anyway, in the Air Force you get leave occasionally, they give you leave with which you are entitled to a railway pass. But with all this money about me, comparatively quite a lot of money, I decided I’d travel first class. Which I rather liked the idea of you know, people sometimes stop me in the street [indistinct]… I was sitting in this carriage and just before this train took off three RAF officers came in and sat opposite me, and I’m in the uniform of an erk: AC [erk is RAF slang for AC, aircraftsman].
[END OF PART ONE.]
HF: [continues] It was very uncomfortable for them I could see it and they were dying to say, to ask this prat what he was doing in here. Well I was giving them lots of temptation, saying “Dare you” almost. That was what was in my mind anyway. And, of course one of them eventually did. He said “where are you from airman?” I said whatever is was, Chedburgh or Royston say. “Have you got a first-class pass – first class ticket?” I said “Well it wasn’t given to me by the air force sir, I got it myself, it’s my own. I’m so used to travelling first class.” He said “May I see it?” They were really perturbed. I said “Yes.” And I spoke [posh] “Laik that” deliberately. [McG laughter] “Here you are sir.” And he looked. I immediately became a monster as far as they were concerned and their whole attitude changed. “Well he obviously is someone who can afford it, obviously used to travelling first class, you can tell by the way he is lounging and I have never forgotten that. That was one of the joys of my life getting these three guys at it. “Who is going to ask him. What is this bloody airman doing in here?” You know.
McG: You said just now Harry that you were going to include incidents like this in your autobiography “Sore but Satisfied”. Now is this a joke or have you written any of it?
HF: No. I started writing some at one time. One thing I’ve never had, and what made me a good actor, and a worthwhile actor, or at least an actor who enjoyed his profession, I had no discipline. I know you say actors have got to have discipline because of the lines they learn, but to me they haven’t been too much of a trial.
Only on three occasions have I sat on my veranda here learning avidly and ardently because they were so well written [noise of tea cups] that they had to be acknowledged by the actor learning them back to back, and one was a Bill: The Bill. Brilliant script. But generally, I was undisciplined. Don’t forget, I’m my own master, I had nobody to answer to. When you went on sets, directors didn’t behave like managers in factories; or foremen in factories. You are all on the same social level virtually. There were one or two who were a bit awkward but generally most of them had come up from the ranks, clapper boys and so on, and were very intelligent, liberal, artistic people who don’t have any ill thoughts in them at all.
McG: You’re of a liberal bent aren’t you, always have been, all your life.
HF: Always. I guess it’s due to my upbringing…I remember my granny crying when George V died; that was on the radio the whole time, and England was in mourning all the time they knew that he was dying. And they made great publicity out of it. And when you heard on the radio Mrs Grimes next door say “The King’s gorn [gone]; Gawd, he’s gorn”, Granny cried. She said [imitates weeping] “What are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do now?” That’s how it worked in those days, and, to an extent, how it still goes on today. Infidelities and things like that are overlooked. I’ve always thought it is a them and us society and of recent years it’s become like that again. Things like that are overlooked and I always thought in our society. You know, let them suffer – not the bankers, and after all without bankers where would we be? Well we wouldn’t have a recession for a start. But I still can’t help, as it were, being liberal minded, brought up with it, and ironically, ironically or otherwise, most people in the profession are liberal. A lot of them come from working class backgrounds; a lot of them are artistic and thus involved have a wider sphere of intellectualism that spans as far as art and reading and play-acting and all those things and through that they can’t bear the reality of “them and us”, which is still – and the English are very good at it, I’m sorry to say, you know.
McG: Your grandmother was killed in the war…
HF: She got killed by a bomb, bless her, and I remember going to – I used to go – I was a messenger in the ARP [Air Raid Precautions] so I used to ride a bike, delivering messages to other wardens’ posts and things, and I never wanted to be in a shelter. I always just wanted to be outside, at night time particularly, ‘cos I thought you’ve got more chance out there. Now I look back and shake, with all that shrapnel, red hot shrapnel falling about. Fortunately, obviously, none hit me and I went ‘round to her house which in Lollard Street which was a street she’d been rehoused in, rather dingy premises, off Lambeth Walk, and when I got there, I could see it now it was just a great big hole in the ground and there was oil everywhere. Apparently, it was an oil bomb, it had some kind of incendiary device in it and when the oil came out it ignited. It took me two days to find granny – I had to get reunited with my father who said “I’ve found granny, she’s in a hospital in Denmark Hill, and I saw her and her head had been smashed in and she didn’t know me from Adam. It was a great shock. Half an hour afterwards you begin to get the wave of the shock, it really hits you, “What am I going to do without granny?” as we all do when we lose a loved one. You’re suddenly faced with a reality you never knew existed, you never want to face it and as everybody says, the only sure thing in life is that you will die and it’s so uneven how it affects, and it’s a great loss to everybody, I don’t think anybody wishes anybody dead. That’s why when I hear of soldiers now fighting what in my opinion are worthless wars – certainly could have been avoided, I think of poor families being torn apart, especially those poor buggers who come home with no legs and so on. So yes, there’s many facets to wanting to be a liberal in my case.
McG: Where did you live after your grandmother’s death?
HF: I went to Brixton, and for a while my father had turned up. Living in a house there, with a lady he’d found. A very sweet lady, and I stayed there for a while, while I was getting out, just getting out of the air force, and then I got “pro’s” digs. Because Brixton was a kind of empire of professionals who lived in Brixton, where there was a theatre called the Brixton Empress, where everybody at some time or other played.
McG: Did you?
HF: Never, no. I went on the stage once at Hull-
HF: To do a ten-minute act where they found me out. I went in front of a microphone: nothing came out. My legs felt like two poles, and I couldn’t move.
HF: I was completely and totally terrified. Look out to an audience and see all these faces full of anticipation and all you’re – I once, when I was in the air force went to the Windmill Theatre to audition for Vivian Van Damm. I could see myself, I walked along the stage, and I said “I’d like to sing you a little song entitled Mother held the candle while I shaved the chicken’s head” “Next!” I said “Mr Van Damm.” “Next!” [Laughter]
That was the end of my stage variety career.
McG: Have you never appeared on the stage again?
HF: Many times, auctioneering, charity dos. Doing stand-ups at, again, charity dos. Oh, and with some films I did at Rank. For Rank. I went with the Rank Organisation for a few years as well. I used to go out and do personal appearances with the films. Joan Collins and I used to do a soft shoe dance among other things. So, yes, I got used to going on stage. I had, I did, a play after [the air force] when I came out in the early [nineteen] fifties, for a man called Ken Tynan. He’d just come down from Oxford and wanted to be something, do something in show business, and he directed this play by Ronald Duncan called Nothing up my Sleeve and Harold Lang, an actor called Harold Lang, a very good actor and I were in it with Sam Kydd and, little Sam and a few other people, but I decided that the theatre – albeit it was only at the Watergate [in Buckingham Gate], a club theatre, theatre demanded too much for me. You had to really be word perfect, and it meant rehearsing for two weeks which I found rather boring, and then one day I found I also grew up to like night life, I loved clubs, posh restaurants and things where actors went, and I thought I don’t want, what if I want to go out Tuesday night if I’m on in Shaftesbury Avenue – I can’t go! So I never really took to it – I’ve regretted it many times now because I love the theatre, and it’s got a will of its own and it’s – it demands something, a dimension that doesn’t apply to films.
McG: I have to ask you, what happened in Hull, when you opened your mouth and nothing came out?
HF: I ran off crying, and that was the end of me.
HF: And they said “bugger off!”
McG: [laughs] Now-
HF: I think it was Hull. It was up there somewhere – I was always say it was Hull, but I can’t be [sure]. It was one of those places. It was a grade number three anyway. Well it wasn’t Cissie Williams or a Moss Empire. [They laugh] Thank god.
McG: We have to move on to – do you think it’s the most important film of your career, Hue and Cry?
HF: It was under the circumstances, bearing in mind that everybody who is seventy or over today saw it. You know. There was man in the newspaper shop where I went today to get my euro bid things. [Lottery?] He said “Here they had a Minder on the other night, with you.” I thought well that’s good I’ll get a cheque. [McG laughter]. I mean it’s quite a position to be in, and it’s like nobody can ever say – and if they do, they’re liars, I don’t enjoy the famousity [sic] of it. You know it’s something to be recognised, for somebody to hold you on a pedestal, personally I don’t think most people are entitled to, but they do, they say “thank you for entertaining me”. I once saw Jack Palance in the King’s Road looking at the menu of a restaurant and Kay said “You like him so much tell him for god’s sake so I just went over to him and I said “I don’t want to bother you sir, Mr Palance, ever since Shane I’ve seen every - I just want to say thank you.” “Oh, that’s very nice of you.” he said. That’s it, I met Jack Palance. Well he deserved it. So did actors of his ilk, people like Spencer Tracy. Later on in life I did a film at Bray, and I couldn’t believe it, it was called The Nanny and there I was doing a scene, quite a big scene – with Bette Davis. My wife Kay adores two people: Marilyn Monroe for obvious reasons, and Bette Davis [again] for obvious reasons. If you see pictures of Bette Davis when she was an ingenue, she makes Marilyn Monroe look like a pole dancer. [laughter] She is so beautiful, but beauty was of a different kind in those days, and most of the leading ladies [Joan] Crawford and all that, there are photographs of them that are stunning. Having said that, there are photographs of Marilyn Monroe that are stunning and Kay, my wife has got one of the best ones taken by Jack Cardiff. It’s beautiful and he signed it and everything and it’s a great, great picture. Now, Bette Davis, there I was, talking with Bette Davis about this scene. Seth Holt directed it – nice man – and there I was, I was so excited, and she was a wonderful, wonderful - I learned one thing in show business there are wonderful people who were stars and had a right to be a star because of their talent. There were some stars who were really pretty lucky people, but the majority of them are very talented people I mean where are you going to see anything like Alec Guinness again, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson? You’ll never forget those performances they gave. Unbelievable. What kind of people were they in private life? You would have no idea they were actors, and genuinely modest. Acting was the job they did from nine until five, after five they went home. This is the lives that they lead. And, when you’re in their company, not a word about how famous they were or anything like that. Just ordinary, enjoying life, people.
McG: How did you get the role in Hue and Cry? Through Charles Crichton?
HF: No, I had been at Ealing, don’t forget, on four pictures – and I was a genuine cockney boy.
McG: There weren’t many of you about.
HF: Tibby [T.E.B.] Clarke wrote it, and he said “of course, that part is Harry Fowler, you know that?” Because Tibby had been involved in all I’d done. Also, I had another great friend there called Moishe Danishevsky who actually got me out of the air force because he dealt with the Board of Trade, got you in and out, things like that. Sundry occupations, they called it. By that time Hitler was beaten anyway, they didn’t need me. And even then he’d have packed it up if he knew I’d joined up. [chuckles]. That’s how Hue and Cry came about. After that I did…I believe in You, with Joan Collins.
McG: Okay. Tell me some more about Hue and Cry and how Charles Crichton was as a director.
HF: Well the producer of the film was a man called Henry Cornelius, who went on to make his name as director of Genevieve which was a great big best seller, and on a par with Hue and Cry, the audience had a fondness for it. Henry Cornelius was rather large, a bit like Hitchcock; South African jewish man, and I know I spend a lot of time talking about people who are real gentlemen, [but] he had an extra dimension, he never stopped larking about: he was a child. You’d say “Henry, be your age” He’d say “That is my age” and he, with the kids in Hue and Cry – Charlie was a rather serious man, first and foremost, a good technical director, but I don’t think – I mean he was good with the kids, but Henry used to have us in fits, and was very allied to being a young man, a teenager. He was very simpatico, and I always said Henry Cornelius had a lot to do with directing Hue and Cry because I can’t ever remember him being off the set, although he was the producer. I think he went on to – many years later he phoned me and said “Look I’m doing a documentary thing, there’s a barrow boy in it, I’d like you to do it for me, would you do it, there’s no money in it”. I said “’course I will Henry, I owe you a great deal.” I went, but he wasn’t the Henry on Hue and Cry as it was coming near the end I think, still a wonderful man, had a great cv because he’d been with the Post Office film unit, which was going way back, which made the greatest documentaries of all time, you see them now, by John Grierson, people like that. You think why weren’t they making blockbusters? You can see with the Night Train [Night Mail DS] with the post, you’ll never see anything photographed, so well edited like that, with poetry, Sir Betjeman, Through the night…, no not Betjeman-
McG: No, it’s Auden.
HF: Auden, yes. [Quoting] “Through the night and over the rails, there they go and we’ve passed Wales”. It’s captivating, the whole thing put together, editor, director and so on, and Charlie was all that. But Henry Cornelius I think he was highly underestimated, and glad he was paid back with Genevieve and Passport to Pimlico, nobody could have done it better than him, so fully enmeshed in all the people, the characters being played.
McG: What are your memories of running around the bombsites of London?
HF: Fascinating, absolutely fascinating because “Tibby” wrote what is probably one of the best kids cinema film scripts ever, cinema for kids, but of course cinemagoers for kids of all ages, you could be 80 because it takes you completely out of anything about age and so on, and Tibby wrote – not only that, he wrote brilliant scripts anyway. But that is a stroke of genius. The whole conception of a kid, getting on a bus looking at a comic, about a criminal – and looking up and there is the car, with the same number. What a brilliant way to start a film.
McG: Tell me about Alastair Sim.
HF: Oh, that’s like Bette Davis a highlight of my career. If the only two things I did with Alastair Sim and Bette Davis, there you’d find a man who was a little sore but very satisfied. [Laughter] Because people – there’s one other that I’ll mention in a minute – at first, I felt very nervous being with them, but when I met them and the people they were, I was overwhelmed by their generosity and their attitude to life. Alastair Sim was mesmerising: I had this scene with another little kid called Duggie Barn, where we find out he wrote this comic, and we go up to his flat, supposedly in south west London or somewhere, Streatham or somewhere like that and there is this beautiful shot of us going up this steel stairway, depicted by shadows against the wall which is brilliantly done – it’s Hitchcock, pure Hitchcock and then there’s this man with this great long “Dr Who” scarf round his neck, and saying only in his inevitable way [imitates] “Oh Come in”. [laughter]. And that are the two lines that will stay with me for ever. But sitting with Alastair, this nobody, nobody, somebody who’d never acted before, who couldn’t have done that scene on their heads, because he was this strange extraordinary voice, to these two little boys, this strange extraordinary man, offering you wines and things: “do you like Beaujolais?”. Nobody could overact, without overacting [like] Alastair Sim. If you want to see Scrooge, as it will never ever be played again by anybody, see Alastair Sim and what he does with it. If you want to learn anything about acting or directing get the film Scrooge with Alastair Sim. If you really want to be an actor watch it three or four times, it’ll whet your appetite and possibly help you on your way.
McG: Which actors did you learn most from?
HF: Well, he’s one of them.
McG: What did you learn from him?
HF: Well there’s an edge you can go to, that gets so near overacting without overacting. If you see him in the St Trinian films, dressed as a woman, anybody else would look ridiculous and their part would be absurd, but with him it’s a reality. It is a man of that ilk [tries to imitate] who can do women – I can’t – he had a wicked – there’s something half sinister about him – if you see him where he plays a straight part in The Green Man as a detective there’s that little sinister touch there that would frighten you if you were the criminal. And he knows exactly what he’s doing. He must have looked at that script thirty times and said “no’ I’m not going to play it like that, I’ll just add this twist to it” and you could see this man had a variety, a great variety. I think he was under – underplayed [underrated] myself, I don’t think he was ever recognised for what he was. He was within the business, but if you mention Alastair Sim today he doesn’t immediately come to mind with people, I’m sorry to say. Yet you think of his performances and they were untouchable. Extraordinary. But I’ll never forget that scene, and he was so kind – again he actually did ask us once if we were frightened, and I said “well I’m not but he is” because he was younger than me, the other kid, but he was a wonderful, wonderful man, and I met him once or twice afterwards, and he was always very genuine.
OK. I want to talk about somebody else though, that we have missed out, and this is on Champaign Charlie, Andreas Malandrinos.
HF: [laughing] You want the fireworks story?
HF: Andreas Malandrinos. When I talked earlier about once you cross the channel, everybody talks with their hands because they got a dialect, a foreign dialect [adopts mock French accent] “Madame, Monsieur, where are you going, and all that?” it helps, somehow gives them personality. Malandrinos – I think he was Greek – Malandrinos was an old grey man who looked like a squirrel that had been through bracken, walking through bracken for five. He looked bedraggled, untidy [chuckling], he stank of smoke and fags [cigarettes]. He had a perennial unshaven face, he was small, I mean if he’d been working years before as the hunchback of Notre Dame, I don’t think Charlie Laughton would have got the part! He was brilliant, he didn’t have a hunchback but he gave the impression of walking about like that. And when I was at the Rank Organisation, I did four films. Well I remade three Will Hay films, with Ronnie Shiner in the Will Hay parts, and we were mischievous boys. Everybody at Rank with any part would be given the star’s dressing room – and there were some occasions I’d rather have lived in there than at home. At Pinewood, the star’s dressing room was as good as having a flat in Mayfair. The bathroom was bigger than where I lived In Lambeth. Absolutely beautiful. I used to invite people because it had a bathroom and everything and I said to him “Andreas, have you got a star’s dressing room?” “Yes always.” I said “Show it to me.” He said “Every day I have a bath. Lunch time, you go for a lunch, I have a bath, to revitalise myself for the afternoon work.” “So”, I said “Lovely.” So, I said to Tony Newley who was in one of the films, “Poor old Andreas”. So, we brought a banger, fireworks. It was near firework day, and I looked through the keyhole and he was sitting in the lounge of this dressing room. I shouted out “Andreas, you all right? You had your bath?” He said I’m having a little sleep. So, with that, I tossed this lighted banger – now I look back on it I have nightmares – into the bath, closed the door and waited in the corridor [McG chuckles]. Well there was an explosion like the atomic bomb, and there was a man who screamed as though he was going to throw himself out the window. Oh, and he was in a bit of a state, and I regretted it from the time I did it. I was called before John Davis who asked me if I had anything to do with it and I said “No. I would naturally be blamed because everybody knows me as a practical joker.” He said “I don’t believe you for one minute. If it ever happens again, you won’t ever be here again.” I said “Well, I can assure you it’s not me. Ask Andreas, I’m a great friend of his.” But I think we all knew that I did it.
