The Man Who Shot Mathew Hopkins… NICKY HENSON Interviewed In 2016.

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“Nicky Henson has died after a long disagreement with cancer”. There’s been no shortage of bad news to close out 2019 but this latest saddener was announced by the Henson family earlier today in a wryly humorous style redolent of the man himself. Nick was a funny bloke, indeed probably best known for his role as the loutish lothario Johnson in Fawlty Towers, though it was the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973) which led to me interviewing him in 2016. The following excerpts comprise our discussions of his appearance in that cult effort and alongside his good friend Ian Ogilvy in Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General (1968)…

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You’ve been pretty scathing about Psychomania over the years. I wondered if you’ve warmed to it at all over the various re-releases and promotional campaigns…

They showed it at NFT 1 the other night and believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen it at the cinema. I didn’t see it when it came out because I was always working in the theatre, then I would see it on television. They always screened it when I was playing in something really smart at the RSC or The National Theatre, playing opposite the Cusaks in Three Sisters or something like that. There must have been somebody at the BBC who, whenever I was playing in something smart like that, would always whack Psychomania on at one o’clock in the morning, so all the other actors could see it when they got home from work. They’ve done an extremely good job of restoring it…

The Blu-ray looks great.

Absolutely… and I really enjoyed some of the extras, too.

Some of them are quite bizarre, I mean, the thing about the Christian bikers?!?

Yeah! At the NFT they showed a motorcycling film by Dreyer from the 1940s, an extraordinary piece of work.

I wonder if you’re finally seeing some money for Psychomania because you’ve said that you were stiffed for a lot of these pictures…

British Equity never quite got it together as far as movies were concerned. It was like you made it then that’s it, done. You never got a penny whether it was on television, video, DVD, Blu-ray or whatever in fact it used to be on TV so often and the next night I’d go into the pub and everybody would say: “The drinks are on you” but I didn’t make anything out of it… not a penny!

Psychomania really was a staple of late night TV for a long time, there.

Absolutely, yeah, which is why, I suppose, there are generations of people who know the blimmin’ thing. I have people quoting lines from it to me in lifts, it’s really bizarre. Maybe I should start going to a few of these conventions, I’ve never been to one…

Oh you must, I think you’d enjoy it very much, maybe bump into a few old colleagues and and hopefully make a few bob in the process.

Maybe I should…

What does it say about the state of the British film industry at the time that such an odd movie could be made with such an unlikely cast?

Well, I suppose the last British film industry boom was back in the ’60s when the Americans all came over with money to make “Swinging London” movies… and we got greedy, people were making crappy movies along with the really good ones. Then that money went away and we’d never really looked after our own industry so we ended up going back to making ‘B-movies’ in a way, they were halves of double features. I did Psychomania because I was earning £35 a week during the first or second season of Frank Dunlop’s Young Vic company, of which I was a founder member. The film unions were still very strong at that time so you had to wrap at 5.30 and I could get back to the theatre and do a show in the evening. Instead of doing bad telly, which everybody sees, I chose to do bad films, in the belief that nobody would see them, not realising that they’d still be turning up on the telly, 20-30 years later. I was involved… you’ve got Beryl Reid who was going through a low-ish point in her carer… then you’ve got George Sanders…which was very sad.

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Was he masking his sadness with this debonair sort of facade or is it easier for you, as an actor, see through all that stuff?

I have to say that we had a very, very good time, we were just corpsing, laughing our way through the picture because it was so silly. He would turn to me and say: “You’re not actually going to say that are you?” and I’d say: “I have to! It’s in the script!” and we’d just get hysterical.

I suppose we have to discuss the chair…

Oh God, yes. The first day on the picture, a memo came down from the production department saying that to save money, nobody was going to get a chair with their name on the back so Beryl didn’t get one, I didn’t get one… fair enough. But ten days later George Sanders arrived. They’d squashed all his stuff into a few days because obviously he came more expensive than the rest of us. Chatham Bobby, the famous prop man down at Shepperton was so ashamed that he brought out this chair and written on the back – in BIRO – was “George Saunders”. (Laughs)

Did the debonair mask not crack at that point?

Well I only heard about it, because it was quickly smuggled away… very sad. It might just be an urban myth but allegedly he saw an answer print of the film, went back to his hotel room in Madrid and killed himself! I’m surprised he held out that long after the chair incident…

He’d had a wonderful life, anyway…

He’d had relationships with some of the most beautiful women in the world and been in so many wonderful movies…and underrated himself as an actor, was a much better actor than he thought he was.

