Nicholas (Nicky) Victor Leslie Henson on 16 December 2019, aged 74
H LQ59 - OQ61
The announcement from his family said: “Nicky Henson has died after a long disagreement with cancer”.
The 2010 edition of Carthusian magazine featured “An OC Interview” in which Nicky Henson gave a personal account of his life:-
“Proud to describe himself as a jobbing actor, Nicky has worked without ceasing since the day he left Charterhouse, and his fabulous technical skill has equipped him to ply his trade in theatre, television and film throughout five busy decades. He has worked with the greatest British actors of the age; he is highly rated and respected in the business. Henson's theatre credits (www.nickyhenson.me.uk) read like a dictionary of drama - an exhaustive list of plays both mainstream and recondite. He has also done about 30 films and loads of television, including Eastenders, A Touch of Frost, and The Bill.
Born in the week of VE Day — the son of the legendary between-the-wars star of stage screen & radio Leslie Henson (who was also for a time in theatrical partnership with Ben Travers, D1904). Nicky's life 'in the family business' has kept him young. He exudes a rumpled 1960s cool: with his Aviator shades, richly modulated voice, and effortlessly imposing physical presence — he is relaxed and friendly, and yet beneath the mature repose there is an intense vitality; he has immense charm and a beguiling grace and agility in his manner — an impressive command, altogether. He is undoubtedly tough too — for acting is a notoriously tough business. "We have 47,000 members of Equity in this country, 87% of whom are out of work at any particular time; and it seems to me that it's the same 13% who work, most of the time... as you probably notice from the television. When I joined the union in 1961 there were 14,000 members and five times the work there is now: we had the reps, movies, B-movies and television drama. That's all gone. There are now 47,000 members and a fifth of the work — also, you don't have to be a member now. Maggie Thatcher got rid of the closed shop — so now you've got all those Equity members, plus all those footballers & WAGs who also want to be at it. It's a cut-throat business. I've watched untalented actors make lots of money, and lots of hugely talented actors never get their break; it's a very unfair business in that way. Just look at all these reality TV shows: it's awful."
Henson's three sons are not — he is relieved to say — actors. He has two by his first wife - the actress Una Stubbs: Christian (a film composer) and Joe (a TV composer). He is now married to Marguerite Porter, the ballerina; their son (named Keaton — after Buster, the silent comedy genius) is an illustrator, designer & recording artist.
In Henson's day Charterhouse was austere: "it had one foot in the past; it certainly wasn't swinging into the 60s in any way at all. There was a classics beak who wore his OC tie every day. I found it restrictive until I met Geoffrey Ford." Ford (BH 1956-92) frequently went up to see shows in London and brought back a whiff of the outside world — and his own shows in Hall were wonderful outlets for creative Carthusians... an early platform for, among others, the boys who went on to form Genesis.
When Nicky Henson left Charterhouse he, like many another Carthusian who had acquired a taste for the stage in Geoffrey Ford's productions, declared that he intended to pursue a career in the theatre. Ford's response to such enthusiastic declarations was nearly always a kind but firm 'no'; but to Henson he said, 'you might as well, mightn't you?' "I couldn't do anything else", Henson admits.
"Geoffrey put me in a lot of plays; my voice broke quite late - and eventually I refused to play any more girls." As well as insisting on playing men, Henson was now instinctively developing his flair for comedy: "Geoffrey let me play 1st Gravedigger; I managed to find some extra skulls and kept throwing them out while Hamlet was doing 'Alas, poor Yorick!' — and I got a lot of laughs."