McG: You were a very naughty boy.
HF: I wasn’t naughty, I was a bit mischievous.
McG: Who were your co-conspirators? Anthony Newley…
HF: Anthony went along with it surprise, surprise. Because Anthony was a bit flippant, he had a lighter side to life. Great performer, one of the greatest performers I have ever seen. And his Artful Dodger will never be equalled. He was game for being naughty. I don’t think it was mischievous, because I took it too far sometimes. Well you know, it’s a business that’s very hard to take seriously, because it is a magic world, it’s another world, you’re on another planet in a film studio, especially if you are getting on and getting better roles. You do – people flatter you more, I don’t care who you are, you can’t avoid it, it affects you, flattery, particularly when it becomes fairly common place, and it’s a nice thing, a wonderful thing but you must not let it get the better of you, and I’m afraid it got the better of me once or twice.
McG: But you were known for it, you admit that –
HF: Oh yes. I once nailed Gerry Campion to the floor when he was sleeping, on one of these things. I said to Tony – we got the hammer and nails from the boys behind the scene. He was lying on the floor with his jacket open so quietly I tapped nails into the jacket and of course when he went to get up, he nearly had a heart attack. But, look, in retrospect it’s not funny – it’s very naughty really, but a lot of it went on, a lot of it went on. One of the best things I ever did was with Douglas Cardew the Cad –
McG: Cardew Robinson.
HF: Cardew Robinson. We were in a film, down at the Rank Organisation, the Rank School, at Highbury was it?
HF: It was Highbury and this was a film with Cyril Fletcher and his wife Betty Astell, and it was pretty rubbishy, with all due respect to Cyril, he was roughing it, just a quick film, you know it was one of those, we got the unit, the studio was free for a week so let’s shoot it. There was a unit manager on it, a very strict man, Bill Fraser-ish [impersonation] “everything that we’ve got to do” and we was always shouting and laughing. Didn’t like that at all, thought it was very undisciplined. So – there is what they call an organ when you are filming, and that is a box rather like a radiogram, where the sound man sits with headphones on, and tells you if your sound is too loud, too soft, give it more and so on. Marvellous, wonderful instrument. There was also a phone on it. When it went “It’s for you, John,” and they’d take the phone. It was the only phone on the set, because they had control of it, it could not go off while you were shooting. Gawd knows what they do today with all these mobile phones. So this man – I forget his name fortunately – he was a studio manager, and he came on the set – I do remember his name now, but I’m not going to say it [McG laughs] – he came on, I can see him now, but he was that kind of character, he reminds me of the little man, who is BBC foreign correspondent, Robinson I think his name is, that kind of attitude it seems to me. Anyway, he came on the set and I had arranged with the fellows, what did they call it, now, the gramophone, they called it the organ, this sound thing and I got the man there to call him to the phone and say “For You!” And he went over and he picked this phone up and he said three or four times “Hallo. Hallo. Hallo. Oh Christ!” and slammed the phone down. And everybody had to stifle their laughs in the studio, because his ear was as black as a coalmine. We’d covered that phone with boot black, and I said “Shush, don’t say anything because we’ll all be in trouble on the set. We’ll have him.” He came back on set half an hour later, and I said “Well it couldn’t have happened here.” And he said “That phone!” He picked the phone up, but of course there was nothing on it by then. So, I said “I don’t think it could have been that. Have you leaned against anything?” We were all offering excuses as to what it could be, you know. “Have you been outside at all?” I don’t think he ever knew – he was a very simple man, all he had was this discipline in him. And that was one of the funny things, that one I can recall with joy. It happened in film studios. You’re in a place – I’m not saying it’s an undisciplined place, it’s not, you had to be very disciplined. You can’t go in front of a camera and act at eight o’clock in the morning and not be disciplined. And those people had to kiss girls, and girls that had to kiss men. [Imitates director] “Well we’ve got your first shot in the morning, half past eight we’re gonna roll” I don’t know how they did it, I really don’t
but they make it look very good, people like Tony Steele, and well a lot of them, Hugh Fraser’s very good at it, but there was an air of make believe the whole time you were there. It was very hard sometimes, I mean the way they treated - you’d go in the commissary as they began to call it at Pinewood, like the Americans call it, the canteen, the commissary, you’d go in there, you’re sitting next to Robert Newton, “oh look, there’s what do you call it?” Everybody you see in there is someone you’ve seen on fag cards, Anna Neagle along with Herbert her husband.
McG: You did a film with them.
HF: I did one film with Herbert, yes. That was a gentleman: he loved that lady, like no-one’s loved anybody. Perhaps to too far an extent, because there were some things she shouldn’t have done, but however he was a lovely man. But everyone was at Pinewood, every American visiting star here, filmed at Pinewood. The cast of Ivanhoe and things like that, Robert Taylor and the various character actors. Pinewood – you really felt you were in movies when you went through the portals of Pinewood. It looked like a film studio, and everybody there, in front office – they talked of it as [American accent] Front Office - had these incredible Los Angeles-like gardens with palms. And you had to be – it didn’t matter who you were, Robert Taylor – you were stopped at the door “Your name, sir?” [McG chuckles], the immaculate doorman, gates before you drove in. Wonderful, wonderful place and all the dressing rooms there, well I mean you just, you just relaxed in them, they were wonderful.
McG: What happened after Hue and Cry. Did your life change in any way?
HF: No, except I became better known in the business.
McG: What did that consist of?
HF: Well it consisted of being offered– I was beginning to get older then - suddenly I was no longer the cheeky cockney kid.
McG: You still looked young.
HF: Yeah, but I’d become a bit too big for my own boots really, a bit sophisticrated [sic] and I started believing a lot of it and I desperately, like kids when they are 16 or 17, wanted to be older. I was ruined by one of the things I desperately wanted to do as a child, was to smoke and go in a pub, to prove that I was [old enough? DS]– neither of which I really took to. I was offered a lot of work after Hue and Cry but it was at various studios. I did the three Ronnie Shiner films, remakes of Will Hay’s Good Morning Boys and so on.
McG: What was Ronnie like?
HF: Well Ronnie I’d known from the first thing I was in. Ronnie was a wonderful actor, he said to me, when we were doing, at Pinewood, these three films, and I’d – we’d both appeared in a lot of films ‘cos Ronnie was a genuine cockney, and [laughs] he was a very simple, lovely man, and he thought it was by mistake, getting starring roles and I’m certain to this day that he thought he was above his station. He bought a hotel out of it, in Horley which was a very nice place. He said to me one day “Bloody marvellous isn’t it? I mean four years ago I was getting ten pounds a day down at Elstree, and now here I am getting so much a film: twenty-five grand, but I’m no bleedin’ better now than I was then” That sums Ronnie Shiner up. There was nothing but pure reality in him, and he did find it hard to believe. He thought his career was destined to be, him and Wally Patch, nipping in and out of films as two cockney labourers, you know. It’s ironic to think that a good film like all those workers in a house. If you’re a leftie, it’s your bible. All those men with working hours, what’s it called now? Can’t think what it’s called now, ooh we’ll think of it. Ronnie Shiner and Wally Patch couldn’t have been in it, because they weren’t that kind of actor. They were really caricatures. Leon Cortez did an act on it “ I’m gonna talk a bit of Shakespeare, do you know what I mean?” And they all overplayed the cockney business. If you see a film called Love on the Dole which is one of my favourite films because of the writing. The acting makes you sweat – I mean some of the people who played working class people, you know, you’d think “cor blimey surely you knew better than that!”, they’d played working class actors enough, you can’t do it you know. Television seldom does it, occasionally it does. Fortunately, there is not a lot of what I would call miscasting goes on.
McG: Can we talk about I Believe in You because of Joan Collins, and also because you had a very good role in it?
HF: Yes. It was a good role. It was. I tested with some of the prettiest girls in the business, who have since become ladies of the land. They were all lovely and I knew most of them, and they were all lovely but they weren’t right for this girl. She had to be naïve, she had to be beautiful. She had to be desirable.
She had to have all those accoutrements you need. Monroe had it when she began playing those small parts; certain people have this sexual – and yet it’s a refined sexuality, it’s not page three of The Sun, [newspaper] there’s something beyond it, there’s something very feminine about it, which I think is essential. I don’t think big busts and bare bums are what I’d call sexy, but I tested with all these girls. Basil Dearden did the tests. He said “Do you mind?” [McG laughs] I said “No it’s great fun” and they were paying me, and when we – they always asked me “well what do you think of this girl?” And I always said “well, she is not a working-class girl,” and I can name some of the people, but they weren’t right -she came - perhaps Pat Plunkett [?] was one of them and anyway, Collins came on. And the minute she walked on the set and we started doing lines together, and I knew this is a rare inherent talent, god knows where she’s got that from.
McG: Did you know her?
HF: No. I knew her father, Joe Collins, the agent, but I didn’t know her. And we were watching the rushes afterwards, two or three of the girls had done, auditioned that day Basil and his producer?
McG: Michael Relph.
HF: And Michael Relph had fallen in love with her by that time, I think.
McG: Michael Relph had…?
HF: fallen in love with Joan Collins by that time – I say fallen in love, I don’t think she ever knew it, but he was very taken by her. And I remember saying – turning around in the chair – “Don’t bother with any more, you won’t do better than that”. And Basil said “He’s absolutely right. That is quality, that will develop during the film. If it doesn’t you’ve still got as far as you can go with that lot.” because I was convinced, because she was.
McG: You saw her subsequently?
HF: Oh yeah. Many times, many times. Mainly at “dos” and things. I remember one time at a Michael Aspel do once, where people were talking - An Evening with Joan Collins, and they were talking about how they’d worked with her and so on – I didn’t, I wasn’t called upon to say anything, and when it was over I saw her in the corridor and she said “Why the blinking hell didn’t you talk about me – you [know me] better than anybody?” and I said “Well Joan, I just wouldn’t know what to say.”
McG: In fact, you have appeared in a TV programme talking about her.
HF: Yes, oh yes. I’ve done one of those “famous people”, you know, Diana Dors and her.
McG: Well, yes…
HF: Sid James and people like that – I like doing those.
McG: Do you? Why?
HF: Well one, the producer, John Simons [?] is it, John: again, he goes in my league of gentlemen. That great lovely man, lovely man. To be interviewed by him. Rather like yourself – piece of cake. He’s so evocative with his questions, that it reminds you of things you had no idea you were going to say. He recalls them out of the depths of ten years ago and suddenly, it’s “Blimey, I meant to tell you this.” Again, part of the business I’ve always respected is those guys the other side of the camera, if you see a good interviewer, you are not going to beat them. Face to Face, Remember Face to Face with John-
McG: Freeman. Class.
HF: Freeman. Wonderful, wonderful. Art. The capture of your art, his interview was. [David] Frost was, of course another dimension of interviewing, never to be repeated, never to be surmounted, absolutely wonderful.
McG: But you’re very good at being interviewed. Do you enjoy it?
HF: I do enjoy talking about the business. One thing I miss – I haven’t done anything for four years, apart from charity do’s standing in front of an audience is the people. Because there is always something to talk about. Not necessarily to do with the business: a play you’d seen or you were in the Caprice the other night, you saw someone in from Hollywood, something, or some anecdote about somebody, “did you know so and so?” and you were never short of having your mind occupied, word byplay you know, and there is nobody to match them. I think writers are, painters, writers and people in all the arts, they are very lucky they are in the arts, all of them, writers, poets, opera singers, anybody in any facet of art is very, very lucky. I think most of them, don’t know how lucky they are in most cases to have the kind of talent in most cases; you needn’t to have that talent in movies, in most cases if you hit one role, that’s fine that’s all you’ve got to do for the rest of your life. Like [Tommy] Trinder and Stanley Holloway and little Albert and the lion’s den, and that’s all fine, Like Max Miller: “There’ll never be another.” he said, and there won’t be. There was someone who influenced me – very much.
McG: Did you meet him?
HF: I met him yes, of all the people, we were driving back from doing a crappy “B” film at Walton on Thames, Paul Carter and myself and we went past the Chiswick Empire and Paul said oh look there’s my mate topping the bill, was Max Miller, and I said “Which one?” I thought it was one of them underneath. He said “Max.” I said “You don’t know Max!” He said “Yeah. Come and meet him.” We went in – it was between shows – he was wonderful. “Cor Blimey” he said “I never thought I’d meet you. You’re about the only one who can do cockney on television. You’re a real one of us.” he said. Well, what? I tell Kay about it all the time, it’s one of the great memories of my life. Bette Davis, and one more to come I’ll tell you about-
HF: Various people, certainly Bette Davis, and these people, and meeting Robert Donat. I used to work with the BBC Repertory Company when I got in there because I was the cockney voice. I did every Dickens thing they did –
McG: [clarifying] This is on radio?
HF: Radio, yes, which was then the foremost of all the entertainment outlets, the biggest was radio. Ironically when I went back to the Royal Air Force as a secretary, I’d begun on BBC Overseas Service at Bush House where newsreaders dress in evening dress. To read the news. [Posh voice] “Hello, here is the nine o’clock news and this is Stuart Hibberd reading it”. Or Alvar Liddell. There I was I used to play all these little parts of kids in England, the Robinson family and things like that, who were short of food – we used to get parcels from Australia [McG laughs] and I always enjoyed doing the programmes to Germany, as one of the Hitler Jugend, and there I was, six, seven years later, back as an airman, in the same Bush House where they were still doing broadcasts. I loved the BBC I loved Broadcasting House.
McG: You did Dickens on radio, as you say –
HF: Oh, yes, all the cockney parts.
McG: But you also did a film as Sam Weller.
HF: Oh, Pickwick Papers. That came about mainly through the casting director, Maude Spector, who told Noel Langley, said we have Sam Weller if you want him. So, I met Noel Langley, who I admired because I loved Cage Me a Peacock [and] There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us: Two brilliant plays, great light hearted plays, that he’d written. I also knew that he’d written the screenplay for the original Wizard of Oz. He had an office and everything [when] he worked on it. He told me while we were filming that he was writing with Ida Lupino in mind, so there you are, a nice handy little anecdote.
McG: Didn’t know that.
HF: He liked a drink, Noel. Very nice, he had children, he had a very big house in the heart of Mayfair - it wasn’t unlike, because he was living on his own - and men living on their own is not necessarily a good thing – it was like the house Antony Perkins – “My mother is up there” – was it Antony Perkins?
HF: - that Antony Perkins has [in Psycho], oh dear me that was what Noel’s house was like, it was so dark and gloomy and had no ambience at all. You know, it was just somewhere that he slept, that’s all. If I’d seen Psycho’s mother there, I’d have believed it. [Laughter] Needless to say I never went into the cellar. [more laughter] But that was a great occasion because that was full of the cream of English character artists. [Hermione] Baddeley; again Thora [Hird] was in it –
McG: James Hayter.
HF: Jimmy Hayter. Oh James Donald; Nigel Patrick being brilliant as Mr Jingle. He had that quality, that elvish quality slightly overplayed, but then you can overplay Dickens. And it was full – Everybody was a well-known character actor. Noel Langley, I don’t know if he was in his element doing it. It would have probably been better done by David Lean, but he wasn’t there at the time, but he made a good job of it because the cast was so brilliant. Again, something happened to me – I met Bette Davis, and I met various people beyond my wildest dreams and I got to talk to: a man I had to do a big scene with for two days, who found it hard to do because he was very old by now – was a man who I’d revered on cigarette cards, and his name was George Robey. I could not – and he was a lovely man, he said “you know you’re absolutely right you know for this Sam feller, there you go, I’m saying the “v’s” instead of the “w’s.” [McG chuckles]. He was marvellous as my father, he was wonderful, but he found it hard to remember lines because he was very aged, and his wife was with him so she was very helpful and he did remember them. Noel shot it episodically as it were and he was able to do it. Sam Kydd is very good - not Sam Kydd, Sam Costa.
McG: You’ve worked a couple of times with Sam Costa.
HF: Two or three times, yes. He was lovely. Good singer, you know – good band singer.
McG: Everyone forgets.
HF: Very funny in Tommy Handley shows and things like that. Variety Band Box.
McG: Much Binding in the Marsh.
HF: Much Binding in the Marsh that’s right. Yes, he was “’ere guvnor”. You know if ever I do write the book, I should make an itinerary of the names that I’ve not only worked with but admired so greatly and [been] privileged to meet.
McG: Do you remember playing Sam Weller again, in Tales from Dickens?
HF: Yes. That was down at, I think it was down at was it Bray. It was one of those things they turned out in a week or something, Tales from Dickens, and so on.
McG: This was for a very well-known industry character called Harry Allen Towers. Do you remember him?
HF: Harry Allen Towers! I used to get phone calls saying “Do you want to do a quick five days for Harry? Fifteen quid. [pounds]. That was what he’d give you, fifteen quid. But Harry Allen Towers, what a character. What a character! How anybody ever backed him for a film baffles me.
McG: But they did.
HF: Oh, incessantly. He even went to America and got money – he went over there chasing a girl, a very beautiful girl. She used to do cabaret at a club , where Davey Kay did, in Bond Street [Possibly the Embassy Club, in Mayfair? DS] not the Cabaret Club, another club. She stunned him rather.
McG: While we are on the subject of cabaret, this is what we talked about before, when I was working on this series, you were a great night club fan. Tell us about the night club scene at that time, in the fifties.