Somebody asked him about all the women and he’s supposed to have said something like: “Dear boy, I’m fast approaching the stage of life where a satisfactory bowel movement is far preferable to a good fuck!”

Ha, he was still a very witty man.

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How do you remember Ann Michelle? Apparently she won’t talk about Psychomania now…

Really?

So I was led to believe.

She’s Vicky Michelle’s sister, isn’t she? Well again, we had a ball on it, laughed and giggled and played cards incessantly, an awful game which Don Sharp eventually put into the picture, they’re playing it in the cell. I don’t know, I haven’t seen them much since…. most of the cast who were still alive did get together a few years ago actually, when it was re-released on DVD and some of that appears in the extras on the new Blu-ray.

Yeah, there’s some nice footage on there of you meeting Mary Larkin again after all those years…

Yeah and there was Rocky Taylor, who injured himself quite badly later… and Vince Taylor of course, his dad.

The stunts in the movie are actually quite impressive, aren’t they?

They were very good and very dangerous. British stuntmen couldn’t and probably still can’t specialise. In America you can make a living just rolling cars or doing horse falls or jumps off skyscrapers or whatever but there’s so little industry here that British stuntmen have to be able to do everything, you know: “Yeah, I can do that, Guv!” Cliff Diggins, was my stunt double on Psychomania… I would never go and see someone doing a stunt for me, I just thought it was bad luck and Cliff did three stunts for me and ended up in hospital after each one! When you see me driving the bike off the motorway bridge… it was the M3, still being built.. he managed to hit the water before the bike and was dragged off to hospital. Then, when I drive through the wall, to prove whether Abby is dead or not… thus one of my great lines in the movie, “You’re not dead!”… the wall was made of polystyrene bricks which kept fading in the sun and rain so they kept repainting them and the paint must have been a third of an inch thick by the time he drove through it. The bike went through and he was left hanging on the wall like a character in a cartoon! (laughs)

How did you find Don Sharp as a director?

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Don was an amazingly patient man (laughs) because he had a couple of grumpy old actors plus a bunch of really indisciplined young actors… we were all messing about like mad, having the complete giggles because we thought the whole thing was a scream. He was also having to deal with eight bikes that never worked, they all kept breaking down. We had three mechanics working 24 hours a day to keep those things working. I mean, the reason I’d agreed to do the film in the first place was that I opened the script and it said: “8 chopped hog Harley Davidsons crest the brow of a hill.” I rang my agent immediately and said: “Yeah, I’ll have some of that!” When I got there, of course, there were all these clapped out BSAs and Triumphs, 350s and they were all falling to bits and I said: “Where are the Harleys?” and they said: “Oh no, we couldn’t afford them!” (Laughs)

Are you still biking today or have you hung up your leathers?

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I hung up my leathers five days after my fortieth birthday… I was doing a season down in Stratford, playing In The Merry Wives Of Windsor and As You Like it. I was staying in digs in Chipping Camden and I came off at a corner, in the middle of the night, on the way back from work. I went into a ditch, knocked myself out and the bike was on top of me, it burned through my Lewis leathers and I got very badly burned. My kids said: “Dad, no more!” so I had to stop it. But I’d been riding bikes right up till then.

They were some pretty substantial leathers you had on… you were wearing your own in Psychomania, weren’t you?

I was indeed, yes. I didn’t know that Lewis Leathers still existed, but they do…

… something else we learned from the extras on the Psychomania Blu-ray.

That’s right and a lot of the people who work there were at the NFT, the other night. I had two sets of their gear actually, black and brown ones to go with my black and brown bikes…

Psychomania is undoubtedly daft but its an intriguing snap shot of the British film industry and British society in general at a certain, not-too remote point in time…

Now it’s very interesting that magazines like Time Out call it one of the best British horror comedies ever because we really didn’t make it as a comedy! When I was watching it the other night at NFT 1, with a packed house, the film began and I started laughing, my wife was shushing me and saying: “You mustn’t laugh!” but then everybody else started laughing. People look at it through different eyes, now…

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I remember saying to the producer: “How did you get the money to put this crap together?” and he said: “Well, I’ve got a desk full of wonderful scripts but when I rang my backers and mentioned the one about a biker gang who come back from the dead and terrorise the neighbourhood, they said: ‘How much do you need? Let’s go!’ ”

Five years previous to this you were in a movie that’s usually cited as the best British horror film ever made and often mentioned when people are talking about the best British film, period… Witchfinder General.