He was, in fact, a jack-of-all-trades: "On my last night here I was in one of Geoffrey's reviews. I played guitar in all the bands, and I sang in all the vocal groups, and I was in most of the sketches." In the audience that evening was the famous agent Richard Stone - father of Barry Stone (L 63), a fellow performer. Richard Stone came backstage to congratulate Henson, who told him: 'I think I want to go on the stage, sir.' "He's been my agent ever since." Stone was not the only one to spot Henson's talent; Henson recalls Headmaster Brian Young's valedictory quip: "Are you going to be doing this banjo stuff for a living?" Only a few years later Carthusians of the sort Henson had most disliked at school would turn up at his dressing-room door; one such OC remarked, 'all that showing-off paid off then, didn't it?'; this was no doubt kindly meant.
Henson has one thing to say about Charterhouse now: "You know when you come back, everything generally seems much smaller? Well, this is still huge - but a lot more civilised."
Before leaving school he auditioned for RADA, but was far too young ("sixteen going on twelve, actually"). Henson was desperate to leave school after O levels, and he had to prove to his guardian that he was going on into further education - so RADA offered him a year on the stage-management course and then the chance to re-audition for the acting course. Meanwhile Richard Stone had arranged an audition with EMI. Henson got a recording deal (including a three-year contract writing songs for The Shadows and Cliff Richard), and he cut his first single in 1961: 'Till I see you cry'. He finished the stage-management course and went on the road with his band (The Wombats, featuring his great friend Ian Ogilvy) and so he never studied acting. After touring with the band, Henson returned to London and went into cabaret — stand-up comedy, playing the guitar and singing: "again, I was far too young. 1 remember coming out of the kitchens of the Blue Angel Club in Mayfair at one o'clock in the morning and thinking, T should be tucked up at home in bed — not facing all these drunks... upper-class twits and their deb girlfriends...' and this was just the first show of the night! One winter I never saw daylight: there was a show at 10 and a show at 2; afterwards we'd go bowling and then fall into bed for the day."
Henson then went into review-work: his first west end show was All Square, with Beryl Reid in 1963 at the Vaudeville. For the rest of the 60s, Henson worked in musicals: Camelot (Drury Lane 1964), Passion Flower Hotel (Prince of Wales 1965), Canterbury Tales (Phoenix 1968). When Frank Dunlop founded the Young Vic in 1970, a theatre for young audiences, he wanted actors from light entertainment and musicals because he thought they would be sufficiently disciplined to cope with the rapid-fire schedule - putting on shows in only a week or two. Henson was recruited with the likes of Jim Dale, Sam Kelly & Denise Coffey from the fields of review and comedy work, "because it was a three-sided theatre, and we could work directly to an audience — look an audience in the eye. We were doing the classics, and modern classics, for young audiences — and that was the first time I'd done Shakespeare; I'd never trained as an actor at RADA, and I never thought I'd do the classics. I was very lucky: I just kind of fell into it. 1 had a chip on my shoulder about it... until, years later, 1 was doing A Ride Across Lake Constance by Peter Handke at Hampstead Theatre Club; I was sharing a dressing-room with Alan Howard & Nigel Hawthorne — and I was going on about how I wasn't a proper actor because I had never trained. It turned out that neither of them had trained either... so I didn't have that excuse any more: I just had to get on and do it"
After three years at the Young Vic, appearing in everything from Shakespeare and Restoration comedy to Waiting for Godot, and playing Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Henson went on to the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I learned it all on the shop floor - and worked with amazing actors... with my absolute hero, Sir Ralph Richardson."
Henson is now relishing the task of passing on what he has learned: "I teach Restoration comedy at LAMDA. I've acted an awful lot of it, but I don't know an awful lot about it... but every Friday I take the class to the pub and buy them all a drink and tell them what it's like to be in the business. I'm a working actor; there are very few working actors who teach." In fact, Henson does know an awful lot about Restoration drama, and his passion for it is threefold: first, it is not done often enough any more — "the casts are too big, and young actors have no experience of it"; second, "it leads to Wilde, Ben Travers & Joe Orton; it's about unlearning all the subtlety"; third, "it's all about sex."