HF: Loved it – it was my life. Well there were plenty of rogues who liked a drink with who didn’t want to go to bed. When I was young, I was a somnambulist – not a somnambulist, but I didn’t like sleeping, it was boring. Didn’t like it. Couldn’t wait for the sun. I’m still the same today. If I wake up, look at the clock and it’s six o’clock I’m over the moon; look out the window and see its light, I’m over the sun as well, and it’s fantastic. These places provided you with- cured you not only of insomnia, but they provided great entertainment. There was no better in the world than to go to Al Burnett’s club-
McG: The Stork Club.
HF: - and see so many of the people – The Stork Club, yeah, full of people in there, I sat with John Wayne in there one night.
McG: What did he say?
HF: He said - he was sitting with a lot of bores, he said could he join our table? So, I said “yeah”, and we actually had a wee-wee together. I said “I didn’t realise you were so tall.” “Nah.” he said. Load of people I met there. Kids, guys that came over here when they started, when their careers were starting- Dane Clark - they began to wane in Hollywood so they came over here, did deals where they got a little money but they got the rights in America and got a percentage, so everybody came here: George Brent. I was I’ll tell you, I was doing a film – I had a mate called Jimmy Carreras who was Michael Carreras’ son, and thus he inherited, he and Anthony Hind did a bit of directing now and again, and I did a picture with Diana Dors, I forget the name of it now – Peter Reynolds, Diana Dors and this actor.
McG: Wasn’t that Dance Hall?
HF: No. No, no, no – I’ll think of the name of it in a minute: Diana Dors, Peter Reynolds, quite a cast in it, and they didn’t have dressing rooms at Bray because it was a big country house. They had rooms, converted for you to dress in. By that I mean they put a desk in, with lights and bulbs all round it, to make it look like a dressing room, and Anthony Hind said “I’ll give you a good room, you’re all right.” I went to this room, it was a large one, didn’t make any difference to me, in fact it was a bit too large. The door opened as I’m sitting looking at myself, admiring myself in the mirror, the door opened and I looked at the door and a man looked in, walked round and then looked back again, and it was George Brent. And he came into the room, and he sat down and I realised he was waiting for me to say either “I’m your dresser, sir” [McG chuckles] or “Would you like a coffee sir?” I felt terribly embarrassed, I thought “Put yourself in his place, he’s come over to England, here’s a man that’s made films with everyone, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford” and here he is, in some khazi in England, doing a film he’s only doing for money, and he’s looking “Who’s this guy?” so I said to Mr Carerras or Tony Hinds, “I can’t stay in that room with Mr Brent, It’s going to embarrass me.” “What’s the matter?” they said. “Well you just can’t. I mean he was a star and I was a little boy. I know he’s unhappy about it. He never questioned it, he never said to me “I’m sorry” or anything like that but he didn’t have to. He hadn’t said “Are you a call boy?” or anything like that. But I felt very uncomfortable. But, again, I’d met George Brent. And that meant a great deal. God, what was that film – Dors was very good in it, very good. [The film must be Manbait, which is thought to be Terence Fisher’s debut as director. DS]
McG: We could look it up, while you are chatting, I could have a shufty but-
HF: I’m not sure it’s in these here. I did another film with Derrick Demarney; Rosamund John called She Shall have Murder, at Riverside, and that’s not mentioned anywhere.
McG: Erm, of course sometimes you weren’t credited, we don’t know how many films you’ve made. Have you ever counted them?
HF: They say it’s over two hundred, and it could be, ‘cos I played leads, a spit and a cough, and any cockney part going I had first choice. Myself and Alfie Bass, we argue it between us. I wish I could remember this film.
McG: While we are on the subject of – I can’t find it.
HF: It’s quite a good film, I mean it’s, you know, a regular script, I can remember that.
McG: I’ll look it up.
HF: Derrick De Marney cast me himself, again he said “because I thought you were the real thing.” There was Rosamund John whom I knew over many years because she married Michael Foot, [Not so. I’m assuming Harry meant John Silkin, Labour politician in Michael Foot’s era. DS] and Peter Noble who hosted many a party for people like Michael Foot, and indeed, Harold Wilson in his time, and so I met Rosamund again and she said “Do you remember that funny film we did?” and I said “I do indeed.” I can’t remember the name of it now.
McG: When did you first meet your old friends Peter Noble and Marianne Stone?
HF: I met Peter at the BBC. Peter was at the BBC Repertory Company and I was in the studio doing something he was in, and I can remember him being shouted at because there was a grand piano in most studios, and he was leaning on this grand piano writing, something for What’s On or The Negro in Films or one of his many books, and he was being shouted at “You’re supposed to be at the microphone!” He’d missed his cue, which wasn’t too bad because it was a recording. If it had been live as many of them were – he’d have got hauled over the coals by Val Gielgud who was head of the BBC Repertory Company, and that’s how I met Peter. And he was involved in clubs in that he used to go to a place called the Coffee Ann [?] and that was the home of all these actors, and writers and painters – it was Olympia, it was Cirque du Soleil if you like, it was never anything but cheerful, and there was always something going on. And Peter in those days always wore a beret and a red scarf, and collected autographs, and we kept in touch over the years.
McG: You had similar interests, didn’t you?
HF: Well of course, I was a film fan, as I still am, I’ve got hundreds of reference books, I love it. I still like to open a book and see Jack Elam and people’s faces like that, or Eugene Pallette, all these people that made Hollywood. One thing I always admired Hollywood for and as I grew to learn more and more about the business, was their use of character actors, as opposed to how the British use them: they were treated as star roles and given star billing. They were treated as they should be, star roles, that’s how we know so many of them, [for example] Paul Kelly. If I was put to it, I could sit and name a hundred, one after another. Fortunately, now, there are reference books you can buy with them all in with their cvs, and photographs of them, cameos, and that I learned from Hollywood films. We picked it up eventually, people like [Alastair] Sim coming right up to Michael Elphick, got the billing they really deserved. Bob Newton was the only one I think was really singled out because he was such an extraneous person –
McG: Such a - He was such a what, sorry?
HF: Extraneous person. In real life. He was that pirate he was Long John Silver. He had that [imitates] Dorset accent – it’s where he came from Shaftesbury in Dorset. He was a very rebellious person he was a bit hard to handle. Yes, he liked a drink – yes, that’s right, he did like a drink, very much, much to the chagrin of people like Glynis Johns, who he was very rude to. Then he buggered off to Hollywood – he walked out in the middle of a film, a George Brown [?] film called The Little Heart [?] I think it was, married a make-up girl I think he met on a plane, Of course he came into his own in Australia, playing a pirate.
[Imitates Newton] He’s now buried in a grave in Shaftesbury and I only know because his daughter was an assistant in television in the Eric Maschwitz days, their offices were in Kingsway, and she told me. [Other sources differ. DS] I said “Bob Newton, I had meals with him once or twice at Pinewood, because he always used to entertain me. He was a mischievous bastard – very mischievous.
McG: What, in what way?
HF: Oh, he played havoc with everybody. If he felt he wanted to be rude, he’d be rude. [Laughs] and I don’t know what was underneath all that façade. When he drank a cup of tea, he was quite ordinary, “oh I’ll have a boiled egg please.” But he never was when he was at work, oh always playing a role of some sort or the other. He played some very good parts he was brilliant if you see Hatter’s Castle. He was the original – did he ever play [Bill] Sykes?
McG: Yes, in Oliver Twist.
HF: The original?
HF: I thought that was [Alec] Guinness? I think he did.
McG: The David Lean film: he was Bill Sykes.
HF: Was he?
HF: With Guinness as Fagin.
McG: With Guinness as Fagin.
HF: Of course he was – I can see him now. With that black and white, black spotted dog. Well I mean he was a great Fagin, he was a great Fagin. Absolutely great Fagin. He was full of mischief and evil. He was Fagin [inaudible] Alec Guinness was wonderful as Fagin. A little burlesque came into it: the cloak, the nose of course and [mimics] he pronounced as he did in ‘awrence of Arabia. He called Lawrence, ‘awrence. He’d say “eh, eh,eh, Dodger, listen to me Dodger.” You know, like a Brick Lane accent. [A reference to when the East End’s Brick Lane had a largely Jewish population DS], but he was very, very good. It’s hard not to be good as Fagin. Who played the one in the musical? Oliver!
McG: Oliver Reed. Oh, Fagin was Ron Moody.
HF: The best I’ve seen outside of Guinness. He was bloody brilliant. As were the musical numbers.
McG: Indeed. I just want to mention something, whilst we are on the subject of alcohol: you told me a story about sometimes waking up quite late in cabaret clubs. You were discovered under -
HF: Well the Stork Club I virtually lived in because I knew Al Burnett very well. And when you were at a loose end at night you’d wind up there, in time to catch the cabaret which ran for an hour and always had some good turn or the other, and I used to sit there and go to sleep sometimes, mainly because I was inebriated, and I woke up one morning with someone shaking me, and I was underneath the banquette – I’d slipped to the floor and rolled underneath the banquette and it was the char [charlady = cleaner DS] she said “Ah. What you doing under there?” I said “I dunno”. [McG laughs] She said “Do you know it’s bleedin’ ten-o-clock in the morning?” That was very funny, very funny. But he used to have Sunday night amateur night, where you could go on and do your act and see if you were any good, and I introduced him to a very great act a man who became a very big star on there and he was brilliant. He did an act where he said at the end of the act “Of course you think of me as an entertainer who plays places like this – I’ve just finished doing an hour and a half at the Savoy, and his sleeves went down of his evening jacket, and all knives and forks came out of his sleeves [laughing] “I’ve just been doing an hour and a half at the Savoy.” He’d been in the bleedin’ kitchen! It was Ronnie Corbett.
McG: It was Ronnie Corbett.
HF: And he was doing a facsimile, a rough Noel Coward. He was high class, a bit “rude Scots” you know, Glasgow rather than Gorbals. He was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant but it took years after that for him to come into his own. I think obviously I must say the Two Ronnies, but he was good before that. He appeared in a couple of those Ronnie Shiner films, remakes of Will Hay, because he was very good as a schoolboy, but…
McG: I want to talk about a film that’s so bad that it’s become a cult-
HF: I know exactly what – was it called the Fire Maidens from Outer Space, that I did? Look there’s a bill right behind you. Somebody sent that to me from America.
McG: Yes. We are looking at a poster: Science Fiction’s greatest thrill. Maidens without men on mystery planet.
HF: [Laughs] I love it.
McG: And you’re billed.
HF: Yes, I’m billed.
McG: Underneath Sydney Tafler
HF: Yes, unfortunately underneath Sydney Tafler. But you see who starred in it?
McG: Valentino. It’s Anthony Dexter.
HF: We were all going on about what crap this was, we made it at MGM while they were making a picture with Liz Burton [Taylor] and her husband.
HF: And there we were making this crap, which it really was.
McG: Did you know how bad it was when you were making it?
HF: Oh, first day. When we read the script through first. The first line of the Script was [adopts American accent] “Ready for take-off commander” and the first line was said by Sydney Tafler [Harry imitates] “Ready for take-off commander”, and Hal Roth who was directing, what was his name?
McG: Cy Roth said
HF: Cy Roth said [American accent] “What the hell’s that?” [McG chuckles] Paul Carpenter said that’s what we call transatlantic, somewhere between here and New York. He said “Well, you gotta be more American!” I thought thank God Sydney had the first line.
McG: Was it fun?
McG: Was it fun?
HF: It was fun because Paul Carpenter said you must be careful how you talk to Mr Fowler, it’s not Mr Fowler, it’s Sir Harry Fowler. Because this guy was such a prat. He’d been one of the East Side Kids with not many lines. So, he did treat me with reverence afterwards. I said to him “How come you cast me for this role?” And he said “Well I was looking through this magazine, Spotlight, and there was a picture of the American version of Spotlight,” he was staying at the Athenaeum in Piccadilly he said “there was my friend, and there was a picture of you in the English one and I said goddam it, you’re just like my friend.” I said “Who’s your friend?” and he said “Huntz Hall” “Huntz Hall [laughing] I don’t look-”
Oh anyway, we did it, it was great fun. Great, great fun. And Anthony Dexter – we were all complaining about it – Susan Shaw thought we were all mad getting into this rubbish. Anthony Dexter said “You’re complaining about being in this, I came six thousand miles to play in this crap,” and he’d been very big with his role in the Valentino. I don’t know what became of Anthony – he was ever such a nice man, he was like – who was the English boy that married Anita Ekberg?
McG: That was Anthony Steel wasn’t it?
HF: Anthony Steel. There was another one who’s just died who knocked about with Anita Ekberg, I’ll think of his name in a minute, I met him in a pub here not all that long ago he was over here directing an Italian film. He lived in Rome. Oh god, I can’t think of it.
McG: Oh, erm-
HF: Dark haired boy. I should remember his name. Nice boy. I’ll remember it in a minute, but he was over here directing a load of crap for Italian TV about a murderer who went around killing Santa Claus-
McG: He was, yes and his name is - oh this is annoying-
HF: He was married to a big star at one time-
McG: I ‘ll tell you who he was married to, oh this is absurd.
HF: Anthony Steel was married to Anita Ekberg wasn’t he?
McG: Yes, but he was married to – oh we must move on, it’s going to come to us.
HF: Yes. I can see it now.
McG: I can. I want say it begins with a “K” I think. I want to say Kieron Moore, but it’s not.
HF: Kieron Moore. I did a picture with Kieron Moore once.
McG: I thought you might have done, yes.
HF: The Blue Peter. It was about the Outward-Bound School in North Wales. Wonderful location, beautiful place called Aberdovey [Aberdyfi]. It was directed by a man who did a lot of B pictures, called Don Sharp. An Australian. It had a lot of actors in it that most people won’t know: Vince Ball, an Australian actor. Darcy Conyers. Edwin Richfield. And Kieron, among others. And Kieron had married an actress who was very devout Catholic, so Kieron took it up and became very god-willing [sic – probably god-fearing]. He said to me one day [imitates] “I’m going to the church in Barmouth to meet the nuns there. Have a tête-à-tête with them. Would you like to come?” And I liked Kieron very much and I said “Yes, I’ll come along, when is it?” He said “We leave here at eight o’clock tomorrow morning – I know you’re not working, on call tomorrow - we have to leave here about half-seven.” So, I said “OK. Ok Kieron.” Well that night [Tony] Newley and I went to Shrewsbury, drove to Shrewsbury and got a bit drunk
Newley was in a hotel down the road; I was in a hotel that was haunted, up the road. I went to my bedroom and lay on top of the bed, opened my eyes and its daylight, and I’d only just gone to bed! Knock, knock, knock on the door. “Yes.” “It’s Kieron, Harry.” “Oh Kieron. Come in.” There was I lying dressed on the bed. He said “I knew you would. You’ve got up and you’ve got ready.” I said “Well I couldn’t let you down Kieron”. [Laughter] I thought please God he doesn’t smell my breath, so I went with him to meet these lovely ladies, they were a bit out of my region, but devout people really are – you’ve got to find a happy medium somewhere. But he said when we got back “what do you think of ‘em. Wonderful girls.” I said “One of them fancied me – did you notice?” Well, he went berserk. I was only larking about. I said “very pretty girl, you know.” He didn’t grab onto that I’m afraid. But the point of the story is as I say I was blind drunk. I looked out of the window it was daylight. I thought “oh my god”. I wasn’t working that day, which was a godsend. Kieron opened the door and said “I knew you won’t let me down.” [Laughs]
McG: We’re going to remember the name of this actor in a minute, because he played in The Student Prince.
HF: It begins with M
McG: No, we’ve failed again.
HF: We’re near it –
McG: It’s close.
HF: He was married to a very famous lady.
HF: And he stayed in Italy, doing direction and doing a bit of acting. I can see his face now, I had a long chat with him, he was sitting in this pub. All alone in this pub and the woman in the pub said “There’s a man over there, would you mind him joining you?” And I said “Who is it?” and she – I’m sure it begins with M.
McG: This is extremely frustrating.
HF: He won’t be in there. [presumably indicating a book] because he wasn’t a character actor.
McG: He wasn’t a character actor.
OK, we’ve failed again. We’ll come back to it. When did you first work abroad?
HF: The first job I had abroad- I was always on bomb sites being the kind of actor I was, the cockney part, always on bomb sites and then my agent [gap] it was Wardour Street and I went up these stairs into this little office and the man said “Hallo, how lovely to meet you, I’ve always liked your work.” And I said “Yes. What is this then?” “It’s about an air force, a trio in the air force who want to start an airline to Hong Kong after they get demobbed.” [demobilised from serving in the armed forces. DS] I thought Hong Kong – it’ll be in Islington, somewhere like that. [McG chuckles] I said “well first of all, how long is the schedule?” – I always learned to do this – “and where are we locating?” He said “well the location is in Singapore.” Well I started shaking. “Singapore? Yes. How long will we be there?” He said “a month, five weeks.” So, I said Yes. Well I came out of there shaking like a leaf. Singapore. 1961. Because it had just become – only just – a free entity, a country on its own. We flew out to Singapore – I flew out with Patrick Holt and Patrick Allen. They were the, couple of the, other two airmen. It was so rare in those days to fly to those places that it took two days to fly there. I stopped five stops: Rome, Athens, Karachi, Calcutta and Saigon, not Saigon, Hanoi or wherever it is in Vietnam. Not Vietnam – Bangkok and then down to Singapore. I couldn’t go there straight away, I said “You’ve got to give me two days because I’m working on something else” – I’ll tell you what it was in a minute - “I won’t be in the country.”
McG: [Interrupts] Oh, I won’t be in the country, that’s where we change disks again.
HF: [To his wife]: Are you alright Kate. I hope you are following this!
KF: Every word.
HF: So you’ll buy the book!
KF: I think it is the book, isn’t it?
KF: Is it time for cake?
HF: Yes, Let’s have a cup of tea and a bit of cake. Oh, I’ll finish this bit.
McG: Let’s pick up from – so, you were working on something else.
