I’d read somewhere you were outspoken, does that mean you’re going to shout at me?
Sweetheart, my lovely one, I’m the loveliest person in the world, but if I think something’s crap I will say so. I’ve always been, as you know, a bit of an arrogant b*****d, a bit of a know all and opinionated. That’s why I’ve survived for 57 years on television.
You starting performing as a young lad, what was your first break?
My parents used to go to these local working men’s clubs in the village where we lived when I was a little boy and on one night the turn didn’t turn up and when those things happened they used to have what they called a free and easy. So I got up and performed on the make shift stage which was two beer cases and a plank.
What did you do?
I sang a George Formby song called ‘Leaning on a Lamppost.’
The next morning I was carted off to hospital with scarlet fever and I was in quarantine for 16 weeks. And during that period only my parents came to see me but only through a window from the outside, and my dad bought me a little ukulele which I learned to play whilst I was in the hospital and 16 weeks later I was ready to be launched onto the unsuspecting British public.
My first professional appearance was at the Wigston Working Men’s Club. I learnt to play the mandolin and the guitar and so I did all sorts, I was 19 years of age and was doing nine entirely different acts.
I was getting more money for the weekend than my father got for working a full week
My father got 23 shillings a week and I was earning 35 bob a week at weekends.
What acts did you perform?
Well, I used tossing and tap dance. I did a cowboy act with a guitar, a George Formby act with a ukulele and I did Neapolitan love songs with a mandolin and I even did a monologue on the clubs called ‘Little Rosa’.
How do today’s variety acts compare?
Well it’s changed you see. Variety as we know it has gone unfortunately. I mean the only thing that there is now, are the new comics coming through and now a lot of them have gone main stream with programmes like Mock the Week and things like that. Old comics like me, are not supposed to like the new lads but I think they are absolutely brilliant and I know a lot of them. A lot of them use obscene language which we never did but for some reason, it’s been accepted. I found it very, very difficult to swear on stage.
How did you break into TV?
I’ve been on television now for 57 years; my first television was September 12th 1953. My first series was called ‘Great Scott, It’s Maynard’ and it happened just as I was starting to wear sweaters, it had never been done before and so, and I’d had my hair cut in Germany by a barber and he’d messed it up so I’d had it all shaved off and so when it started to grow it was like a crew cut and with a crew cut and a sweater I became a bit of an eccentric because to be a comic you need to be. It’s very difficult for a young good looking heterosexual male to become a comic. I mean they’ve either got to have teeth like Ken Dodd or be little like Ronnie Corbett or Arthur Askey or they’ve got to be eccentric or homosexual. I suppose I was the first sex symbol comic. With the sweater and the haircut, all the kids wanted to copy my look. I used to have letters from mothers begging me to wear a jacket with my hair brylcreemed. I always wanted to be a film star.
What was he like?
I did two seasons with Terry at Butlins, he was the principal comic and I was like his second feed. We started off at Skegness and after that we went to Filey the next year but then of course they gave us Great Scott, It’s Maynard and it all changed round and Terry used to play the straight parts and I was more of a comic. We used to be settled in two armchairs at the beginning of the show, Terry would be in a dressing gown and I would be in a sweater and Terry would be saying things like ‘This week we’re going to do a show about ballet’ and I used to say ‘Ballet?’ and he’d say ‘Yes, don’t you like ballet?’ and I’d say ‘well I’ve never understood all these people dancing around on their tip toes, why don’t they get taller people in the first place?’
What made you pursue an acting career?
It was 1957 when I decided I wanted to become a film star but I thought you had to know how to act – you don’t. All you have to do is learn the lines and try not to trip over the other actors. I mean, in the old days you would go into drama school to become an actor, ridiculous. I decided to get into rep, but I had a hell of a job getting in because in those days very few repertory actors would work with anyone from variety. When I went in, whole companies used to walk out of the theatre.
Were you looked down upon?
They wouldn’t even be in the same digs as ‘variety people’ if we were on tour, actors always thought they were a class above us. That’s why they were known as the legitimate theatre. We were the illegitimate ones. One of the few people that didn’t complain was the actor Ian McKellan, I shared a dressing room with him and we’ve been friends ever since.
It was very difficult; in fact my agent fought me ‘tooth and nail’ when I said I wanted to do rep because in those days I was getting about a thousand pounds a week, I threatened to get another agent if he didn’t get me a play by the end of the month. It must have worked because the first play of Dennis Potter’s called Paper Roses, about six months later I got a play for the BBC called Kisses at Fifty which won a BAFTA award. I was then offered a TV sitcom called Life of Riley, I went in and it the series went to number one straight away, and I’m back to being a bloody comic again! Couldn’t get away from it, and then right out of the blue of course, after playing Selwyn Froggitt and The Gaffer.
Ah, good old Selwyn, ‘Magic Our Maurice!’ What a great catch phrase…
Did you know ‘magic’ became one of the biggest catchphrases throughout the world? I just copied it from a lad in my local village. He was a hell of a character. All I did was copy him. And all the characters were from the working men’s club. So I did that one, playing this naïve boy who never grew up, that was Selwyn and then I wanted something completely different so we got The Gaffer and unfortunately my first wife Muriel passed away I threw myself into work and went on tour for several years.
