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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Send in the Clowns - Ian Hendry