HF: Yes, I said I was working on something else and I probably won’t be back in the country. “You’ll have to give me up to a week.” He said “OK fine. I can shoot round you for a week. There’s enough background, I’ve got to film, cutaways and things.” So, I went out. I got a message saying I’d fly out with Patrick Holt who’d also been tied up. So, Patrick Holt and I went to London Airport. The first thing was, because I’d been doing The Army Game. I was quite well known for this character I played in The Army Game– when I got to the airport a man came up to me. He said “Mr Fowler.” I said “Yes.” He said [Break in narrative. Presumably HF describes the flight arrangements. DS] or Pakistan as it was then people in saris and there were stewards wearing turbans, but there was nobody else, just the crew. And as it was obviously going to rev up, I said to the head steward “where’s the crew?” [presumably passengers. DS] “We are the crew. There is nobody between us and Calcutta.” I said “what, just Mr Holt and myself?” “Yes, you can sit where you like.” Well as there were three seats across, we can lay down. “No fuss. Sleep here during the night.” Well after about half an hour I said “I can’t stand this.” They were all sitting up front talking. I went up “What time are you going to serve food?” So, they gave us a time, I forget what it was, middle of the night. Anyway, I said “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Show me where the food is – I know it comes out in trays and all that – and I’ll serve you.” Well they were all in fits of laughter, they were like “show” Indians, all [imitates] “lovely, lovely, wonderful.” [Laughs] I served them their meal, between Karachi and Calcutta. I remember looking out the windows all that jungle beneath and the occasional pinpoint of light, and thinking ‘what an exotic life this is. Who is in that hut down there in that light?’ I realised that in my case this was yet another facet of the industry that you’d give anything for. A trip to Singapore in 1961, meeting the two men who ran it all, Run Run Shaw and his brother. Going to banquets they threw.
END OF SIDE 2.
[Recording starts abruptly, mid-sentence]
McG: [laughter] Yes.
HF: …and it was the greatest - I knew Peter O’Toole. From his early days, but I’d been told to beware of David Lean. He didn’t like working class people. This is what I’d been told by a fellow actor, who’d been working with him, under dire circumstances I must say. It was on Bridge on the River Kwai. And apparently it wasn’t too kosher to work on that particular picture, because of the conditions, nothing to do with David Lean – it’s a marvellous picture. So, I went down there full of trepidation, to do a spit and a cough as it were, but it was a very important part in it, and that was with an actor called John Barrie and a man who became BBC director Ian McNaughton. He directed The Goodies or something like that,
McG: Monty Python.
HF: Monty Python, yes. He was a Scottish actor then. We went down, we stopped in Madrid, we got on an aeroplane, and I looked out of the window to fly from Madrid to Seville, where we were going to be stationed, and shoot this thing in a real palace, and I looked out of the window, and John Barrie had told me on this flight, about his wife, and he’d said “This is my wife’s first flight, from Heathrow to Madrid and she’s frightened.” and I said “Well I’ll talk to her for you if she’s frightened, nothing to be frightened of, best way of travelling.” Fine. We got to Madrid and he virtually kissed the ground. We stayed in a hotel for one night, and next morning we got on this aeroplane to go down to Seville and I looked out the window, because I like sitting out near the window, and I looked out of the window and – David, you won’t believe this – the wing was on fire! [McG laughs]
HF: I’m not joking, I’ve checked files on it. I thought “Jesus Christ.” I wasn’t afraid, do you know why? I was thinking of John Barrie’s wife. [They laugh] And they hadn’t seen and I rather foolishly turned ‘round behind me and said “whatever you do, don’t look out of the window.” Of course, they looked out of the window and she was getting in a terrible state. The aeroplane veered around – he knew obviously by that time that one of his engines had ignited, which is what it was, and he did a swoop around and we were not far off the airport, he’d only just got up there, turned around and made a perfect landing. And John Barrie said “I am not flying down there.” So we had to spend another night in this hotel and we got a train. An American PR lady said [imitates American accent] “Don’t worry, it’s okay.” I forget the name of the American company financing, “It’s okay, spend today here, tomorrow we’ll fix a train for you, first class, it’ll take two or three hours.” So that’s what happened, we did. And there I was with David Lean.
McG: David Lean...
HF: O’Toole was lovely. Because he and I did the scene, very important scene in the film together. I was at ease, because Peter and I were talking about cafes in London we went to, and things like that. David Lean came on the set and it was like waiting for the actor and the curtains to open, and he sat on a high stool like people sit on [when they sing] “I’m all alone Joe”, you know where they sing that number [probably “One for my baby..” from the film The Sky’s the Limit. DS], he sat on that stool and he was pensive for a bit and then he went and had a look at the camera and got talking to the camera man, then came back and then first assistant said “Alright, Mr Lean would like you to rehearse it now.” So, we went to this table, three of us, I had the lines, most lines, John Barrie had a line “Here’s your flimsy sir.” We did it. He just told his assistant “tell them to do it again.” We did it again. This assistant said “Mr Lean wants to have a word with you at the back.” I thought, my god this so and so [inaudible] tell me that its right, and I walked behind him to the back of the set and he sat down, crossed his legs, and he said “Mr Fowler, I’d like to thank you for coming all this way to do this for me which pre-empts but: but there was no “but”. He said “I’m most grateful to you. I like your work, but I’m going to change, juxtapose the other two parts, so instead of that actor saying “Here is your flimsy Sir”, that one will. Will it affect you?” I thought he’s definitely having me on here, David Lean, [chuckles] and I said “No, no I think I can cope with that.”
So, my part was still safe - a cameo role, a good cameo role. So, he told the other actor that was going to change his line – he wasn’t too happy about it. It was only one line anyway “here is your flimsy sir” and we did it – oh, no, we rehearsed again and by that time it was afternoon and he looked at his watch and he sat there for a good ten minutes, and then he said “Go home. Put your mind to it and learn this backwards. And we’ll shoot it first shot in the morning” I was going to say and this is absolutely true, “What’s his game?” and Peter says “shush, shush, don’t say anything”, and when he’d gone, David Lean, Peter said “he’s strange like that”. It’s not strange really, and it works. I have learned since that he did it often on films. Julie Christie said he did it. Next morning we’re back, he’s already on his chair, his high chair we go into our roles, he said “Just say it once for me, I’m not going to look, I just want to hear it.” So we all said these lines, Peter O’Toole, myself, and then he got up, he walked to the table where the map was and everything like that, and there was a drinking bottle on the table, a carafe, you know, and he took it and he moved it, from there to there, [indicates] surveying it and he said “Now we shoot.” and we shot it and I’m happy to say I was very pleased with what I did it’s a wonderful little piece and it’s a scene that I’ve seen Spielberg, Steven Spielberg [laughs] on television say there is a scene in it, Lawrence of Arabia, he does he thinks Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest films he has ever seen, and he says [American accent] “there is a scene I watch at least twenty times a year, it’s where a guy holds the match – it burns Lawrence’s hands, and I watch it, I watch it and I watch it” and I’m thinking “please god [laughing] ‘ere Steve, do you remember Lawrence of Arabia…?”. Well, one day, many years later a call comes in “They want you to do a scene in Czechoslovakia – what was that series?”
McG: Indiana Jones.
HF: The Young Indiana Jones for television. Spielberg and Lucas. I thought “Here’s my chance to meet Mr Spielberg and say “when did you see that scene last with me in it?” [they laugh]. He wasn’t there of course. George Lucas worked and they were lovely, it was a lovely thing to do and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I have never yet met Mr Spielberg, much as I am a great admirer of his. But, to see him on television saying “that’s the scene – he names it, unfortunately he doesn’t name me – and he doesn’t actually name Peter, he just says Lawrence, and I watch it because – and I thought, so that was what it was all about , moving that carafe. Spielberg, being a great film addict, and above all, a creative director, very creative, has looked at that time and time again, and said there is something in that scene that Lean has infected, and I’ve watched it since deliberately, and there is something in it, there is a poignancy in it, for a funny little scene in this great, great blockbuster, and I thought – and Julie Christie told me – he did a Russian thing with them I think, did he do War and Peace? -
McG: [Doctor] Zhivago.
HF: - and he had this habit of cancelling the shot till the next morning or later in the afternoon, coming on the set, moving a prop, and I said “Is it an idiosyncrasy?” and she said “No, I believe it is part of his – how he goes about it.” I got to know him reasonably well, god knows why he thanked me for coming, he showed me what film was in the cameras, because it was the first time they used Panavision, and he took care of my wife – because incidentally, when I went down to Singapore, I didn’t insist on my wife coming and I always regretted because Kay loves the far east, and then I insisted Kay came to Seville and Kay came on this, and he took us out to dinner – David Lean. He had an Indian wife you know, and he said I’m taking you – it was only a tapas bar – he said, “I’m taking you because this is the best street in Seville” and we walked down this street- do you know why it’s the best street in Seville?- because he said “It’s the street of lights.” And every other shop had people sitting in there sewing matadors’ uniforms: oh god, what an experience. What an experience! His secretary rang me about two weeks after I’d come back from Singapore, and she said “David is making a picture in the Pitcairns [Islands], a pirate film and he wants you to be available for one of the pirates.” and I said “That’s like being phoned up by God.” I mean, I said “I don’t think I shall sleep until then – we’ll keep in touch.” Sad to say the outcome was, she rang me and said “the money has fallen through. David’s not too well.” I asked her to thank him for thinking of me because I’d worked with one of the greatest people in movies – ever!” You’re talking about D.W Griffith here – it’s the same material. What an inventive man. Of course, I started reading everything there was to read about him. Of course he’d been an editor, one of the great film editors. The guy that abridges a book, makes a mediocre story sound like a masterpiece. And I have to say, I’ve worked on a lot of films round about two hundred films, a ‘spit and a cough’, and playing leads and I don’t think I have been affected by a director with admiration as much as him, because without words, his very presence was that of a genius. Unbelievable man. But, how else would I meet David Lean? Not only meet him, go out with him and be in a film he was directing. That alone is worth being in show business for. That. Bette Davis, George Brent and others. Such brilliant people.
McG: That’s a lovely story Harry.
HF: Well, that’s – I never stopped going abroad after that; I said to my agent [laughing] “You bastard, you know, all the time I’ve been working on bleedin’ bombsites in Putney[?], or getting chucked in the Thames by Jack Warner.” Now every job that comes up is abroad. Shall we come back, because I’ve got a good story about an American, a Hollywood production?
McG: Go on, tell us.
HF: Well how it came up, Maude Spector again, who put me in Pickwick Papers, she said “I’ve got one for you, a nice job for you, a Director you’ll love, come and see him, you’ve got to come and see him.” so I went to see him and it was - John Gregson and I went- and she said “I’ll take you in to the director now.”, and she opened the door and the man sitting behind the desk said [adopts American accent] “Mr Fowler. Very kind of you to come and see me.” I said “Thank you very much.” [He said] “Take a seat and I’ll tell you what this rubbish is all about.”
McG: Very good Harry.
HF: And it was John Huston. Well I don’t think I could sit down so in awe I was but I did, and it was a film about two guys, moody priests [i.e. bogus priests. DS], in the south of France who go around conning people, and the star of the film was going to be his daughter. “And I would like you to do it. After sitting there for a while, I thought I want this man for this part.” Well I felt very privileged, I said “thank you very much.” I couldn’t believe I was going to work with John Huston. And he said “We’ll have a very good time, we are shooting it in Nice, a very good time.” He said “The film is crap. But we’ll make it look good.” I don’t see how I can’t do it, like a print in my brain this man who is sitting there,[he’s] another one, If you haven’t got admiration for him then pack it in, do away with yourself, what a genius, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, how can anybody direct a film like that, make it look like everybody’s been up all night, you know and they’re suffering this terrible business aren’t they? Great, great man, and I’ve seen every film he made, African Queen – Come on, up you get Bogart, and that lady, Hepburn, in the middle of the jungle in those terrible conditions, mobile lavatories unknown, yet he got them and they were happy, and they made a great, great picture. The outcome of this is that the people have looked at the script and decided to back out of it. So – I don’t know if I got a note from him or a call from his secretary, saying Mr Huston is very unhappy about this but there will be another time. When I came out of the interview, by the way, John Gregson was sitting on a chair, because John and I went along together, he was going to play the other padre, and John said “I bet you got it didn’t you?” I said “Yes.” He said “oh that’s [me out]” I said “Don’t be silly, us two can get it on our heads, a Liverpool boy and a cockney, come on. He did get it, but of course we didn’t do it. So that was that.
McG: Too bad. We’ve just jumped the beginning of your TV career, which is very important. The first programme I want to talk about is called The April the 8th show, Seven days early.
HF: That was [the] Goons.
McG: Was that the first time you met [Peter] Sellers?
HF: No, I knew Peter years ago.
McG: You went way back?
HF: Quite some time back, when he was doing variety.
HF: Yeah, I knew Harry [Secombe] as well – in fact I knew them all.
McG: Oh, you knew them all?
HF: Yeah, when they were in variety days, and they were all struggling in those days. Harry was making his name as a singer, and they had this wonderful man [Jimmy] Grafton in a pub [Grafton’s] in Victoria, who put them together. Got them together and they turned into – like The Two Ronnies – one of the greatest things ever on television.
McG: And how did you find working with them, with Sellers?
HF: Well Peter – if you know someone – it makes a lot of difference. I mean Peter Sellers, in spite of all those great Oscar winning performances, was, underneath it all a very ordinary bloke. He really was an ordinary bloke. I went with him one day, he was showing me where he was born in Camden Town, and him and his mum – he had a great mother complex there you know, his mother was very, very Jewish, very, very orthodox Jewish [adopts accent] “He’s my boy, he’s my boy. How are you. Sit down, have a cup of tea.” Don’t forget this was going to be a forceful actor, who is going to play parts opposite the biggest actors in the world. And you would never dream he was mummy’s boy, as it were, in that respect. We passed this place and opposite was a place where they sold animals – it was there until recently in Camden Town-
McG: [interrupts] Palmers.
HF: Was it Palmers? And we stopped right on the corner – in those days you could park anywhere as you know. There was no yellow line. We parked around the corner, and he said “come, come” and we went in this place and he bought a parrot! I said “What have you got that for?” He said “come on.” And, we drove out to – Alfred Marks lives in the house now, the late Alfred Marks, and, er where -, North London anyway, he knocked on the door and his mum came to the door, and she said “What the bloody hell’s that?” He said “I’ve bought it for you mum, he’s called Polly”. He went off to the lav or somewhere and she said “What’s he done that for? He loves me I know but what’s he done that for, I don’t want a parrot.” I said “Well tell him.” She said “I haven’t got the guts to.” Whatever became of this parrot I ‘ve no idea, and whenever I’ve met him – I met him once, he was with Theo Carne[?], who was acting on his behalf here and we were passed one another and he said “I saw Newley in Hollywood.” I said “How is he?” “Oh, all right, fine. How are you.” I said “Oh I’m alright but I can’t forget that bleedin’ parrot.” [Laughs]. No, they were great guys.
McG: It brings us on to Spike Milligan because you were also in a very famous sit com which only lasted for one episode, and its called The Melting Pot.
HF: Oh yeah. I don’t remember that very well but I remember, well I do remember it but it’s very hard to remember anything with Spike because there was no such person as Spike Milligan – there was but he wasn’t in any way an actor or a performer. Spike was a very serious man who had some other hidden problem. You know he had a thing about religion, he had a thing about the way the English treated him over a passport when he was Irish, and about certain things. The BBC he was mad about– thought it was being run by the wrong person – they didn’t understand about The Goons a lot of people didn’t, but those who did of course coveted it. It was sacred to them.
McG: Well, you played a character called Eric Lee Fung in this series, which was about racism and it was taken off after one episode.
HF: Because he did the black thing.
HF: Yes, I remember it but I can’t remember much about it. Because they were “in-betweens” you know. But if I may I’ll go back to films because there are so many incidents that occur in movies, you can’t forget. As I say, if I had the job of writing a book, I’d have to write them all as a chapter. I’d have thirty or forty or fifty chapters, this book. One day the phone goes, “Would I go and see Maude Spector says, “there’s an American here who’s just made a picture with [Frank] Sinatra, and he wants to see you about a picture he’s doing about the French Revolution”. So, I said to Maude “Where’s this picture being made?” She said it’s going to be made in Prague.” So, I went, and as I opened the door and saw this man, there was immediate affinity. He was mischievous, his name was Bud Yorkin, and he was one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met in my life. Never stopped having fun. He was never too serious about anything. The cinema to him was some idiots put up money and he made the films. But he made them as well as he could and they were fun. This film had the greatest cast list – you could fill that reference book there, and you’d need two more pages!
McG: This is Start the Revolution Without Me.
HF: Start the Revolution Without Me. It starred Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland. Both – Gene Wilder had made himself by then, because he’d done that thing about – it was on the London stage:
McG: The Producers.
HF: The Producers. He’d made himself. Donald was just beginning. I’d known Donald as a trying actor here, at Bray. He went in the pub in Chelsea, as most of us did, called The Queen’s Elm. Everybody went there. Funnily enough Bette Davis’s husband went there – no not her, Rosemary Clooney’s husband. I’ll think of his name in a minute, Hollywood actor, good actor. And I had three months didn’t do it in Prague - and I said “You know I’m giving up Paris for this.” “What do you mean Paris?” I said “Well I’m a tennis addict.” Jesus Christ,” he said, “So am I. Let’s do it in Paris.” I said “We can’t” I said “all the tennis players I know.” I go every year to the Roland Garros, Kay comes with me, every year I took months off to go and watch tennis abroad.
