Haiti's charity hard man

Bernard Hill, who made his name as the head-butting Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff before achieving worldwide fame as King Theoden in Lord of Rings, speaks to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about his current crusade to bring some Hope For Haiti.

Andrew Clarke

Bernard Hill, who made his name as the head-butting Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff before achieving worldwide fame as King Theoden in Lord of Rings, speaks to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about his current crusade to bring some Hope For Haiti.

Bernard Hill has made his acting reputation playing tough-talking hard men and resilient individuals but Bernard Hill, the man, has been known to be moved to tears - particularly recently when he saw the helpless state of the survivors of the Haiti earthquake. He says at first he felt incredibly moved by their plight, then angry that so little help was reaching them and then frustrated by his own inability to make a difference before realising that for once his celebrity was a good thing and could be used to galvanise people into action for a pair of fund-raising concerts.

Although he shies away from comparisons with Bob Geldof he admits he is using his celebrity status to not only raise awareness but to open doors and get people involved in raising funds for the Hope For Haiti campaign.

One of the first people he signed up for the Hope For Haiti concerts was his friend and fellow Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis who will recreate his Ian Dury persona live on stage for one night only, performing classic Blockheads numbers. Other stars unable to be there because of work commitments - people like Mark Knopfler have donated items for a charity auction.

Returning home for a brief rest from his non-stop round of concert organising, Bernard is clearly still haunted by the images which assailed him the TV screen a month ago. “What happened when the earth shook Haiti, the aftermath really affected me in a really serious way. Then the following day and the day after, newspapers were printing blogs and eye witness accounts of the destruction, the devastation and people being rescued from the rubble and I ended up with tears in my eyes.

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“It was the urgency of what they said. It was what they saw, what they were experiencing and what they felt and I found it incredibly moving. The fact that the Red Cross building was shaken apart - terrible things. It was a natural disaster on a colossal scale. Wives, husbands, parents, children were all killed in a matter of seconds. I became very moved by their plight - as I am sure millions of other people did.”

He said he knew that it wasn't enough to sit and say how terrible it all was. He had to act, he felt compelled to do something about the situation. “I couldn't wring my hands and say someone should do something. I felt I had to do something. So I rang up The Cut in Halesworth, my local arts centre, found out when they had a spare day and booked them for a charity concert. At this stage I had no idea what I was going to do but I knew I would find something to put in there.”

He said that the concern for the Haiti earthquake victims was such that it quickly became apparent that they needed a bigger event and so he quickly booked a second date to accommodate all the acts who wanted to appear.

“So we now have two dates and they are both packed out with acts and in truth we could have filled the running order two or three times over. We have got some great people coming up from London, some strong local acts, people like Ed Sheeran, The Fuzz and Lee Vasey. People are happy to give their services free. Mustard Press have done brilliant work with the poster. I sat down with them and helped design something very simple which grabs people's attention. It was done very quickly, as it had to be, but it captures the urgency of the situation.”

He said that the project came into focus in his mind when he realised that he could use his celebrity to get people to commit to a fund-raising concert. “I tell them this is for the kids of Haiti. I am still going round beating people up, metaphorically speaking, I say: 'I know I am being pest, I know I am being a pain, but you know what I don't care.

“To be honest I do feel embarrassed asking people for favours and bullying people to get things done but I am putting all my embarrassment and blushes to one side because there are people in Haiti who have got nothing

“We are working quite closely with the Red Cross on this and they have said that they need a million tents. And then they need things to put in the tents because these people have lost everything.”

He said that he was inspired by the fact that within days of the earthquake, American celebrities had staged a massive fund-raising charity television concert with big names like Bruce Springsteen helping to raise cash for the homeless. “Madonna came along and performed, Julia Roberts was answering telephones. I felt that we could all do something like that.”

He said that this is the first time he has felt comfortable exploiting his celebrity status but he admits that in this celebrity-driven culture it does help to focus peoples minds. “I'm sure having Julia Roberts man the phones helped an awful lot for the US television special. She was sitting there chatting away just like anyone else. Now, to me, that isn't strange but for most people there is that element of surprise. You can almost hear them saying: 'That's Julia Roberts acting like a human being.'