As for the business itself: "English actors work primarily in the theatre; we do film and television as well, but we are rooted in the theatre. English theatre is a team sport. I've worked a lot in America, and it's completely different: it's a competitive sport there... mainly because they're not based in theatre; they mainly do film and television, where all the work is done the night before on your own in your hotel room — and it's all about what you're going to get out it. It's much more of a family atmosphere in English theatre.
The English are not terribly good film actors. There have been exceptions: Alan Bates, Michael Kitchen. We get very little practice at it; we make two or three films a year and there's very little drama on television — so we're all based in theatre. In this country theatre is becoming much more important now: the television audience has fragmented because of all the new channels; the audiences don't have what the Americans call a 'water-cooler moment' any more... where they're all talking (the next day) about what they watched the night before, which they used do with English television. Audiences want a shared experience. It's thrilling at the moment to see young people back in the audiences." Nicky Henson's experience as a founder member at the Young Vic — which attracted crowds of new young theatre-goers, chiefly in school parties... including coach-loads of Carthusians on theatre trips organised by Geoffrey Ford — informs his work now directing young companies, such as Love & Madness, and The Factory. "Young kids come out of drama school and say, 'I see... we've got to do it ourselves' — and they buy a van and stick some scenery in it, and it's like the old days again." Henson also directs at Sheringham every summer, where they do an old-fashioned three-month season of weekly rep. "The standard of the young actors who audition is very good; they get £235 per week — it's in Norfolk, so you can't get casting directors to come and look at you — but they still want to do the work. In the heyday of rep, with a company based in a town for months on end, the audience would get to know the actors — the actors would become their actors; and after doing an Agatha Christie, a Restoration comedy and a Shakespeare, you could take a chance on something new like The Caretaker — and the audience would come, because they knew the actors already. With pick-up shows in the provinces these days — one-off productions with a bespoke cast for the one show — you don't get that happening."
Nicky Henson loves theatre — and most of all he loves Shakespeare comedy; he's played all the clowns and two of the three fools. He argues from experience with those who (like his friend Derek Jacobi, and Globe Director Mark Rylance) say that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare: "there's no way those parts weren't written by an actor; there's no way those parts were written by the Earl of Oxford. You come across a line and say, 'why's it written like this? It's stupid... I'm having such trouble learning this line: he's put the words in the wrong order.' Then you hit the first preview, and you get this huge laugh at the end of a line — and you think, 'that's it! He knows the laugh's going to come there, so he's put that word at the end of the line... whereas if you put that word in the middle of the line you'd ruin the line: they'd laugh, and they'd not hear the rest of the line.' It's an actor's done that! Also Shakespeare uses the magic rule of three all the time: you do a joke, a joke and then another joke... and then no more. That's an absolute magic theatrical rule. There's no way the Earl of Oxford would know that; I'm sorry! Who did Shakespeare think wrote those plays he was putting on and being in?"
Henson's fellow-feeling for Shakespeare is as one jobbing actor for another. Alongside all the high-minded (and low paid) work at the Young Vic (£35 a week), Henson was working incredibly hard out at Shepperton: "We still had a B-movie industry in this country - so from time to time Frank Dunlop would leave me out of the next show; I would still be in the show at night, but not rehearsing for the next one. Filming was still very unionised at that time — so it used to stop at 5.30 pm on the dot, so that I could finish there and go on stage at the Young Vic in the evening. Some of those B-movies were so bad that thev have become cult-classics... they come back to haunt me on late-night television. In Psychomania Henson is the leader of a motorcycle gang who commits suicide and is buried sitting upright on his motorcycle; he comes back to life as a zombie, rides out of the ground and goes around terrorising the neighbourhood. Henson get invited to address university film societies about it. "Time Out always describes it as 'one of the greatest comedy-horror pictures of all time': I have to point out that we didn't make it as a comedy: it was supposed to be for real!" On the other hand, Witchfinder General (1968 - with Vincent Price, Hilary Dwyer & Ian Ogilvy) in which he played Trooper Robert Swallow, is a straight piece of high quality. It was the director Michael Reeves's third film; he was only 24 at the time - and he died less than a year later, early in 1969: "he would have been huge."