Well he got his secretary to call me to say we are making it in Paris. The whatyamacallit has fallen through in Czechoslovakia, they won’t give us quite what we want, whereas in Paris we can have any chateau we want, so we are doing it.” So, I went for three months. Money was like monopoly money because you – where are you going to use it, they pay for everything? They asked for Kay’s wife [?] to come over one night to the Champs-Élysées. They paid for her. What time do you want her to come? They paid for an aeroplane, they hired a car the from the airport, it was Hollywood! It really was. Unbelievable. And Donald Sutherland didn’t take his “dm” either – “dm” is what they give you to live on and he didn’t need it so the guy that did the accounting, this French guy [said] [mock French accent] you ‘ave to take your money because I feel very unsafe carrying this much finance. So he forced us take our money and I put it in the safe at the hotel. It was the most incredible job – I would have paid to be on it. Everybody – but everybody [was in it] – he even topped and tailed it with Orson Welles. Funny little anecdote about Orson Welles: everybody went down – we were working at the chateau, everybody – those even that weren’t called – got in the car went there, twenty miles outside Paris – I was called that day, so it was lovely. Now there was a bit of stream that ran in the grounds of this [chateau], a little stone bridge over it. The stream you could have waded through, quite easily – the bridge, three of you couldn’t get over it, you’d have to let two go and then the other one. And Bud Yorke because we became great friends – he was in Spain with this French actress – what’s the name of that French actress Kay? – that he did the sailor film with Jeanne –
HF: Jeanne Moreau – he was down there with Jeanne Moreau who was a great mate of his. He said “yes, he’d do this” – he was going to do the prologue/epilogue. And it was him standing on obviously a little French stone bridge over the French stream with the chateau in the background. It was so important that they had helicopter shots as well. Obviously without sound. He said “well give me the set up here – what’s this stream?” And they said “well it’s a stream, water, obviously, running water.” Well he named a fee which was astronomical and then he said “and also, you’d better get me three suits” He said “I’ll have them made and send you the bill.” They said “Three suits – what for?” He said “Just tell me how we’re shooting the scene again.” Well they said “it’s on a stone bridge, over a little stream.” He said “Supposing I fall in the stream? Do you want to wait two days while I have the suit pressed? Let’s get three suits.” And if that occasion should happen? Bud said “What could me and the producer say to him? Are you mad? If you fell in it would only come up to your socks. He said when you are dealing with Orson Welles, when he says that you do it. But I tell you, it was worth it – it was brilliant, his opening and closing the film, but it was better that they didn’t have him, he didn’t help the film at all with that performance. He was – as he is – Orson Welles: you got the cream, in front of that entire cast. I think Paris was empty that day, to watch it.
McG: Did you hang out with him?
HF: I didn’t, no. I got to meet him, but he just said hello. I mean he was very big man, he could have been President of America if he’d brains. He’d certainly have been better than Bush. But a great, great picture.
McG: Where, how did you meet Kay?
HF: I met Kay – there was a film publicist [and] I was living at that time in Chepstow Villas in Notting Hill Gate, and there was a film publicist had a flat there, Brown his name was, Eric Brown-
HF: and he threw the occasional party for people and he said “I’m having a party tonight would you like to come?” I lived above him, and I says “yeah OK, fine.” And a couple of other actors were there. There was a Scotch [Scottish] actor lived there, a well-known Scottish actor, and I went down, and Kay’s cousin was there, a very nice looking woman, and I thought this is alright and she said “Yes, I’m waiting for my cousin, she lives with me downstairs in the basement.” There was basement in this house, I didn’t know, and Kay arrived, and as they say, when the door opened, it was like a Disney film, [sings] “When you wish upon a star…” and I heard all these bells going [chuckles] she was a dear, sweet little thing – she’s changed now of course [laughter] very different to live with, but enchanting, absolutely enchanting, it was another facet of my life that I’d never, ever, encountered in a human being like this.
McG: What did she do?
HF: She was a very good designer, and at that time she worked in Jene [corrects himself] Jaeger. In Regent Street as a shop window dresser. And she went from there into doing the Ideal Homes sort of thing in Moscow, and Frankfurt, for an independent called Eric Horne[?]. And then eventually, twenty years ago, she went to a yoga class and I’m afraid she never turned back, until today. I also introduced her as Europe’s number one yoga teacher, but her clientele is pretty big and they adore her. They ask me if I could divorce her and let them have her!
McG: When did you marry?
HF: We married in 1961. And we married just after [corrects himself] just before I did Lawrence of Arabia. It was just before. It was in Winter [?] I’d left Kay at her parent’s place in Dorset – her father was a very good, in fact the best-known vet in Dorset and I’d left her in the snow, Christmas was coming up. I got to Seville two days later, and there was no snow, just sun – exotic sun – and I thought of Dorset in the snow, pretty and bleedin’ uncomfortable, so I rang Kay’s father and I said “Would you do me a favour? Give Kay a hundred pounds, make sure she’s got her passport, get her to London Airport, to get on a plane to Seville, and I’ll meet it.” I didn’t, I went to a football match with Ian MacNaughton, to watch Seville playing somebody. Coming back from the football match we were in an open landau, which you hire [as] a taxi, and a cab went by and “Hey!” It was Kay in a taxi, she’d come from Gibralter. And this bloke said “I go all the way to Spain, everybody get in and you won’t pay so much.” So there she was, so we had a marvellous whatever time it was in Spain. One of my great stories of that film, is that one of the people in it was Claude Raines, who, going back to my film lovelys, he’s one of them. Even though you don’t see him, I think The Invisible Man deserved an Oscar. He had the most capturing [captivating] voice, he was the most – I don’t know, if he was a magistrate – he could play anything, a magistrate a president, he had that kind of voice, intonation, And, it wasn’t a straightforward voice it had something
very sophisticated and hidden in it somewhere and always gave a similar performance; and [I] introduced Kay to him, thinking “Ooh, he knows everyone” and she had no idea who he was! [Much laughter]. [inaudible] you know you’ve seen it. But everybody was in it, you know, [Omar] Sharif, Jack Hawkins; Peter - as Max Miller used to say, “There’ll never be another” there will never be another Lawrence like [Peter] O’Toole. But when you see the photographs of people who were offered it, oh Albert Finney would have been lovely, but he wouldn’t have been O’Toole. O’Toole had this non-sexual thing, if you know what I mean that Lawrence, I mean but it had to be played that way. There was no time he could pick a woman up and kiss her, it would have killed the whole film. It was an adventure film, a serious film, and sticking as close as you could to authenticity and they couldn’t have. Alec Guinness oh I loved the way he said Lawrence ‘Awrence. He played that better than he did the Indian in that other film –
McG: [interrupting] A Passage to India.
HF: A Passage to India, which he didn’t want to do apparently, but the whole cast, I was overcome by it, the fact we were in beautiful Spain, living in the best hotels in Seville, which is a great city. So, I am a specialist on going abroad on films and indeed television, which was lovely: two months in Italy with Brian Blessed, who is – again, unless you’ve worked with Brian Blessed, bless him, your life is not complete. He is one of the greatest [people as] company in the world. To have dinner with that man is like dining with The Crazy Gang [Famous variety comedians] or, or…what do they call themselves, Sinatra, Davis?
McG: The Rat Pack. [Frank Sinatra and friends].
HF: He’s a one man show, a one-man band, enormous! When he tells you, he’s going to climb Everest we’re going yeah, we’ll all come, but he did! [Laughter]. He was brilliant in Cats and these things that he did, and he was rather badly advised I thought, because I’d seen the original with Fernandel, of [The Little World] of Don Camillo, and he played the communist and the German actor [Mario Adorf. DS] played the priest.
McG: So this is a TV series you did?
HF: Yes. With Peter Hammond, who had been a young actor, an ingenue actor at the time of Orloff and Burton and Roger Moore and all those. He’d become a very good director at the BBC. And I got the part because I met him in the car-park.
“Cor strike a light!” he said. Someone on this floor is going to drive me mad and you will curtail it for me. Would you like to go to Italy for two months? I said “you got me! When do we start?” Come into the office Monday, we’ll fix it up. We’ll get you the money to go. So, I went, and again it was lovely, beautiful location Where are you going to get that? Where are you gonna earn money, enjoying what you are doing, and going to all these exotic places? With mainly nice people, you know.
McG: Talking about TV, we’ve got to talk about The Army Game. Erm, I’ve been trying to shoehorn this in.
HF: People still talk about The Army Game to this day.
McG: Of Course. How did it come about?
HF: Well it came about because I think Michael Medwin, who was in the original series, had something else to do, and was talking about higher money, or something like that – but I’d been in four or five episodes as the corporal next door, who he liaised with, called Flogger. He was up there, played a mischievous character called Springer, who was also up to tricks. So, Peter Eton who produced it said “well we won’t go along with that, we’ll see what Harry Fowler if he’ll take on the corporal.” So, one of my greatest friends of all my life was in it, Alfie Bass, and we worked together many times, Alfie was a fellow liberal if you like, and I adored Alfie, I thought he was a great actor. If you see him in – he did a play with - The Bespoke Overcoat.
McG: And, he filmed it.
HF: No greater filmed performance, ever. He filmed it and I thought if only Alfie could play that part in everything he did, he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I wish I had a copy of it on CD – but, er Peter Eton, I knew Peter Eton from the BBC of course.
McG: What, the rep. company?
HF: The rep. company, no he was more TV. Variety, he was with the man who put me in the business, C.F Meehan who produced In Town Tonight. They were in a place called Aeolian Hall in Bond Street, and Jacques Brown [pronounced “Jakes” DS] was there, I’d done a radio series with Jacques Brown, and Peter rang me up and he said “Do you want to do The Army Game?” and I’d already done about five of them, one nips in and out and I said “Yeah.” And I knew most of the writers. Marty Feldman became my best man when Kay and I married. And Barry Took I knew. I know Brad [Ashton] and all the writers I knew, backwards, Barry Took. So, I said yeah and of course, do you know where they did it? Up the top here!
HF: The Palace, the King’s Road.
McG: Chelsea Palace.
HF: Yeah. Kay now has a yoga class, one of her three in the week, in the Methodist Hall where we rehearsed for three years, The Army Game, you know. In the same hall. I can see, hear, the ghosts there when I go up.
McG: How was it done? It was rehearsed for a week?
HF: Rehearsed for a week.
McG: And then was it done live?
HF: Live. On Friday nights.
McG: Where was it shot?
HF: In the Palace.
McG: It was shot in the Palace?
HF: Music Hall in the King’s Road. Today there’s a furniture shop or something there, which is symptomatic of what’s happened to our society, I’m afraid, No more Tescos, please. Please, but there you are.
McG: Tell me about live television.
HF: Well it was taken in our stride, do you know why? Because you never had the audacity to do it otherwise, and the great freedom of recording, to say “no, let’s do that again.” Films: one thing that made you confident in films, and invariably doing the first one well was knowing that you could do it again and it’s a great confidence giver that it makes you give a better performance, you know? But the live thing, you had no option. You either engineered not to get the willies, or to just treat it as a performance. The minute you start thinking – because it was top of the charts for years – the minute you start picking up a newspaper and it said “The Army Game last night had 40 million, or not that many, 14 million viewers, if you start thinking that, next Friday you’d have been useless. You’d have been shaking like a leaf.
McG: How did you cope with nerves?
HF: Well, I don’t know but anything that you do continually, episodic though it may be, if you’re going every week, rehearsing for five days and playing, you’ll be able to do that play word perfect within the month because that’s what you’re doing all day long, and whether you want it or not it will embed itself in your head. The Army Game was exactly the same. First thing Monday morning the director would say “This is not Gone with the Wind. But we’ll at least make it look like Bridge Over the River Kwai” or something. “It’s up to you to make the best of it, I know you can, so let’s try.” Nobody ever took it seriously, as other than what it was – a farce. Brian Rix could have written it – no he couldn’t because there was some subtleness in it, but Brian was a great writer, he wrote some great farce. So that’s how we did it.
McG: Was there ever a catastrophe?
HF: Yes. There were one or two with live television, yes. There was a guy in it who was a great mate of Spike, and Alfred Marks, and Peter Sellers, and the lads always used him as the band boy who you travel with and arranges everything.
McG: John Vivien? Who was it?
HF: His name was Mario Fabrizi.
McG: [echoes] Mario Fabrizi.
HF: He was one of the great – anybody in show business of that era, went past one another on the street would say “I’m goin’ there for me ‘olidays.” Anybody in the business would say Mario Fabrizi, great, great character. He had an elongated moustache, and for some reason, when he spoke to you, because he was six foot-odd tall, he always bent over and leaned towards you like a snake coming: [impersonates] “’ere, H, whaddya fink of this?” And he would talk like that all the time, [impersonates] “this an’ that, you know what I mean.”, and he was a character without being an actor. Anyway, he did The Army Game, he played a character called Merryweather.
He had a few lines in each episode. And doing that, and one week he said to me - he used to come here to learn his lines – no he didn’t and one day he said to me “Don’t you think it’s about time they gave me one of the leads?” And I said “Do you really want to play a big part?” and he said “Yeah, a story round Merryweather.” So, I said “Now you’re serious?” He said “Yeah.” So, I spoke to Marty and Barry Took and they said “good idea, yeah, why not? Merryweather is a good character.” And they wrote him, a very good script, where he had to come in and unfortunately, narrate to Bill Hartnell, who was the Sergeant who could - if you gave Bill Hartnell a half an hour to learn a three hour play he would have learnt it, he was the actor [one] of the greats, which you all admire, brilliant disciplinarian and everything and a great actor. And most of it was Bill Hartnell. [Part inaudible] “We’ll have these newcomers. They said I was going to get this long - being the narrator, as I was virtually in the show [saying] “Here you know what’s going on up - ?” We did the dress rehearsal, he was a bit iffy, but he did it. You could get away with it because he was a character, and the audience, they wouldn’t know if you’d gone wrong. Often you could get away with it in live tv – the audience, they hadn’t read the script. And it was so outrageous anyway as a show, so burlesque, that all lines whether they were in the script or not sounded right. We did the dress rehearsal and after dress rehearsal, Alfie, Mario and myself and one other used to go to a pub that’s still there, just up from the stage door and we went and I said “Is Mario coming?” “No, he hasn’t shown up.” Well I said “I don’t blame him, I told him to stay in the dressing room and learn, go over the lines once more by himself.” Now by great fortune, because I knew he was jumpy – I was very fond of Mario – I had him here to go over the lines with me because I knew he was iffy and he went over the lines with me and the whole thing. We went back, and the director, a lovely Scots guy [Graeme McDonald], said “Have you seen Mario?”, the show’s going on in a quarter of an hour, live, 8pm, and I said “No why?” “He hasn’t come back.” I said “You’re joking.” And he was the centre of the show. “No, he hasn’t come back” and I hate to tell you the worst and he didn’t come back so the Scots director says “Can you wing it?” And I said “What, how can I wing it? I haven’t got a moustache!” He said “Well you’re the narrator in the show anyway, and Billy Hartnell anyway can ask you and you can say “Well Merryweather told me, guv, sarge” that using him to preface all the lines, “Merryweather said, he’s going down this road, got a greyhound and do we want to buy this greyhound or horse or whatever it was.” The whole show. Billy Hartnell, thank god it was Billy Hartnell, stoic as an iron bridge, “Yeah, sure we can do it, we’ll have to do it, we’ll do it.” We did it. Just about got away with it. There were some lines dropped out. The genius was in the box, because he’s got a camera plan – “cut to two, cut to three. Pulling back on one!” And they’d all got that plan, all the cameramen. What are you going to do if the leads not there? Are you going to cut to Harry in close-up with Bill Fraser [corrects himself], erm Billy Hartnell, do you cut to Alfie Bass? You know, they were geniuses, brilliant. The outcome was, that Sydney and his brother, Bernstein, who owned Granada asked what had gone wrong and heard about Mario, said “Sack him. He can’t do any more.” Well Alfie Bass, and myself, and I have to say the rest of the cast pleaded with them. He should never have been given the part – we should have all known, and we all did know it shouldn’t have been given to him, that it’s not fair on him, and it would be the end of him. They were wonderful too, two of the greatest governors I have ever worked for and they forgave him, which I personally thought was very good.
McG: What had happened to him?
HF: He got the frights. He went home, he said “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Cried his eyes out. He was a funny man.
McG: Poor man.
HF: He came home one night, came here to rehearse his lines because he’d got extra lines and Kay met me at the door and said “Mario’s in there and he’s in a bit of a state.” I came in and he was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands, elbows leaning on his knees, and I said “What’s the matter, Mario?” and he said “I can’t go on, H. I can’t go on.” I said “What do you mean, you can’t go on?” He said “Well I just can’t go on, It’s all going to come to an end and I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Because there was talk that this would be the last series, so I said “Well, do you want me to help you?” He said “Well, give me some advice, H, you know what I mean.” “I can’t give you advice Mario, if you’re going to pack it in, pack it in. The only thing I can do is suggest is, because I know it very well – is that we go to Hungerford Bridge now” – Hungerford Bridge is the one bridge on the Thames that you never jump in because it’s got balustrades built so you’ve got very strong eddies all round them.
So, I said “I’ll drive you down there now, you jump off the bridge where the eddy is and you’ll be out, I’ll count [to] ten but I don’t want you to jump till you let me get off the bridge because I don’t want to be involved in it”. Well I mean he got up [He said] “You dirty bastard!” [HF laughing]. I’d cured him completely. “Commit suicide. With the hook up [?]. You call that advice?” I said “Well you asked me for advice, that’s the only advice I can give you.” Kay was in fits laughing. He said “Here do you hear that Kay? Told me to jump in the river. Can you believe it?” “Well, how else are you gonna do it?” “You’ll get wet – what’s the difference, you won’t know?” But there were characters about and there still are in the business. I’m not in it any more but those I meet are still the same. I just miss – when they’d tell me a story about their work and I feel a bit sad because it’s not me mixing with the actors anymore, it’s hard you know; I mean I still know a lot, I’m still in touch, but as they die - they made my life. A.E Matthews used to be a man an old actor always read the obituaries because he was always late on the set, and Val Guest was the director, I think it was one day said “Matty” – they used to call him Matty, I think he was about 82 and he said “Matty, you are a lovely man, you are a very fine actor, but why is it you are at least an hour late every morning when you are called?” Matty said “Well, I’ll tell you Val, before I leave home in the morning, I read all the papers, all the obituaries in the newspapers, and if I’m not in them I come!” [Laughter]. Well, as Val Guest said “What could you say to that?” What could you say? Oh, I liked Matty, but you know, having your lines written on the window – used to breath on the window and write two lines [they laugh] He said “I’m not having that because we can see you are looking on the screen!” But they were lovely characters, great, great, people.