“And we say: 'Of course she is. All actors, all film stars, if you like, are human beings. We get up each morning and go to work just like anyone else but somehow it all gets distorted by publicity around films and by the fact that we are blown up larger-than-life on a cinema screen.”

He said that there is a lot of nonsense which surrounds actors. “As I say we are ordinary people who deserve to get slammed back in the box if we step out of line but equally so, I demand the right to do that to other people if they transgress my particular line. It's about having respect for people.”

Of the people on the bill, he said that he was especially pleased that Andy Serkis took up the challenge to appear. “As soon as I mentioned it to him, he was almost running to the venue. I think he is relishing the opportunity to sing those Ian Dury songs live in front of an audience.”

Serkis has been nominated for the Best Actor BAFTA awarded tomorrow night for his role as Ian Dury in the biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll. Andy is appearing at The Cut on March 7.

Bernard said that he is also gathering together a collection of celebrity memorabilia to be auctioned off during the two concerts. Mark Knopfler donated a signed copy of Dire Straits debut single The Sultans of Swing, actor Alfred Molina, Oscar winner Tom Wilkinson and Simon Pegg have all donated items for auction. The creators of Gavin and Stacey are coming along to help with the evening. Alison Steadman can't be at the event but she has recorded a message of support which will be played during the evening. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is going one better and is shooting a short film to be screened during the performance.

“But the crowning glory has to be the offer of Nick Park to have Wallace and Grommit saying good luck. We are putting all the messages of support on a DVD and will be selling them to raise extra funds.”

He added he was currently chasing extra items. Yesterday he bullied Sir Alex Ferguson into donating two signed copies of his autobiography along with a host of Manchester United goodies.

He said that the ticket price for the evening was a minimum donation of �15 which he believes is very reasonable for the quality and variety of the talent on the bill. “People round here don't have a lot of money and we wanted it to be within everyone's reach.

He said he hoped that one of the spin-offs from the event would be the fact that many more people would get to know of The Cut in Halesworth - which he described as something of an open secret in Suffolk.

“It's a magnificent venue. It has some amazing facilities for theatre, dance, art gallery space and the ability to stage concerts and show films and yet very few people beyond the town know of its existence. It needs to be used more. Hopefully this will help raise its profile.”

Bernard Hill has been a keen supporter of local arts and theatre since he moved to Suffolk in the late 1980s having discovered this quiet corner of the country while shooting Peter Greenaway's cult classic Drowning By Numbers.

Bernard has remained one of Britain's leading character actors since he donned a donkey jacket as Yosser Hughes and asked the nation to “Gizza job” in Alan Bleasdale's Liverpudlian drama Boys From The Blackstuff. In many respects Hill's portrayal was the symbol of Mrs Thatcher's fractured Britain in the 1980s. Hill then went onto play Shirley Valentine's bemused husband opposite Pauline Collins, was nominated for a Screen Actors' Guild Award for his portrayal of Captain EJ Smith in James Cameron's epic love story Titanic before finding worldwide fame as King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2006 he won an Emmy award for his role as David Blunkett in Alastair Beaton's A Very Social Secretary.

But, even though his work takes him all over the world, he says he loves being in his quiet corner of Suffolk. “At the moment I am resisting going away from home. My son is just getting into his GCSEs, so I want to be around as much as I can.

“I am doing a lot of voice-over work at the moment and my standing among the younger members of my family has increased considerably because I have just recorded the voice of one of the main characters for the X-Box game Fable 3.”

He said that having been brought up in Manchester, then having lived in London for work reasons for many years discovering Suffolk was a wonderful surprise. “I stayed in a place that belonged to the post office in Bramfield during the shooting of Drowning By Numbers because I didn't want to stay in a hotel. That then led me to become really close to Richard and Sue Cadman, the people who ran The Queen's Head. After we finished shooting I used to come back all the time, so we decided to move down here.

“Although, even here the world is starting to change, I love the fact that every morning at 7.15 am a flock of geese come flying over my house. It's a wonderful sound. It's the official start of my day.”

n The Hope For Haiti gigs, with two different line-ups, will take place at The Halesworth Cut on February 26 and March 7. Tickets are available for a donation of �15 on 0845 673 2123 or online at www.newcut.org