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The BFI does this list of the best movies of all time, one for each year and yes, that was the 1968 one. It’s extraordinary that I’ve been in these two major cult films, one of which is very, very good and the other one… on which the jury’s still out! (Laughs) And now… I’ve done five films in the last year and these young guys coming out of film school making their first feature, so many of them want me doing a few days on their picture. It’s like I’m a lucky mascot, like a little bit of the “cult” thing is going to rub off on them… I mustn’t grumble about Psychomania because it’s still getting me work!

We’ve referred to George Sanders’ depression and suicide, did you form any opinion as to Michael Reeves’ state of mind when he died? Was it suicide or just that people had a very cavalier attitude towards the use of barbiturates in those days?

Well I knew Michael very well, through my friend Ian Ogilvy. Ian is my oldest and best mate, in fact we were at Rada together and he was the drummer in my band. I’ve known him forever and we are still mates. We’ve just made two movies together, actually.

We Still Kill The Old Way…

… and We Still Steal The Old Way, which hasn’t come out yet. The first one did so well that there’s been this follow up. No, I knew Michael Reeves vey well. It was a misadventure with Michael. It was the ’60s, he was a very nervous sort of young man and he had doctors who were looking after him. They were giving him stuff… barbiturates… uppers and downers, to get him to work and to stop working, We did have a “throwing away party” one night where we got rid of all the drugs he’d been prescribed but he obviously got more. I think what happened was that he got a prescription, got up one night and took some pills because he couldn’t sleep and then forgot and took some more. It was death by misadventure, definitely, he didn’t mean to kill himself.

He had so much to live for…

He was slated, I think, to shoot Bloody Mama next…

Yeah, he had so many projects lined up.

Absolutely.

Did you witness any of the famous friction that was going on between him and Vincent Price?

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Oh yeah. We were having a wonderful time with Vincent in the hotel every night…

All the other actors always say what fun he was…

Yeah, we were having a great time but Michael would be in his room, studying and getting stuff ready for the next day. Vincent knew that Michael hadn’t wanted him in the role, that was the problem. I was there that night they were shouting at each other, the last night of all night shooting at Orford Castle. I remember him shouting at Michael: “This is not how we do it in Hollywood! This is my 94th picture… how many pictures have you made?” and Michael replied: “ Three good ones!” We finished the shoot that night, Vincent walked off the set without saying anything to anyone and I think it was about a year later that Michael got this lovely, lovely letter from him saying basically: “I’ve never been so wrong… that’s the best performance I’ve given for years… of course you’ll never want to work with me again… anything I can ever do for you in Hollywood, anyone you need introducing to, just let me know.” When Michael died they had a retrospective of his work at the National Film Theatre, as it was then, including second unit work on other pictures… but Vincent flew from America at his own expense to introduce the evening and tell that very story, which was pretty good of him.

It must have been an amazing shoot to work on…

We knew that we were onto something special. All the unit did, they were just old fashioned British film guys, talking about our movie all the time and really working incredibly hard… we just knew that we had something good on our hands. Mike was a genius, he would have gone on to do extraordinary things. I’m sure of it… and Ian’s career and my career would then have been completely different!

Well thanks, Nick, it’s been a pleasure to talk to someone who’s been involved in such iconic film and TV moments… I feel I can’t wind this up without shouting: “You took him from me! You took him from me!” at you…

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Ha. You know the story behind that? It was a very long night, the last night of the movie, shooting all those scenes in Orford Castle and in the script I was supposed to shoot Vincent Price to put him out of his misery, in response to which Ian was going to come at me with the axe and I was gong to shoot him, too. We got down to that scene and I realised and pointed out that I had two flintlock pistols and I’d already shot a guard on the stairs so I could shoot either Vincent or Ian but not both. Mike said: “OK, I’ll rethink that… I’ll have to freeze-frame on Hilary screaming and cut to her screams echoing around the castle.” So that iconic ending was absolutely brought on at the spur of the moment, was about having to wing it at that moment.

That’s a lovely bit of happenstance because it works so beautifully…

Yeah, Time Out said it had more to say about the nature of violence than The Straw Dogs and what have you put together…

I don’t know how many times you’ve watched the ending or how closely, but there’s a shot where you get an almost subliminal movement of somebody on the stairway…

They put that together in the edit afterwards, maybe Mike sent a cameraman out to get a few more shots and they didn’t notice that.

I like it, it just puts another creepy twist on the whole thing, like there’s some kind of malevolent presence left lurking in the darkness…

(Laughs) There you are, that’s how these things start!

Well, we’ve dispelled a few myths today so maybe it’s incumbent upon us to start a new one…

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