McG: Let’s talk about another great director you worked with, and that’s Ken Annakin.
HF: Great man, Ken, great man died last year or the year before in Hollywood. Did some good films.
McG: Well, you started with him on Crooks Anonymous ?
HF: Crooks Anonymous, yes. With Stanley Baxter.
McG: And did that lead to The Longest Day?
HF: Yes. I did two or three with Ken, I forget what the others were. But that did – we became friends. We had a favourite restaurant which we’d been going to for years called Bangkok, it’s in Bute Street South Kensington, Ken was a regular there, as was the fellow sitting in the House of Lords now, Labour, erm, David Puttnam, and the head of the BBC, everybody went there, it was like a show business canteen.
HF: And, yes, it’s a good picture, I just managed to get hold of a copy of it on DVD. We haven’t watched it yet but it’s full of very good actors: Mickey Medwin, Julie Christie – her first picture – Ken Annakin said to her “Go to Hollywood, they ain’t going to have that here. Anything sexy here their stomachs turn over.” – Two as they are now– you watch them singing a hymn when the camera comes over, ooh they tighten up, you can feel their belly’s squirm, we are a race of people, who cannot do it, they just don’t show off, the English. That’s why I worry about the Olympic Games, you know, I should get the Chinese over if I was them. Hope they don’t and [inaudible]and co., undressing. So she I think on the advice of Ken Annakin went to Hollywood and we all know what happened there, they said “cor blimey” one in a million this and she wasn’t just a pretty woman, sexy and what have you, sexy in the right way and of course when she was asked to do the parts like she did with [Doctor] Zhivago and she could do light-hearted parts like she did with the haircut film,
HF: Shampoo. She had a wide range. I believe she still acts and when she does, she’s still very good. Very good. All those young, well ingenues in those days have grown into wonderful actresses. Mainly the actresses, they’ve grown up with it, and we should be very proud of them, you know. Absolutely marvellous. Kay’s just got a DVD about Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, which I recommend to everybody, whether they are interested in acting or not to have a look at this. Certainly every actor must see it – certainly every actress because there comes a time when they are beyond middle age when they can do these parts and there are no better parts have ever been written for great and very adaptable actresses. They are brilliant to watch. I always used to say when I saw performances like that – Kay and I would be in the theatre and I’d see Sinatra singing or see someone and I’d say “I’m in the same business as him! I can’t believe it. People who were born, in their mum’s bellys with that talent. So, I mean you see Sammy Davis and Mickey Rooney as kids, Sammy Davis doing a tap dance at six. There’s no way he could have learnt it – it had to be there! Mickey Rooney with [Judy] Garland in that first picture, [Misquotes] “We’ll write the song right here?”
McG: Babes in Arms?
HF: Babes in Arms. By Christ you look at Mickey Rooney and you think he can’t be that talented. You see that girl in The Wizard of Oz? Come on. How can you open your mouth and that comes out?
McG: You’re big fans of both of them aren’t you? Garland and Rooney.
HF: Oh yeah, I grew up with them.
McG: Did you meet Rooney? No never. I wish I had. I nearly - the last panto he did here two years ago I think was at Woking, and I knew somebody in it, er, Bobby Davro did a panto with him, I know Bobby well, and I could have said to him, “Introduce me to Mickey.” But the other person who he did it with was somebody who is also on TV, but didn’t get on with Mickey, said he was a hard task master, he’d look around him and say [American accent] “Come on, you’re supposed to be an actor.” He was a bit bumptious in Hollywood when you see him on, but I think he had every right to be.
McG: What a talent!
HF: Oh, is there anything he couldn’t do? I mean all the musical stuff he did was unbelievable. He did a series called Andy Hardy, which was a mediocre kind of television – well it was straight off television [?] before television came, and he turned that role of Andy Hardy into a masterpiece and all the girls that played with him immediately became stars. Ann Rutherford and people like that. Lew Stone loved the part of his judge father, and it all rounded on Mickey Rooney. And if you see a compatriot of his, Donald O’Connor – I still, every time I watch that film, with Gene Kelly, I cannot believe those dance routines.
McG: This is Singin’ in the Rain?
HF: Yeah. I can’t believe Janet Leigh is it – no not Janet Leigh –
McG: Ann Miller? Oh Sorry.
HF: No, no, no- it might be Janet Leigh – No it’s not Janet Leigh.
McG: Singin’ in the Rain is Debbie Reynolds.
HF: Debbie Reynolds, Kelly and Donald O’Connor do a routine: I’m sorry I can’t believe it! I don’t care how long they took to shoot it. It’s impossible to dance in unison like that. But you can go on about them. I mean how, what a lovely world to be born into where when I went to the cinema, it was a penny and you’d see Fred Astaire dance. Are you joking? By Christ, what a master of his artistry.
McG: What cinemas did you hang out in?
HF: There was a cinema at the top of Lambeth Walk called the Ideal. And what it was, was a Methodist church, Presbyterian church and it was owned and run by a man called the Reverend Thomas Tiplady. It’s in a book that Dennis Norman[?] Put together about cinemas in London, and he mentions it and there’s a picture of it, and he mentions the rather comical business of the manager and owner, the Reverend Thomas Tiplady. I mean it’s a name from Ealing [films] isn’t it? If you have got get somebody to play a part of a reverend it’s got to be Thomas Tiplady. And we’d get in for a penny, and on Sundays if you went to the Sunday School first, you’d either get a free ticket or a halfpenny, or an orange, it depends what Sunday it was. But in those days if it was a bit racy, with [James] Cagney or [Humphrey] Bogart or Paul Muni, or [George] Raft, you had to be taken in. You couldn’t go in under 16, because we used to say “Any love parts?” “Nah!” “Oh, terrific I’ll go and see it.” “You can’t!” “Why?” “It’s an A film.” [Adult] A certificate. You’d have to stand outside – now I think of the paedophilia these days that makes the press – well, we used to ask anybody.
McG: I did it.
HF: People with raincoats on. “Here, take us in mister.” I shudder now at the thought of it. Verbally, I have to say my own experience was when they’d got us in, they got rid of me, they didn’t want to sit with me. Sit with a kid? No going “Come on.” [indicates shouting at the film]
[They’d say] “I have to go now”
HF: Wow, the cinema, what a great invention. People coming round half way through at The Ideal. First of all, if you sat upstairs, you could flick dust over from where the picture was being radiated [projected] from the operator at the end – there was a beam of white light, shaking white light going down to the screen. If you threw dust into it, you’d got a snow storm!
HF: [Laughing] So we always went with pocket-fulls of dust. Lovely. The other thing was, sitting downstairs and watching the film for the third time! The bloke comes around and shines the torch and says “How many times – how long have you been in here?” [laughter] You used to say “I just come in, I seen the News.” “You was here two hours ago!” “I ain’t seen this film!” We sat through films two or three times.
HF: We were so grateful for them.
McG: Because they were continuous performances, they’d go right through the day.
HF: We had a cinema near us, which has a great history. The Canterbury Music Hall in Westminster Bridge Road. It’s where I made my first appearance, ever, as a performer. They put on a show there where you could go up on the stage and do something, rather like The X Factor now.
HF: Only you didn’t have a slot. And if you did it, you got a first, second or third prize. I don’t know why but I was dying to get up there, so I did it, I was perspiring a bit, but I said I’d go up. “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to do a poem called Grasshopper Green is a Comical Chap. A comical chap is he.” So, they said “That’s all right. Very different.” So I followed kids who were tap dancing and singing, and I said “Here is a very sad poem, about whatever it was – the cricket – I did it, and when voting came around, “The winner, second, and third is our little friend who did the poem, Harry Fowler.” And they gave me a Parker pen, a Waterman’s pen. Well I tell you – thrilled to pieces.
McG: How old were you?
HF: Seven? Seven.
McG: So, it was there from very early on, really.
HF: But – I didn’t carry on with it. My aunty tells me once, she took me to a concert in one of the local church halls, and Nellie Wallace was singing, and she said I went up and sang like Nellie Wallace and she sang to me. I can’t remember that, I have to say. I can’t remember that.
The Canterbury – why I brought up the Canterbury is, it’s mentioned in Champagne Charlie. George Leybourne played the Gatti’s, which was very well known; there was the Oxford in the West End. Gatti’s in South London -
McG: I have to say Andreas Malandrinos played Gatti.
HF: He did, he did. I played a lot of things with Andreas. The other thing was the Canterbury which goes right under the railway bridge on the line that goes to Brighton. The Canterbury showed you for tuppence [two old pence], the Canterbury shows you two films, one a “B”, one “A”, and in between them a half hour’s music hall – live music hall. Can you believe it? And, you loved every minute of it. I’m talking about – you saw big people on the music hall, Stainless Stephen and people like that, you know, jugglers, incredible. Life has changed so much now. I read the other day if you want a standard seat in Chelsea Football ground it’s £57.50. [McG chuckles] Are they joking? And the footballers get £145,000 a week. I don’t mind, but I want them to do a “Claude Raines”. I mean its mediocre by comparison. You know, it’s changed, the whole of society. I used to say “Don’t worry about American, and praising America all the time, England’s got what America hasn’t got.” “What’s that?” “Culture.” In America, money is culture. Don’t ever let it come here. I’m afraid we have. We have. We’ve got architects building the most monstrous buildings. Before [homes for] people. And it’s very sad. I’m happy to say the same, in spite of the lack of money, hasn’t happened to the cinema. We still make good films.
McG: Do you still go to the cinema?
HF: No, I don’t so much now, because the environment is big, I’m not a Dolby sound fan. Kay and I went to see Wallace and Gromit, the whole essence of which is sotto voces, it’s down. When the film came on, they were shouting at each other, so I went back to the [projection] box and I said to the man “This is very interesting, but for this film please take that sound down – that’s for a western, but not for this. It’s killing it stone dead.”
McG: You are a great speaker, and raconteur. Is that why you went onto Jackanory? Unusual job for you.
HF: No, I loved it. I loved it. Jackanory was one of my favourite programmes where you could really show off to your best. You loved doing it, you weren’t showing off, but it was you and you alone on the screen and you could use every expression in the book that you’ve got. The strange thing about Jackanory, and Bernard Cribbins, who did many of them told me the same thing, within thirty or sixty seconds of starting you became the character you were talking about.
If you were talking about a guy that lived on Wimbledon Common, you became that straw figure in your mind and [high pitched voice] you talked, you talked accordingly. I did two, I did one as a mouse in a cricketer’s hat at Lord’s so he was narrating what happened when the ball came hurtling down and I squeaked, the cricketer scratched his head and he just missed me. A absolutely wonderful thing, looking straight at camera too, and occasionally looking away and he looked off, and there’s nothing over there but you naturally find yourself doing it.[inaudible] Wonderful, wonderful, the two ladies that did it, I was so grateful to them and at that time I was given, given an MBE. Don’t ask me what for – they must have seen me in Jackanory, and when The Queen gave it to me, she asked me what I was doing: it was a dissolution Honours List, the Prime Minister had given it to me so there were only seventeen people there including the Chief of Police and so on, and when I got to her, I very proudly took Kay’s mum, who is a great Royalist, and she loved it sitting in the front in the hall there, and The Queen asked me what I was doing, because I can’t know when was the next one on my list? -
HF: and I said “Well I’m actually at the moment doing a Jackanory.” and she said “Oh I like, that – we love that Jackanory.” So I talked about it and told her it was about this mouse and she said “When is it on?” and I said “Oh I’m sure you know, ma’am that everything is recorded, so while I’m doing it now it won’t be shown for about three weeks.” and she said “ I must let my comptroller know because we like watching it.” So, I thought that was rather nice, because you know she’s told everything, but it’s still nice, 16 before me, or 15 before me, and she’d remembered, oh it’s that little rat faced chap.
McG: Well you may be right, because there may have been a connection, because you got the MBE in 1970, while you were doing Jackanory. So I think somebody on high, somebody enjoyed it.
HF: Yes well I was in the BBC the other day and I see that mentioned [mic noises] Kenny Lynch got one, they gave him the OBE – so everybody was coming out with that – oh, it doesn’t matter, I’ll get to that part because it deviates a bit.
McG: No, but you’ve just mentioned Kenny Lynch, we can’t have a conversation with Harry Fowler without mentioning Kenny Lynch.
HF: Well, we were for three years as partners on a show we nicked off Rowan and Martin really: Rowan and Martin were an American pair who simply walked on the stage, middle of the stage and did a brief ordinary chat on it? [adopts American accent] You’re looking very well, you been away?” “Well, I’ve been to San Diego. San Diego – a funny thing happened to me down there. Guy took me for a drive in a two-wheeled car.” “That’s funny?” “No, no no I didn’t mind the two-wheeled car. This man had three eyes.” And things like that. And then they’d introduce the show, and they did sketches. So we did the same. We did a show called Get This, and we had big letters at the back, like Rowan and Martin, with Get This. And we’d meet in the middle, and I’d say to him “My God you’re looking well – you been away?” And, remember, Kenny’s black, and he’d say “Yes I’ve been to Tonga” and we’d talk about various places. And we’d have guests. We had Spike on. We had a top fashion model, I forget her name now, before Twiggy, that I forget now. All sorts of people came down and did things for us. So, it was a wonderful show.
McG: Where did you and Kenny meet?
HF: We met – Kay and I got about a lot in those days – that’s what I’m missing nowadays – we went to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire to see a round of contestants to represent Britain in the Euro, Europa-
HF: No, no – the song thing.
McG: A Song for Europe, yes.
HF: Whatever it’s called. What do they call it now then?
McG: Well A Song for Europe is the British version, and then they get on to the Eurovision Song Contest.
HF: Eurovision Song Contest. So, if you got the song for Britain you became the nominee for that. A lot of people came on, including David Whitfield, and then suddenly – I thought they were all good, very good much like Matt Monro, you can’t do better than that, they were all pretty good. There’s nothing I like better than singers, as Kay knows.
But suddenly this black man walked on the stage. He didn’t look like a black man, he looked like a cockney, which of course he was, Kenny grew up among cockneys, he didn’t know what racism is, the only racism was Oswald Mosley, and they gave him a seeing off, you know. A lovely boy and he sang that song with such personality, and I was always mad about variety acts, I loved what they called their “bill matter”, what they used to put under Morecambe and Wise, That Laughing Couple or something – there used to be an act called Kartinia or Karinga and his bill matter was “He covers the stage in flags.” [laughing]
HF: [Laughing] Who is going to see a show with a man who covers the stage in flags?
McG: But he is very famous. Ernie, Ernie Lott [?].
HF: Oh, he’s very big. And I said, “that boy covers the stage with flags!” And he did cover the stage with flags. We all went “Cor, Blimey!” [McG laughs]. That boy covers the stage with flags. Within twenty minutes, “Who’s that?” It’s Kenny. He’s come up. With Ronnie Carrol, one or two other actors – that’s the thing about Ken, he always wanted to be with actors. He sat down and I said “You were bloody good. Bloody good.” I’m not sure he got to sing for Europe, more’s the pity, or we’d have won it then. But he had such a big broad personality. One of the reasons I loved show business – so many people who had that magic. You could be sitting at a table with them, having a cup of coffee: you were being entertained. It’s not only what they said, or the memories they could recall, it’s the way they said it: their timing was perfect. And this boy, this cockney kid out of the East End, he had this repartee – he had the wiliness of Eastenders.
McG: You became great mates –
HF: Yeah, very, very. Still are.
McG: You still keep in touch don’t you? Did you have the same sense of humour?
HF: Absolutely. He was a mischievous man, Kenny, [he’d] do anything. Do anything. Our great thing was when we were at parties – very influential parties – was to stand with a knot of people, all distinguished people, was to undo our flies, and wait until somebody looked down and said “Oh my god!” and dying to tell who was with them “Shall we tell him his flies are open?” Well we knew they’d seen. We only opened the flies, didn’t go further than that. Very awkward when you’ve got a zip and no buttons. But, er, he was a mischievous man, so Kenny would do anything with you. We had many escapades. But we did that [Get That] for three years, then he went on to something else, and I got Jim Villiers to do it with me, a very good English character actor.
McG: James Villiers.
HF: Yes. The original idea being I was going to take it to America, with Jim who [posh accent] spoke English that, made the Queen sound like a cockney, with Jim as my butler.
And me doing what Billy Connolly’s doing now in Route 66. This is New York, and this is the famous Broadway and behind me you can see St Patrick’s Church where Jimmy Cagney fell dead having been shot. And doing all that, all over America, Hollywood. It was all arranged and everything. David Nixon was the President.
McG: Richard Nixon.
HF: Richard Nixon. They’d have been better with David Nixon! [Laughs] We were all ready to go absolutely ready to go and the Americans were looking forward to it, as this sounds like it can transfer to the American networks, which meant we were going to get a lot of money if it went there, and all of a sudden there was a crisis in America, and Pan-Am were backing this show, they were pulling out - they were going to be the backers. Nixon stopped all the aeroplane giveaways, all giveaways – stopped it – and Pan-Am sent us a nice letter of apology to the manager. The manager’s name was Wilson at Southern TV, saying “sorry, but we’ll put it in abeyance.” Unfortunately, Richard Nixon said “Read my Lips.” The lying bastard, and of course someone broke in and said “This man is a third-rate crook.”, so we never got around to it again. If only Clinton had taken his place, he’d have said [American accent] “that sounds like a good idea to me!” But Jim Villiers was lovely. Another great character actor. He and Ronnie Fraser were two great character actors, naughty boys, the pair of them, in real life –
HF: Oh, Ronnie drank more than Jim; Jim drank so much one day – they were both Fulham football fans – he drank so much that when they were all leaving, he thought he could leave across the pitch and fell over the balustrade and broke his nose. [laughs] it didn’t seem to worry him. But that was Jim.
