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Gabriel Hershman











Here, Digger talks to writer Gabriel Hershman, about his biographies of three of the greats of British acting; Albert Finney, Nicol Williamson and Ian Hendry.

His biographies, 'Black Sheep', 'Strolling Player' and 'Send In The Clowns', reflect Gabriel's passion for British cinema and theatre and for these somewhat underrated and overlooked but hugely talented and fascinating players.



Black Sheep - Nicol Willamson



Digger. Most recently completing a biography on Nicol Williamson, (Black Sheep), you have also written about Albert Finney (Strolling Player) and Ian Hendry (Send In The Clowns). What is it that draws you to these British actors, predominant in the Sixties and Seventies?

Gabriel. One of the reasons is purely practical. I think that a biographer's task is made easier when you can draw a certain 'distance' from the subject in question. That doesn't mean that the subject has to be dead but perhaps you get more perspective when you can look back on their career a bit. This 'distance' helps to answer the key question: Does their work really stand up?

Also, the Sixties, in particular (which is really the decade in which my three subjects came to prominence) produced some of the most intelligent movies and actors in the history of British cinema. What was the more interesting decade in terms of output, the Sixties or, for example, the Eighties or the Nineties?

I also chose my three subjects because I was a great fan of their work. That doesn't mean that biographies written by 'a fan' have to be sugar-coated but, of course, it helps to admire the work of the performer in question. Who wants to write a biography about a mediocrity?

Ian Hendry, in particular, was a labour of love for me because he was so incredibly underrated. He was Britain's greatest television actor, a master of nuance and subtlety, filtering thoughts through the camera. He just needed some stronger big screen roles to cement his stardom.

With Finney – I thought that not only was he a superb actor but he personified professionalism. I admired the way he conducted himself and so – to a certain extent – this was perhaps more of a 'tribute' biography. Also, he’s still alive and this makes colleagues a little more reluctant to speak frankly.

With Nicol I was genuinely perplexed that a true superstar of the Sixties had seemingly disappeared towards the end of his life. It was clear that he was outstandingly talented. So, I concluded, something must have gone drastically wrong. So with Nicol I felt rather more like a detective, looking for clues.

Digger. How do you go about researching and pulling together the material for these books? Are there still a lot of people out there who can provide information, anecdotes, verification, first-hand experiences and stories to help with the writing?

Gabriel. This can be tricky. If you go too far back – for example if my next subject was born before 1930 – then it becomes very difficult to find people still around who can comment firsthand. I have, at various times, been tempted to write biographies of Robert Shaw and Stanley Baker, both of whom were born in the late Twenties. But I realised it would be very hard to find people still around who could talk. With guys like Finney and Williamson it becomes easier, simply because they were born a decade later. I do like to find interviewees who can talk with intelligence and perception about the subject.

Just relying on old newspapers or rehashed information on the internet is no good. I also watch (or revisit) the screen work of the performers in question. I think it's very important that biographies of great performers discuss their work. Otherwise, too often, these books often become salacious. This might make for great tabloid fodder but it's not the kind of biography I'm interested in writing.

Digger. To whet our appetites for the books, can you please give us a very potted summary/synopsis of the characters and lives of: a) Ian Hendry b) Albert Finney c) Nicol Williamson

Gabriel. Ian Hendry started out as a talented light comedian before becoming a leading man on the British small screen in series like Police Surgeon and The Avengers. He began to get some good roles in low budget British movies. His finest ‘international’ role came as the sadistic Sergeant Williams in The Hill, directed by Sidney Lumet. That was the key moment of his career. After The Hill he should have got some great screen roles to seal his stardom. His love of the drink didn't help. But I have to say that other actors also had the same problem and it didn't affect them so much.

I concluded that bad luck played a role in Ian's demise. You know how criminals tell each other to ‘be lucky'? Luck plays such a great part in our lives. Talent is just one thing. Ian had a bit of a jinx over his career. In terms of his character, Ian was emotional, vulnerable, charismatic, volatile and quite troubled.

b) Albert Finney doesn't need much of an introduction. He hit it big very early, aged just 24 in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. And Tom Jones made him a millionaire when he was still not yet 30. Success came early and if there was a downside – and I should stress that Finney was extremely grounded – it's that it removed the financial necessity of having to work very hard. Finney always struck me as remarkably stable and happy for such a great performer. He didn't suffer from the self-loathing and bouts of deep depression that afflicted other great artists. Finney had a great career, a nice balance between cinema and stage. And I couldn’t find anyone who had a bad word to say about him.

c) Nicol Williamson was probably the greatest stage actor of his generation. He was touched by a magic of some kind. Tony Walton compared Nicol to George C. Scott, a truly great actor. Walton told me that Scott, for all his greatness, was still ‘of this world’. Whereas with Nicol, you felt he was invested with some extraordinary quality that raised him above mere mortals. In particular, his role in Inadmissible Evidence was stupendous.

In terms of character, I think that Nicol was very singular. He was an extremely principled man and would never take a part because, for example, it offered a fat cheque or the chance to work with someone supremely famous. What interested him was the story. I concluded that Nicol was rather bitter that he wasn't offered better parts. Perhaps there was an element of: ‘if you're not going to offer me the best parts, I won’t accept anything.’ Nicol was extraordinary in one respect. He always said what he thought and never bothered to disguise his true feelings or couch his language in such a way to avoid upsetting people. Obviously, this 'honesty' and directness of approach had repercussions.



Strolling Player - Albert Finney


Digger. Are you as interested in any contemporary actors?