More recently Henson has appeared in Syriana (2005) with George Clooney, playing an American (Sydney Hewitt) — "which was scary"; Henson wryly alleges that he felt during the making of this film (his 30th) he was "beginning to get the hang of film-acting."
Many years before, Henson had turned down a lucrative Hollywood film contract in order to fulfil his prior commitment to the National Theatre: "so there I was in one of those brown rehearsal rooms at the National on a rainy winter's day — the day I'd been due to fly out to California — and I looked across the room and saw Ralph Richardson, Dorothy Tutin & Ben Kingsley and thought, 'ah! There's no choice is there, really?' And Peter Hall was directing, too!" Henson rates Hall as the best verse-teacher in the world; from him he learnt apposition and breath-control when Hall directed him as Malcolm in the Scottish Play. Henson also rates ex-actor directors — like Michael Grandage & Michael Blakemore: "they know when you're trying to get away with something... being lazy"; but Henson has no time for the sort of ex-university director who doesn't really understand how actors operate. The actors are working morning noon and night — rehearsing one show by day, putting on another in the evening and trying to remember what they're doing. Enter the shiny star director: "he has an air ticket in his backpocket for Italy, where he is off to direct some opera as soon as he's disappeared after the first night... and you're left doing his play. Directors who have not acted tend not to understand the process actors are going through."
In 2003 Henson was diagnosed with cancer; his treatment was successful, but it returned in 2006 when he was rehearsing as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at Stratford. Belch is the longest part in the play, and the comic motor for the second act. By the end of the first night Henson's voice had gone; he went to bed and knew he couldn't do it again: "the worst night of my professional life". He has never been able to act on stage since. He has enjoyed the teaching all the more because of this - being in the company of actors, seeing a play develop: "...and what's more, you can have a drink on the first night."
"Actors are nice people: actors are very brave, very tolerant, very reliant upon each other — and that's why actors become very close. We're all working in the theatre and building towards this traumatic experience, which is the first night. Apparently an actor on a first night produces the same about of adrenalin as someone in a major car smash. The rest of the cast becomes more important to you than your family and friends, because you all go through this traumatic experience together. I'm sure that's where this 'luvvie' business comes from — because you are so close. You might be sharing a dressing-room with someone for eighteen months; you very rarely work with the same people again — and two years later you might be walking down the street, and suddenly there's this man coming towards you (with whom you've been through this major car smash) and you can't just say: 'I'm terribly sorry, I can't remember your name' — so you say 'hullo, love.'
Nicky Henson is an actor by instinct and by experience; he learned his trade on the job. "I was never a method actor. Beryl Reid would buy the shoes first and find the walk; Sir Laurence Olivier did the same. I do it from here" — he points to his guts, not to his head. Henson's 'method' is to find a connection with his audience. Here's how he kept going through gruelling runs month after month; here's why he always chose theatre over film work: "When I was at the National I did three or four plays at once... In Canterbury Tales I did an 18-month run: I'd put my make-up on and go and listen to the house filling up. The theatre takes you by surprise. Once in a while something extraordinary happens: you all come off stage and say to each other, 'what the hell happened tonight?' Every audience is a different animal. Some nights things just come together."
Nicky Henson is currently working on a Feydeau farce with his old friend and colleague John Cleese. Henson played the leather-trousered rock star who smuggles a girl into his room under Fawlty's nose in The Psychiatrist episode of Fawlty Towers). Henson is frequently called upon these days to recall the experience of being a key player in the greatest episode of the greatest sitcom of all time. "I knew something extraordinary was happening — but it was forty years ago and five days' work." This great jobbing actor, with credits to make your head spin, expresses mild and genial bemusement: "When I die I'll just be the man who hid his girlfriend in his room."
Interview conducted by Emily Stovold (S11) & Jeremy Wong (S11)