McG: I want to talk about another cult film you were in, and that’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End.
HF: One of the greatest pictures I’ve ever made. What was the name of the man that burned himself?
McG: Viv Stanshall.
HF: Viv Stanshall. I went to a party. Somewhere up around Maida Vale. The highlight of which was the man living downstairs had heard the noise and came up and asked if anybody had got any tea and it was Rudolph Nureyev. I could not believe it. This was a showbiz party, there were well known people there, and I couldn’t believe it. Absolutely.
McG: No, let’s have it. Can I just ask while I remember, how long have you lived in this flat in Chelsea?
HF: We got married in here when I was doing The Army Game and the lady, who was a great fan of The Army Game, and I said “oh I’m going to get married –“ Alsops they were called the estate agents, “We’ve got a block of flats down there, you can have any flat you want that’s empty.” She showed me eight flats here. We intended getting married and then buying a house and then moving on, but if you live in Chelsea it’s very, very difficult to go anywhere else.
KF: [About the cake] There’s a slice out of it, I don’t know how that happened.
McG: You’ve been here since 1961.
KF: Would you believe it?
HF: I’ve never been sorry somehow, because Chelsea is the most wonderful place to live. If you’re an actor – a lot of actors live around here, the restaurants in those days were all aimed towards actors and writers. Augustus John you know, Ken Tynan lived in the house opposite the fire station, and you’d see that Ellen Pollock lived here, a lot of actors lived here. Donkeys years ago, in the fifties, before I got married, people like Dors and myself used to come to Chelsea because it was such an enjoyable place. It was a place to get on a bus and come to. But we had a good life, yeah. A lot of people have been in here: Dean Martin’s son has slept on that floor, a lot of people have been in here.
McG: I bet.
HF: There were a lot of actors.
McG: Do you want to do some of that?
HF: A lot of actors. [Patrick] Wymark has been in here, on top of that [indicates], small man he was, pissed as a newt of course. A lot of people -
McG: Any more name dropping?
HF: Oh, I can’t think of them – I say to Kay “Oh what do you call it stood there.” A lot of tennis players, well-known tennis players, a lot of actors, well-known actors. Their names will crop up when you’ve gone.
McG: But we were talking about Sir Henry [at Rawlinson’s End] and that party.
HF: Yes, shall we – are we ready? What was the name of that actor?
McG: Viv Stanshall.
HF: Vivian Stanshall. I don’t know, I went into another room and I was in there and he came in there and he said “Could you give me a-” He was a very eccentric man, I mean he looked it, not only sounded it, he was like Billy Connolly in many respects, that big a man and his hair was all akimbo, you know, but he was a great character and made great music, and he said to me “Have you got, could you spare me five minutes?” “Spare you five minutes – of course.” And he said “This is not a cock and bull story, I’m making a crazy film – I want to”. He said “Trevor Howard’s offered to do it. I want you to play the gypsy, the cockney gypsy, against Trevor Howard.”
HF: Buller, yes. I said “it sounds like a lot of fun. [Background noises] He said “Will you read it?” So, I read three pages and I rang him up and said “I want to do this.” And it’s still one of the favourite things I ‘ve ever done. Have you seen it?
McG: Yes, [chuckling]
HF: How did you understand it?
KF: You didn’t have to did you?
McG: It’s meaningless.
HF: Trevor Howard used to ask me in make-up every morning “Have you any idea what this is about?”
END OF SIDE 3
McG: Nobody knew what was going on did they?
HF: [Laughs] No, but Buller was a lovely part. He said “don’t give me all that lark – you’re no coloured boy. That’s all – you’ve put soot on your face”. Oh, the dialogue was absolutely wonderful. And I had it played with another of the great actors with whom it was a privilege to play with: Patrick Macnee. [sic] The Irish actor. He was the only guy outside of Alastair Sim who could frighten you when you knew you were acting in a scene. It wasn’t real life. And he could be frightening. And his voice [growls] was down there, very low and it got-
McG: [riffling through pages] I’m sorry, you said Patrick Macnee…
McG: …but this is in fact it is another actor, who was in A Clockwork Orange and his name is…Patrick
HF: It’s not MacNee?
McG: It’s Patrick Magee.
HF: The Irish actor? He’ll be in there. [presumably indicating reference book]
McG: Yes. Yeah that was the scary one. I can believe it.
HF: He was wonderful to work with. If you’ve got to play parts where you want to get away from reality as the actors playing the part, get hold of someone like Patrick Magee because he suddenly changed -
HF: [resumes again] Now Sir Henry – I’ve got the DVD, I gave some away. [Kay fusses in background] I’m being treated by doctors every two months I have to give them a sample, and when I was in hospital I had a doctor who used to poke his head round the corner – consultant – who used to poke his head round the corner and say to me “Oh how it offends me to the soul to hear a robust periwig-pated fellow, tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings”. I said “Tommy, why do you do all this?” He said “Well, I wanted to be an actor, and I tried to be, but I’m afraid I was no bloody good, so I became a doctor.” So, I have to see him now every two months. By the way, he never put a stethoscope anywhere near me before he’d say “Have you seen the film The War Horse? And things like that. [laughs] But he is not just a doctor, he is still that actor. Marvellous company to be with. Always says to me “where’s the lovely Kay?” Goes outside, cuddles her. In that fashion.
McG: Was the filming of Sir Henry chaos, or was it all ordered?
HF: Chaos, total chaos. ‘Cos nobody in it knew what they were doing. There was a nice little other Irish actor in it who does a tap dance on a table outside a pub. I forget his name, [J.G. Devlin. DS] sad to say, because he was really one of those Abbey [Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre. DS] people, who should all be remembered: Barry Fitzgerald who went mental [imitates histrionic “Irish” accent], absolutely brilliant performer. So many of them. That was fun for Trevor, because he didn’t know with all this farting what was going on, but then he was very good in it and you see it you say if he had no idea about it then I’d like to have no idea, because he knew exactly what he was doing [McG laughs] you know because it was a hell of a part to play because what is it, it’s a Rowan & Martin, it’s – what was that film? Elisha Cooke gets shot in a film that two comics made in America – had one name, Hellzapoppin’ it was called. Did you ever see it?
McG: The old one.
HF: The original.
McG: Thirties, Forties, yes. Olsen and Johnson.
HF: Olsen and Johnson, and Elisha Cooke gets shot in it and all water comes out of the bullet holes. Well that was as near Hellzapoppin’ as you can get because nobody knew what that was about. Olsen and Johnson even stopped at times to talk among themselves, you know, like Groucho, naughty Groucho who invented that business, looking at the camera. [Does an impersonation] Brilliant, brilliant. Can you believe that I had the privilege of working for Elkan Allen regularly, they had a show, the forerunner of that Michael Parkinson show, it was called Don’t Say a Word.
McG: I wanted to bring this up, yes, -
HF: -And I did it for four years.
McG: This is the forerunner of Give us a Clue.
HF: Yes. And I say this in all fairness, Give us a Clue was not in the same class. It was too staged. This, was free and easy, everybody got up and said and it was much better produced and the MC was better than Parkinson. A man called Ronan Atkinson
McG: [interrupts] No, Ronan –
HF: Ronan Casey. Yes. [Ronan O’Casey] He was married to the lady that George Baker married. Who sadly died recently.
McG: Ah, you’ve got me there. [Louie Ramsay. DS]
HF: He was very good Ronan – another Irishman who combined it with an American accent. Played G.I.s and things, but he was a very good MC. And I became very friendly with the governor of that organisation. It was shot at Wembley in those days, next to Wembley Stadium and they come down there with a show, they told him it was coming, and a tremor ran through my body. Groucho Marx is coming to do a show here where he cuts your tie off. Now he did a show in America, saying “How long have you been married?” “Ten years.” “How many children do you have?” “Fifteen.” “Don’t you have a television?” Oh, he was wonderful, coming back. And then he cut ties off and all this extraneous matter. I met him, I talked with him about his love for Graham Greene. About his brother, the dummy [Harpo] who was one of the greatest performers ever on the screen: silly bastard – I didn’t get a photo with him. I had photographers there who would take shots – I talked with him, I lie awake at nights now thinking “Groucho Marx, I could have had a bloody picture with him,” I’ve got millions of them that were taken for films, not because I’d asked for them, but there was Groucho, you stupid-and I’m talking to him like I’m talking to you; talking about the show – a slick show, well he’d done it in America so he knew it. He said “they get big names.” I said “Most of these people are big names here, they all know them, they’re in soaps or something, you know. Johnny Gregson was very good in it, which surprised me, because to me he was just a “ra-ra” actor. He was an actor, never could do light-hearted stuff. He was very, very good. Glen Mason was in it too, singer. A little girl from Emergency Ward Ten, I forget her name, [Jill Browne DS] and I had the Canadian lady with me who did quite well at the time. Jewish-Canadian lady. Comedian.
McG: Libby Morris?
HF: That’s it, Libby Morris. I had one other with me, I forget now.
McG: Now you are talking now about Give us a Clue.
HF: Give us a Clue. Yes.
McG: Was Una Stubbs in that?
HF: Una Stubbs. That was it yeah.
HF: It was a great team.
McG: Yes, it was. While we are on the subject of television-
HF: Are we up and running?
McG: Yes, of course. Doctor Who. We have to mention it.
HF: Doctor Who. The only story I can tell you about that, that’s worth telling, is a guy rang me up and he said “I would very much like you to do a couple of episodes of Doctor Who” and I said “Oh I don’t want to put all that gear on” and he said “no, no, no, this is a bloke in a café, who is looking after the café while Joe’s ill. It’s only a few lines, and we are going to do – you’ll have to come to the studio twice. But they are good lines, and it’s a sympathetic role”. I said “well-” my agent said “Do it, they’ll pay the money.” And I said “I don’t want to piss about in Doctor Who playing a character.” So, he rang me, he said “Look, I’ve got Simon Williams to play the officer who comes in the café.” I knew Simon’s father very well, very nice man-
HF: Yeah, we called him Taffy Williams, and Simon was an enchanting boy, and a very fine actor, straight out of Upstairs, Downstairs, perfect for him; and the other thing is he said “I’ve been a fan of yours ever since Hue and Cry. You’ve got to be in this, I want to say, I want to do it OK and he talked about the money, and he pleaded straight away, and I said “alright, I’ll come and do it.” So those two episodes I’ve gone through, one being residual, and it was so much so, my agent rang me two years later and says “Did you do a thing with the man who plays Bean, Rowan Atkinson? About the war?” and I said “No.” He said they showed all the things and there is a cheque here, for you, made out to you.” And I said “Well, what is it for?” and he said “Well that’s what we are asking.” They are not being very clarified about it, so he said “Well we won’t tell you, because it’s too much money, and there’s been a mistake.” [McG laughs] The secretary, the top secretary of the agency rings me about four hours later, and she said “I’ve investigated it and it’s a cheque for Doctor Who.” I said “Well I did that two years ago.” “No, she said, it’s the residuals from the United States of America.” I said “How Much!?” She told me. And I’ve been getting it every year – I had one this year, for half a crown [12 ½ pence]. Can you believe it? It’s about twenty, thirty years old.
McG: It’s 1988, it’s Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s a very famous TV episode.
HF: Sales of TV stuff well if you are a Who fan, you’ve got to have every one. In America, Tom Baker, if you just do what Tom Baker got for going over there and said “well I wore this scarf, and then I sneezed” and they’d say [affects American accent] “Oh a million dollars.” Conventions all the time there.
McG: It’s true. And they buy this disc.
HF: And you’re again called Harry in it.
HF: Harry, yeah. That was actually in the script. Harry. We didn’t change it.
McG: Oh, it just happened to be Harry?
HF: Just happened to be Harry, yeah.
McG: You’re in In Sickness and in Health as Harry.
HF: Yes, that’s towards the end of it. I weren’t [sic] in it regularly. Little actor called Hugh, Hugh, good little actor…
HF: Hugh Lloyd. Did shows with that Terry, Terry Scott.
McG: Terry Scott, yeah, that’s it. And for the benefit of those listening in, Harry’s just having a piece of cake now.
HF: I’d known Warren for donkey’s years, him being a cockney. He was as genuine as Sydney Tafler.
McG: Let’s talk about Sydney [Tafler] as well, because you worked with him so much.
HF: I did. We were like a double act, like Morecambe and Wise in many ways. Not as good as, but I always played the villain and he was always my boss.
McG: Yes. [chuckles]
HF: He always called me by my name. “’ere y’are Joe do what I tell ya.” Always in a yiddisher accent. [Does accent] “Joe, do what I tell ya.” And I would finish by saying “Right Boss.” He was always “Boss”.
HF: He was a lovely man, Sydney, and I still think of him in very dear terms. But: he took the business too seriously.
HF: I’ve no idea. I’ve known one or two actors who are a bit serious about the profession and didn’t get the enjoyment out of it I think they could.
HF: You know. Working with a lot of people who really did enjoy what they were doing and knew their position and how lucky we were. Having been down the coal mines of course in 1940, and you get money for being an actor, you know where you stand.
HF: You know where you stand ‘cos you don’t get much mystery down a coal mine. You get a lot of sores, things falling on your head and so on, when you’re standing in pink curlers, given canvas chairs with your name on that you sit in, you think of the coal face “cor, blinking ‘ell” [laughs] Dunno how you can complain about money?
Stand-ins saying “Can I get you a bacon roll, Mr Fowler?” Your stand-in. Oh we used to have fun. Getting on to the first [?]I had a stand-in for years, a very nice boy called Frank Howard.
McG: Frank Howard?
HF: Yeah, not Frankie Howerd, no. Frank Howard. He was absolutely wonderful. He was one of the few stand-ins that always got work because they never said anything, they just did as they were told, because when you’re working hard on a film set and you are a first assistant, third assistant director, you don’t want people missing. You want them there, and Frank was, among others. I always used to say - get hold of the first assistant “the call tomorrow, you don’t want all these pedestrians walking through put Frank in it just give him one line, where he blows his nose or something.” And they always did. That was the camaraderie among us. Of course, you got stand-ins wages which were better than extras, and then you got the extras fee that made it worth his while. And he was a lovely man, and do you know I was just thinking of somebody. Robert Shaw liked his stand-in so much he wouldn’t do a film in Hollywood without him. They had to fly this man to Hollywood. Sean Lynch – he was his father.
McG: Oh yes.
HF: I forget his first name – Paddy Lynch – but he was a gentleman and he never ever said a word on the set. Robert Shaw loved him, liked what he did for him, and he did Jaws with him over in America, every film, he said “I don’t work without Lynch.” “My stand-in, my man.” He wasn’t his man, he was his stand-in. So, he earned quite a bit of bread, [money] because he kept getting parts as well. When that fire begins, he’s one of the audience, as well. That’s why he became quite powerful in Hollywood – Robert he’s a mysterious man, Robert Shaw. Very deep man, strong actor.
McG: You were still working until fairly recently. Do you think the last credit was with Jon Culshaw in 2004?
HF: Might well have been yeah.
McG: Round about that time?
HF: About 2006 I packed it in.
McG: Why did you pack it in?
HF: Because – it was the hospital was too much for me. It was quite serious at one time.
McG: Can we talk about what – why you’ve been in hospital?
HF: No, I don’t - because if people say to me “Here, whatcha call it died the other day, what was the matter with him?” I’d say “His heart stopped.” You see I can’t see the point in-.
McG: [in agreement] Mmm. But the only reason you stopped was that.
HF: Because I got disabled and you don’t think you’re fit enough. I did for a long while get up on the stage and do half an hour, sometimes three-quarters, auctioneering. Telling jokes, and although I say it myself because you’re very good at it. I was good enough to last for three years, they got me to do it for three years and I loved it, I enjoyed it very much. But it was at show-biz “dos”. Charity “dos” where people went, to the Grosvenor Hotel, or the Hilton, because they guaranteed to be at least fifteen stars there: from soaps, Barbara Windsor, people like that, some well-known film actors – Norman Wisdom was a regular, John Mills was a regular, and they used to put on entertainment. They were very good “dos”. The first one I went to
all the old mates went too: Spike, Alfie Marks, Denis – the man who did The Goons – Denis Main-Wilson – all kinds of people went, it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. John Le Mesurier’s wife; there was another great man I had the privilege of working with. I did a series called – for Witzend Productions, who made [Shine on] Harvey Moon, and this was called Dead Ernest, and it was about people going up to heaven, and it was a crib on Hello Mr Jordan [Here Comes Mr Jordan], where the guy goes up to heaven and it’s wrong “I wasn’t meant to get here yet.” [?]. Bob Cummings, Bob Cummings, and this was given to little Andrew Sachs, who to this day says “I wasn’t right for it.” Actually, I thought he was very good, but it’s about heaven and he keeps complaining saying “I wasn’t meant to come up here.” “Oh, shut up!” “Who’s he?” “Oh, he’s in charge of the weather, you know he – it’s up to him whether it’s going to rain or shine.” Well the guy playing that was John le Mesurier – [laughs] we were going to shoot this – it was [tele]recorded by then – and John didn’t know a line, not a line! And I said “Give him half an hour, so you can just quickly read it to yourself; leave him alone, let him go, give him half hour and you’ll get the performance of a lifetime.” He came back and he got a round of applause. He was brilliant, brilliant.
McG: And a gentleman?
HF: Oh, he’s a wonderful man. Too soft for his own good. He was a wonderful man. A really, really wonderful man. I think one of the best things I have ever seen in my life – certainly one of the best cast series is Dad’s Army. Perry and Croft deserve award after award for the casting of that show. I have never seen such a combination of good casting. OK you can get John le Mesurier and Captain Mainwaring, fine. But all the others, all the characters.