Gabriel. I think that Daniel Day-Lewis is an extraordinarily gifted actor. There are many talented actors around but perhaps – especially on stage – political correctness and a certain desire not to make a grand ‘entrance’ or ‘exit’ can render them a little anodyne.

Digger. Leading on from that, what do you think of the state of British acting and British TV and film today?

Gabriel. I no longer live in the UK and haven't done for many years. From what I can see there are many very fine actors around but television series like EastEnders and their like do not really flaunt British talent at its best. One thing I remember from my youth was that there were some great single plays and dramas. I really miss those.

I refuse to accept that just because an actor or actress is famous that that means they are worth interviewing. Leslie Grantham once told me something that I think is true. He said that ‘anyone can act but very, very few can do it extremely well’.

All three subjects of my biographies could act extremely well. It’s become a cliché but actors who are just famous for being famous – mumbling on a TV series – are not necessarily all that interesting. A perturbing thing is that many current actors know little about the great actors of the past. Neither do they seem all that interested. And . . . could some of our current TV ‘stars’ project beyond the third row of a theatre? I have my doubts.

Digger. These men you have written about led exciting and sometimes controversial lives and were just as much complex characters when not playing a role on stage or screen. How do you manage to 'get inside their heads' as it were?

Gabriel. By nature I tend to be quite introspective and so I find it refreshing and challenging to find out about other people. But ‘get inside their heads’? I’m not sure that that’s really possible. ‘Who knows the mysteries of the human heart?’ (As director Leslie Megahey said in relation to Nicol Williamson) Who really knows another person's demons, desires, fears, private pain etc.? We meet people and we think we know them. But do we really? We think we do but we don't. Certainly background plays an important part in someone's life. And if there are clear signs of disruption early on, then chances are, the individual will lead a more troubled life. But ... not always. All one can do is investigate their background and try to draw some conclusions. One thing that amazes me about great actors – and certainly all my subjects – is their willingness to take risks. Most of us crave security in our lives. But for performers it's very different.

Digger. Has the Internet been a blessing and a curse for you? I mean in the sense that people are tending not to read so much these days but at the same time information is more readily available and marketing books and communicating their availability are potentially much easier?

Gabriel. I’d say that the genre of theatrical biography has probably been undermined or eroded by the internet. The problem is that the internet has reduced people's attention spans and made them less likely to want to immerse themselves in lengthy books. Even I catch myself scrolling down for key information rather than reading intensively and fastidiously as I used to. Also there is a lot of information on the internet about actors. Just go to You Tube to see clips of their work. Or go to Wikipedia to see info about your favourite performer.

But . . . sadly, what people don't realise – and I'm sometimes surprised that people who should know better still don't understand this – information is not checked properly and then it's rehashed and copied endlessly until it becomes like Chinese whispers. The information is sometimes just completely inaccurate to begin with. The obituaries of Ian Hendry, for example, were littered with mistakes and clearly copied from dubious sources. Some obituaries of Nicol couldn't even get his birthdate correct, let alone where he lived for the last decade or so of his life! Too often people believe what they read on the Internet and so don't see the need for a full-length biography. But that’s very misguided – mind you, I would say that, wouldn’t I? LOL

Yes, of course, there are many groups on the internet dedicated to niche interests – old TV dramas, Sixties or Seventies cult actors and nostalgia. But – and this is a point that some TV and film buffs sometime miss – people like us who do love old shows and movies and can tell you the title of every episode of The Avengers or The Sweeney (LOL), live in a bit of a bubble. And it’s a relatively small bubble. You'd be surprised how even relatively big stars here now semi-forgotten figures today. The internet makes it easier for a fan of, for example, Carol White, to find other devotees but that doesn't mean there’s a wider interest in such a person.

Digger. Can you please give us a clue about other actors or actresses you are researching, or would like to, for future publications?

Gabriel. Among the figures I have contemplated writing about are Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt. I think that Diana Dors was an exceptionally gifted actress and deserves a proper biography that focuses on her career rather than all the glitz. But the moment may have passed.

Digger. How important are reviews to you and do you find reviews from the general public as relevant and useful as those from so-called experts?

Gabriel. It’s good to get reviews in the daily press and niche sites. I do think that sometimes newspapers should remember the amount of work that goes into book and make an effort to review it, even if it's only a few paragraphs. These kind of celebrity biographies really do need the oxygen of publicity.

As far as opinion is concerned – I was reminded of something that Charlton Heston said on a chat show. You must do the work for the work and not be too influenced by someone else’s verdict. If you believe everything people say about you – good as well as bad – then you’ll end up being very confused. That applies just as much to books as it does to acting on film!

What’s annoying is reviews by people who say something like 'so-and-so was obviously a screwed up guy’ and give the book a low rating. In other words, it’s clear they are reviewing their impression of the subject, not the book.

Amazon’s book reviews can make for funny reading. Some people will say something like 'haven't started reading the book yet but it arrived today and looks great' and give it 5 stars! That misses the whole point. The other kind of review that gets on my nerves is when someone says 'the author misspelled ‘idiosyncratic’ on page 54' etc. Mistakes do get through. If there's a litany of errors then sometimes criticism is justified but if it's just a couple of typos, I sometimes think, is that the only thing you noticed in a book that runs to 120 000 words? If so, you must be a bit sad! LOL

That said, I do encourage everyone to leave reviews! All opinions are welcome but all the better when they’re carefully considered.



Send in the Clowns - Ian Hendry







Buy these books at Amazon.
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Send in the Clowns - Ian Hendry

Black Sheep - Nicol Willamson

Strolling Player - Albert Finney














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