You are possibly best known as Greengrass from Heartbeat, how did you secure that role?
I got a phone call from a producer called Stuart Doughty and he said “I’m doing a programme about a country constable and there’s this little part in it, it’s not the lead but if you can make something of this character, Greengrass, we might be able to make a spin off. Will you come and do it for me?”
It was 1992 when you joined, why do you think it was such a success?
Everyone’s says it was the music; it was the period, the cars. I contend it was one of the first things that was a drama, a soap, and sitcom.
It had all three things and you see, what’s happened since I left is there’s been no comedy; the comedy aspect was taken out of it. When we started it was a tiny part and the description of Greengrass was a little whippet of a man. I think they saw him as a sort of little Irish rogue, so I went in and had arguments even about the costume because they wanted me to wear a long black cromby overcoat it to too somber to do comedy. I said I want an army trench coat to show he’s been in the army. I was given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with the character, and eventually as you know, Greengrass went from a tiny part to a huge part; well he was the lead really.
I bet you had fun on the set…
Well I’ll tell you something darling, I had a wonderful time. I mean actors, especially in television are treated like kings. I’ve never understood why actors moan about their workload, they don’t know how lucky they are, and the thing is, these people pay you an obscene amount of money to do it, I don’t understand why they complain., I was treated almost like a God by the production team of Heartbeat. They were paying me a huge amount of money, they really were, and it was obscene. I had my own chauffeur and I even had my own stand in who was an actor who used to learn all the lines. I eventually only used to do the takes. When I left some of the producers didn’t like the freedom that I’d been given and I think there was a feeling that they could do without me.
Tell me about your sudden rapid departure from the show…
The only reason I had to leave was because of my stroke. It was a bad stroke love.
I woke up with pins and needles in my left hand and it got worse during the day and eventually I started falling all over the place, they got me straight to hospital and they said I’d had a gastric attack but I went home and woke up next morning with a massive stroke, I was on my back there for four months.
How was that at the time?
I never thought I’d walk again. The first day after four months I was in callipers. I took three steps and I broke down and cried, luckily I never lost my speech which was wonderful. I’m still sort of semi paralysed down one side but I can still work. But you’ve got to understand, it was nine years before they rang me from Heartbeat. There is a problem, when you’ve had a stroke; they’re a little bit worried if it’s a long running thing, will you be able to do it all the time. I managed with The Royal, that wasn’t a problem. When I was in Heartbeat 90% of the time I was either sitting in my cottage, the pub or my truck. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to get up there on your own and then perform. That is why I revere comics, even if they’re not very good because it takes a lot. Like I said to my son ‘If you want to come into our business; go to bloody Butlins.
Bill, where there’s life, there’s hope. You’ve got the energy and vigour of a forty year old…
How old are you Karen?
I won’t have anything to do with a woman under forty. I can’t pull ‘em anymore but I can push one or two!
You old sweet talker, you…what about you second wife Tonia Bern?
She speaks several languages you know, and nags me in all of them. I met her when she was a singer on Mostly Maynard. Every week I used to have a girl guest and Tonia was one of them, she was a famous cabaret artist. This was before she’d met and married Donald (Campbell) we got together years later because and we were married for 18 years and I only saw her for about six months!
That’ll be why it lasted so long then…
That’s the way to do it, isn’t it? We’re still pals, whenever she comes over to England she stays with me.
What was it you disliked about Tony Benn, because you stood for parliament against him?
Tony Benn had been ousted by the people in Bristol and he was looking round for a safe seat. Now in Chesterfield, there was a time I was a big supporter of the Labour party, and in Chesterfield there was a man who actually was a great MP and do you know something I’ve forgotten his bloody name now. Anyway, I’d met him and he was really, really good and they’d tried to put Tony Benn in Chesterfield because they’d had a 24,000 majority, really safe seat, so they did a ballot and Tony Benn was defeated so they fiddled it, they worked another ballot, I don’t know how they did it, they dismissed the first ballot and this time they got him in and I objected to this because I thought there was a fiddle going on. I said ‘Right, I’m going to stand against the bugger’. And I went in. I had no party, I was completely independent, paid for it all myself, cost me £7,500 which in those days was a lot of money and I bagged myself 1,300 votes. I knew I wouldn’t win but the majority went down and Roy Hattersley had to go on television that night and say that if it wasn’t for the Maynard vote we’d have had a bigger majority but I stopped them from getting such a majority. And not only that but I had all sorts of things in my electoral speeches. I had a bomb scare, the police had to clear the bloody hall, there were people trying to disrupt it all the time.
The problem is, when you’ve had a stroke and let’s face it, that was ten years ago, I’ve been grafting for ten years and I’m still sitting by the phone waiting for the bloody phone to ring. It might be any day now.
There’s nobody in this country who’s given joy, throughout the world. Do you know, I couldn’t walk down the street in Finland today, or Norway or anywhere in Scandinavia or anywhere in Canada or Australia you name it, or even Swaziland, I couldn’t walk down the street I would be mobbed. I promise you. I am one of the best loved performers in this country by far, yet I haven’t been bestowed an award, Ken Dodd even hasn’t been given a knighthood; I want a knighthood. I am one of the best loved performers in this country by far.