McG: Would you have liked to have been in it?
HF: I couldn’t because of The Army Game.
McG: It’s a shame, a shame.
HF: But, yes I would. Got a lot of friends in it, Frank Williams, still a mate, and Clive – I spoke to Clive the other day. He was over last week-
McG: Clive Dunn.
HF: We had dinner. And his wife. Jimmy Beck I knew, I know most of them. Arnie, Arnold Collier who wrote The Ghost Train
McG: [correcting] Ridley.
HF: Ridley. He wrote The Ghost Train, isn’t it funny? But I look at it and every time it finishes – Clive agreed with me the other night, they had a very good one on the other night – it was cleverly written by the writers for everybody in the cast had a crack of the whip, as it were. Not just interjecting with the odd funny line and it was so brilliantly written. Clive said “I’m glad you said that, because I’ve sat there and watched it in Portugal, and I ‘ve thought the same.” That was undoubtedly one of the best writers [work]. The same thing happened in The Army Game once or twice. People were given scripts with a social message in them and although the audience didn’t seem to mind it, it completely transformed The Army Game. It suddenly became a Sunday night play. Or Friday night play.
HF: But then going back to earlier on, you were talking about live television, I was once in a play about prison. This man was going to interview eight prisoners about why they were in, and it was an exercise in rehabilitation, and to say, why are you there, what will you be when you get out and all that. But it was live, and we all had a lot to say, all eight actors had soliloquys if you like and they were interviewed by two men, warders and the prison governor. And the show opens with music and then captions rolling down as all these eight men went down the iron staircase in the prison and into this room and sat down and then it opened. “Well you know why you’re all here. Robson, you know…” - well as you’re going down the iron stairs, everybody had a lot to learn; the man in front of me vomited all over the actor in front of him. That is what is known as “live television nerves” I talked about it two or three times. I stood behind a comic once on the stage and I said “Are you alright?” because his neck was like Niagara Falls, the sweat was pouring down his back. He said [exclaims] yeah yeah yeah, he walks on the stage totally transformed, came off and all he had to do was dab his forehead, because its bloody hard work doing twenty minutes out there for a stand-up comic. That’s the trials and tribulations of the game. A lot of people weren’t up to it. A lot of people weren’t quite right. They loved the theatre for some reason or the other, where you’ve got to learn the lines.
McG: Do you think it was meant to be, as far as your career was concerned? Did it all turn out okay?
HF: Absolutely. Absolutely. At times I still say to Kay “Can you believe I was doing a job?” – we were talking the other day I sometimes drive out now towards Twickenham and places like that, and I used to drive to Shepperton, where I did films, and Twickenham, and I used to fill it [the car] with either my stand-in, Tony Newley if we were together and one or two other actors, I tell you one, Edward Judd – he was a stand-in in those days-
McG: [Interrupting] And – and the actor we are trying to remember is Edmund Purdom!
HF: Edmund Purdom, yes – in Italy.
McG: Thank goodness I’ve got it on tape.
HF: Well done. Well done David.
HF: Eddy Judd. We used to have a car full of boys, Gerald Campion; and I used to say to them all “No complaints! First, you’re getting a free lift – it was my car – secondly, I want to show you something when we get on the A3 [road] or whatever it was.” I’d say “Has anybody noticed anything?” Well after the first time they did. The road the other side, coming into London was going at two miles an hour. Commuters, nose to nose, back to back. Our side: no-one. Going out of town. Who is going out to Shepperton at six o’clock in the morning except three film actors, and some nut case? I said “That’s the best perk in this bleedin’ job!” When we drive to work, you’re driving the wrong way! You are driving the way nobody’s going except two other actors. It used to be fantastic. Well we go to a place now, well Walton-on-Thames, and it takes three times what it took when I worked there. So if you were called at half-past seven, I didn’t leave home until seven. And in those days, I was living in Edgware Road – yeah, Edgware Road. I mean it was incredible and that was one of the perks. And they never stop because whatever actors say, it’s the best part – I still think it exists today, they are mollycoddled and they are given a lot. It’s part of the business. It’s – excuse me, they do like to be called “ducky” and when you see the first canvas chair with your name on, you do have to go and have a lay down. [McG chuckles]
HF: He can’t believe it. That happened to me in Ealing, after I’d done two films at Ealing. The prop boys said “Go and have a look on the set.” “Cor.” I said. “Who did that?” “Well, they’ve asked for it.” They hadn’t asked for it, the boys put it on there.
McG: You got a chair with your name on.
HF: Oh, Sidney Tafler said “How’ve you got your name on there?” I said “You’re not to sit on my chair. You’re not to sit in it either!”
McG: This is the bit where I say “Do you have any regrets?”
HF: None at all. I can’t remember any. If I had to do it again, I’d do it again. In fact, I couldn’t do it any better than I did, and I couldn’t meet any nicer people than I did. Exciting people. When you’ve been in the company of people like David Lean and the other people I’ve mentioned, it’s a great privilege.
McG: Can we talk about your great love of the cinema, because you’re also a collector, aren’t you?
HF: Yeah, I collect. I’m in the middle now of putting a collection together– there used to be a magazine called Picturegoer, that was the be-all and end-all for the mass of people and it used to tell you what was coming on, what was in production and liable to reach cinemas within nine months and most of all Edith – [Nepean DS] or somebody covered something like sixteen films. It came out weekly.
McG: Well that was Picture Show. But Margaret Hinxman did the same in Picturegoer.
HF: Picturegoer. Well either of them covered sixteen films.
The great thing about it was they had the entire cast written down to the guy who did one line, you know, and it was wonderful to have these things. A friend of mine now won’t live without the TV Times, Radio Times, because all the plays it shows [it] has the full cast, because they show a play on TV now, they run the cast down so fast it would win every greyhound race it was put in! [McG laughs] It’s ridiculous. Equity tried to do something about it but -. People want to see the cast, see “Oh that name. Oh yeah, I’ve seen him before.” Plenty of people out there are old film fans, and it doesn’t have to be Douglas Fairbanks. It can be those character actors and so on, you know. So, I’ve been out at the moment, looking, yesterday I was at an antiques fair, I found two cards, one of Christine Nordern.
McG: They’re on the mantlepiece at the moment-
HF: The other one is my dear Kieron Moore, who I worked with and the other day I found one of [the character] Morse, in The Fugitive, made in America, made his name, chasing a man with a limp and the other one is dear Diana Dors, when she was “flighty Di.” She’s about sixteen there, or seventeen – her name had just changed from Diana Dors [corrects himself] -to Diana Dors, from Diana Fluck, and how would you say, you have a fat chance – anybody with a lisp, you’re in trouble!
McG: [laughs] Now you still pick up stuff at boot [car boot] sales.
HF: Yes, can’t be without them.
McG: Yeah. So, what does your collection consist of? Photos, books…
HF: Photos, mainly, but mainly reference books. Hard to come by reference books. You start with Motion Picture Almanac, from Hollywood with Cary Grant, everybody, which has right through to Peter Noble’s British Film Yearbook which he wrote for over – I don’t know – ten, fourteen years. And, in between there are little books you pick up – I picked one up the other day from French, cameos, little tight cameos of people like Fernandel, and all these French actors of that time. You know, I forget their names now but Jean Gabin when he was a famous ingenue, Yves Montand all of these people, and it’s a great prize to have, a wonderful prize.
That was a boot sale. It’s just a paper book, but what you see in it, it’s like gold dust, there aren’t a lot of them about. But books, I love reading about other actors, their cvs in other reference books, British character actors; [David] Quinlan’s, British Character actors [Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors] is it [Leslie] Halliwell who is master of them all and there’s a Thomson who writes books about films, David Thomson, who cannot be equalled. If you see his name, you want the book because he is absolutely wonderful; there is probably the world’s greatest film admirer, the greatest writer about film he loves everything he writes about and he writes about it with no disdain, it’s pure admiration and correctly so, because the people deserve it. He doesn’t congratulate anybody or write about anybody that’s not worth writing about. But he writes little inner things and they are not throw-aways like in Picturegoer that’s been handled by a publicity man, you know who has been at all these “dos”, you know ‘shot on Brighton Pier’, you know purely PR [Public Relations] stuff. These things are great. That side of the business as well was interesting, to watch PR at work for movies. It’s enormous. I mean the money that’s spent on posters, on billboards, on press shows – I mean press shows alone used to cost a fortune, because those boys in Bouverie Street, where I started, in Bouverie Street, got pissed eight times a week at press shows, and they got caviar and the smoked salmon!
McG: [emphatically] Not anymore!
HF: Not anymore, no. The actors get it all now. You know, when you get forty-two thousand [pounds], a million, for a film.
McG: Would you have liked to have gone to Hollywood?
HF: No. I was – once, there was some talk of me going there to join the East Side Kids…Leo Gorcey, as an evacuee – no a stowaway, not an evacuee – on a British boat, and he gets off, and you know their claim to fame – and I once said to somebody, a director, when I first started, “What is this word “aint”?” They said “Aren’t.”
I said “No you don’t, you say “aint”. No such word, you can’t have cockneys saying “aren’t.” I’ve never heard of it. So. And “as like as not” was another invented phrase. “Ooh, as like as not, guv.” Where’d they get that from? And as I said earlier on, “rozzers.” I said “What, rozzers, what are they?” “Policemen. All cockneys call them the rozzers.” I said “I’m terribly sorry but I know two million cockneys, and I’ve never heard one of them say rozzers.” Comes out of the universities, these boys who came down in their check shirts and red ties and these you know lefty liberals and so on –
McG: But why didn’t you join the – was it the Bowery Boys?
McG: East Side Boys.
HF: It’s about this “aint”. The director said “You’re telling me I can’t say ‘ain’t’.” I go to the cinema and I watch these people going “Da, da, da, da” [talks a kind of mock American nonsense loudly] and I can’t understand a word of it. They are called the East Side Kids, or the Bowery Boys. But we all queued up to see them ‘cos we don’t need the words. You could tell from the inflections. So anyway, somebody had the bright idea, it’s a good idea really, a guy getting off a ship, a stowaway. And these guys meet him, and they say “You’re English. Say ‘cos all Americans [think we] say [Upper class mocking tone] “Hallo, My Lord, and Gad Sir.” And all that. This guy says “What you dressed like that for? I thought you said you was English?” And so, anyway, he joins them, becomes one of them. Sadly, again it fell through.
McG: Didn’t happen?
HF: Didn’t happen, and I’m not quite sure what went wrong. Somebody decided it was taking a stretch too far, or the end of the series was in sight. So I read Huntz Hall and [Leo] Gorcey and they got petrified and very unhappy when they were told it was coming to an end, because it was a regular living of course and they didn’t really do much in other films, but there you are it did come to an end. But that was it, no beginning for me. I’d love to have done it because I’d seen them as a child, I was brought up with the East Side Kids, and Our Gang,[aka Little Rascals] Spanky and all those people, you know. Again, the reference books: I’ve got a series of books called “Where Are They Now?”. Now they are wonderful books, and they only go up to about nineteen-sixty something, so everybody in them is old, very old, and they’ve got the cvs of these [actors] Alfalfa – I forget his name now [Carl Switzer. DS] – he was shot over a twenty-dollar film – and all these people, and what became of them. I’m trying to think of some of the names now: Misch Auer.[?]
McG: Yes. This is a very interesting point on which to end, because - we spoke about this on the phone: most child actors do not go on to an adult career. Now these people we’re talking about, Spanky McFarland and so forth, it didn’t happen. You were a child actor, and you were still working how many years later?
HF: Yes, quite it’s true but-
McG: How did it happen?
HF: Well you see Mickey Rooney as a child; Donald O’Connor as a child; Sammy Davis as a child – they’d already become characters. They were already a character in that vein: Rooney was always a cocky upstart.
Donald O’Connor was always the boy who could sing, dance, and do anything; Sammy Davis as his feet moved, he made the tap dancers think well what are they doing, well not the Nicholas Brothers; while I, I was established from the first film as a genuine cockney kid. So, what’s wrong with a cockney kid growing into a cockney teenager? Growing into a cockney dad, the same guy. We used to see him when he was only fifteen. It’s the same feller doing the same work. Exactly the same. You grow old, the part grows with you. You’ve grown up from the kid that was in Hue and Cry, but you’re still playing that character.
McG: You are the archetypal “cockney geezer”, aren’t you?
HF: Yeah. Well I was, yeah. There’s a few about now. They are very good, very good.
McG: Who is the present day “Harry Fowler”?
HF: I Don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t watch much anymore, of those kind – and they don’t make those kinds of films so much anymore. If you could span, just think of those two films, Those Kids From Town, where I was in a wilderness, but a magnificent, magical wilderness, I just said cockney lines as I spoke normally, “yeah, not that guv” and all that, within two years, three years, in a serious dramatic role, as the same boy but a bit older, in Went The Day Well?, having to act shot in the knee, doing pensive scenes with Edward Rigby, Germans across the hill, getting shot, talking sense about why chocolate’s got Wien on it (Vienna), “what is this chocolate?”, having to act, having a man like Cavalcanti, a Brazilian, showing me how to act; and you grew up with it, so by the time I’d got to, what do you call it, what do you call it, End with Trevor – Rawlinson’s End, I was the same character, but wore a trilby hat, a suit and a tie and got a bit more cocky. But it was exactly the same person that was in Those Kids from Town. I always said the great thing about Humphrey Bogart was you know him. He was a great stage actor, indeed a great film actor, as he proves in many films, he did but generally we went to see Cagney and Bogart because they were, well they were ingenues almost. The loveliest thing I ever experienced in my life was Michael Parkinson, interviewing James Cagney, who had come to this country to do a film, not all that many years ago, and he insisted on bringing Pat O’Brien with him-
McG: Rag Time.
HF: - his Irish team mate. I remember Parky, ‘cos he was a great film interviewer, he was a great film lover, having Jimmy Cagney sit there and saying to him a hoorah, a soliloquy almost, how do you become famous and how do you do it? You see that dance in Yankee Doodle Dandy, how do you do it, up the wall. And Cagney let him go on and on with all these plaudits – and they were deserved plaudits, I mean Cagney made some great films, and he says “How do you do it, James?” And he went “No sweat. Just a job.” Ask Kay. “Kay?”
KF: Yes. Loved him even more.
HF: That’s right. “No sweat, Just a job. I don’t want to talk about all that crap, all that stuff, it’s done, I was working.
McG: Well, I tell you what Harry, I mean we’ve talked about the people you admired, as a child, and now I can tell you absolutely genuinely, when we see Harry Fowler, on the films, on TV, during the day, we get that same kind of buzz, “aw, it’s Harry Fowler – we love him.
HF: It’s the longevity of appearing; the continuity of appearing. I’ll give you the best example to finish up with.
HF: When they first put on TV, especially when commercial TV came in, people say “it won’t last”, then we all have, everybody lived like a bible by the number of people watching the show; they called it the ratings, and The Army Game was top of the ratings for many – not years – months. Then suddenly somebody turned up on the “people like you guv” – Youguv then not now – pollsters ratings, something turned up when they were doing an incidental survey: “we like the monkey show best.” Monkey shows? Tarzan? No, it was Brooke Bond’s tea advert. “The only trouble is, it ain’t long enough.” Now then. It was on thirty times a day. In a lounge. Not where you had to go in a big vast hall called a cinema – in your lounge. It was as much a part of you, these monkeys talking, as your old man was when he came home – “ gawd, hard at work today” – the monkeys were always saying funny things -
McG: This is PG Tips [commercial]
HF: PG Tips. Luckily, during my career, I did three or four voiceovers on them. And they used to make me laugh. “It’s the taste, it’s the taste.” Great voices did them, great film voices, and when they carried the piano down the stairs, “Can you play – whatever it was.”
McG: “Do you know the piano is on my foot?”
HF: Oh, yeah, “do you know the piano is on my foot?” “Well I can’t play it, but I’ll hum it for you.” [laughing] [Probably slightly mis-remembered. DS]
McG: And was the landlady not Irene Handl?
HF: Yes. And I forget who done some of the monkeys, but they were Billy Smart’s monkeys, and they were brilliant, but they were voted the best show on TV, but “it ain’t long enough.”
McG: What do you make of that?
HF: So, all day long, I was very heavily involved with advertising, voiceovers, because I had a distinguished cockney voice; and I went to – I got in with one company, and did a whole series for a biscuit firm. So I was in at the hearings, and the working outs, for which they paid me a retainer, and there was conference one day about selling, and ideas and storyboards and so on, and somebody said, the guy said well, something about selling, and a man stood up and said to him, [mimics an American accent] “Tell him – we don’t want to sell them what they want, our job is to sell them what they don’t want. What they want, they don’t need advertising, they’ll go out and buy it.” You see things like this “rub this oil on your skin, and all your wrinkles will go.” Well, I mean you’ve got to be one of those monkeys to believe that. [Laughs] It’s the biggest seller [Advertising] in England, in the world. [laughs] But I’m glad it came here, because it gave a lot of actors work, and gave a lot of good producers and writers work, commercial TV, and some of it is bloody brilliant. Some of it. And television, because it’s an insatiable alligator, twenty-four hours a day, by the very nature of that, it’s mediocre, on the whole. With the exception of some, some percentage of it being bloody brilliant even superceding cinema sometimes. You’ve only got to look at Attenborough, and the guy that used to do “and we go down sinking in the sun, sinking in the west –
McG: Fitzpatrick, wasn’t it?
HF: James Fitzpatrick. Doesn’t compare with Attenborough, David Attenborough. Attenborough is great. He is the Claude Raines, the Alec Guinness, and everything, of television.
I defy anyone to start watching one of his shows and not see it through to the end; what a genius. And there are not many of them, but there we are we should be thankful for it.
McG: Harry Fowler, it’s been an enormous pleasure. Thank you so much.E
HF: Thank you David. And if I come out of retirement, I’ll give you ten percent of my wages. OK, you can relax now, David.