Suffolk: The actor ‘who should have been a star’
- Credit: Archant
Actor Ian Hendry was a household name 40 or 50 years ago – starring in six TV series, 33 films and feted in the papers and magazines, before alcoholism killed him at 53. STEVEN RUSSELL enjoys a new book on the star born and raised in Ipswich
YOU’LL probably recognise the face, even if takes a while for the name to drop. If you watched TV or went to the cinema in the 1960s and ’70s, you’ll know Ian Hendry. He made about 600 TV appearances, including the first series of The Avengers and the popular Sunday night drama The Lotus Eaters. Although a sensitive soul, he was labelled a hellraiser and became known for hard-man roles. And then he died prematurely, in his bathroom, where he was found on Christmas Eve by his 14-year-old daughter.
The story of the former Suffolk schoolboy is told in a self-published biography from journalist Gabriel Hershman: charting the successes, the ups and downs of three marriages, bankruptcy, three driving bans, long spells towards the end when the phone didn’t ring, and a fatal yearning for drink and Gauloises.
The last role was a spell on Brookside in 1984. Cast and crew looked forward to the arrival of a celebrated star. However, the experienced and once-fit “great” looked much older than his 53 years – his stomach swollen and his throat raw after surgery. Could he pull it off?
Gabriel writes that, when the cameras start to roll, “the old Hendry charisma is as strong as ever... He becomes Davey Jones, a grizzled, conniving old sea dog. He invests his part with the truth. And nothing but the truth. And you never see the joins. Just like it always was with every Hendry performance”.
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Ten months later, the actor was dead. The biographer hopes his account demonstrates that Hendry was a “brilliantly successful and sensitive actor in spite of his wayward lifestyle” and raises the actor’s profile. “Ian SHOULD have been an international star...”
While the alcoholism took an increasing toll on the actor’s health, it rarely had a serious effect on his craft, though he was probably rejected for some roles because of his addiction to the bottle.
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“Many testify to Ian’s extraordinary ability to come up with the goods – no matter how oiled he was – once the cameras rolled,” says the biographer. “People might have had to literally drag him out of the pub, he could even be paralytic, but when the director said ‘action’, he could appear normal.”
Hendry’s father, James, grew up in a Glasgow tenement. He became a scientist and miller at animal feed firm R&W Paul Ltd, by Ipswich docks – joining in 1924 and retiring in 1965. Wife Enid had gone to Ipswich High School and later worked as an assistant to a firm of local architects. “James would walk past each day on his way home from the nearby docks. He could see Enid through the office window and one day he asked her out.” They got married in 1929. Ian was born in Tuddenham Road, Ipswich, early in 1931. Second son Donald arrived in 1933 and the boys grew up in Constable Road. Gabriel writes: “Enid and James were rather formal, conservative people. Both had integrity and strong family values. Neither, however, was exactly the life of the party type.”
Ian was. At the age of 11 he wrote a play, designed and built the set, and staged it in an old hayloft behind the post office in Norwich Road – and charged for admittance.
The brothers went to Ipswich School – Ian from 1938 to 1944. He was a bit of a prankster and good at sport. He went on to Culford School, just outside Bury St Edmunds, as a boarder in the spring of 1945 – where he would captain the Under 16 and Colts’ cricket teams. He also became captain of the school’s rugger team.
“When Ian left Culford in 1947, he tried to follow his father’s wishes by studying estate management… His parents were then actively trying to discourage him from becoming an actor,” reports Gabriel.
However, the would-be thespian dropped out after a year and worked for Bidwells estate agents in Cambridge. After National Service he went back to house-selling, this time in Edgware, “but his heart was not it; he was set on becoming an actor. Tony Read, subsequently Ian’s closest friend at drama school, believes that it was the great John Mills, who had worked for a short time for Ian’s father at Pauls during the 1920s, who bolstered Ian’s resolve to take up acting professionally”.
He joined London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in 1953. “When he left, in 1955, he was tipped for the top. The ultimate accolade was receiving the Laurence Olivier award at his final production for Central...” The rising star went into repertory in Hornchurch in Essex and on to Oxford Playhouse. His first appearance on British TV came in 1956, in This is Show Business, in which he played a clown. (Ian was a long-time fan of circus life, and of clowns in particular.) His first prominent TV role was as a polio patient in seven episodes of Emergency Ward 10 in 1958.
“Meanwhile, Ian, who always had a succession of beautiful ladies on his arm, had settled down for the first time.” His first wife was Jo, a make-up artist. Sadly, it was coming unstuck by 1960.
A starring role in Police Surgeon earned him the front cover of TV Times in 1960… and then he became “definitely the nominal star of The Avengers before the quartet of lovelies and the bowler-hatted gent who became synonymous with its success”. Gabriel explains that Patrick Macnee – John Steed – was never the original star. “Ian was the lead and Macnee the sidekick.” Hendry appeared in 25 episodes, but, by the time a second series came around, had opted to pursue a film career. “And so it was that Steed became the focus of the series.”
Ian’s second wife would be actress Janet Munro – a woman who, like Hendry, was an alcoholic, generous and spendthrift. “Their burgeoning romance was splashed all over the front page of the Daily Mirror in the autumn of 1961, the second story after a headline warning of a power station strike that could cut off the nation’s electricity.”
Film Live Now – Pay Later was a major starring role. The man Bafta-nominated as the most promising newcomer of 1962 returned to Ipswich to attend a premiere at the ABC cinema in the Buttermarket.
In 1964 daughter Sally was born; and there was what Gabriel called “his finest hour on film”. Hendry played an army sergeant in The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s study of institutionalised brutality.
Home was a house on Pharaoh’s Island in the Thames, which left Janet feeling isolated. She had a miscarriage, and another child was stillborn. Drink, pills, a near-drowning, an overdose and spells in sanatoriums followed. Janet managed to quit booze, but her husband was drinking more... and being pursued by the taxman.
In 1968, Hendry played the lead in Gerry Anderson’s “ill-fated” sci-fi movie Doppelganger. Anderson thought Ian a lovely fellow but sometimes shockingly drunk. “For the first time it appears that Ian’s drinking was no longer fun but an irritating spoiler.” Ian and Janet separated, then reunited and had second child Corrie. Hendry was one of Britain’s most respected actors, if bitter about his failure to become a film star. That simmering anger emerged when he made Get Carter with Michael Caine, a man who had cracked it. Hendry, without a starring role since Doppelganger two years earlier, was now playing a chauffeur. “The hot property of 1963, whose creativity and talent had once been compared to Charlie Chaplin, was now playing a secondary role to Caine.” Not yet 40, he looked much older. “His battered face reflected his boozy lifestyle, his voice a gravelly mix of brandy and smoke. The charisma and authority were as strong as ever but the handsome young man who made women swoon was gone. Comparisons with Caine only made it worse.”
Director Mike Hodges remembered rehearsing a key scene the night before filming. It’s set at a racetrack, and Caine’s character removes Hendry’s sunglasses. It symbolises where the power lay. Hodges describes Hendry arriving very drunk for the run-through and behaving aggressively towards Caine, who was “incredibly gracious and generous” in dealing with it. Shooting the next day went well – helped, the director felt, by that underlying tension!
Domestically, the Hendrys’ marriage ended in 1971. For Ian, art imitated life as he played a recovering alcoholic and expatriate in The Lotus Eaters.
He should have been wealthy, but “profligacy, over-generosity and high taxation meant he was broke”.He was still busy, though – including “a one-man charity gig, complete with clowning and backflips, at Ipswich Arts Theatre... The show was organised by Ipswich Rotary Club, of which James Hendry (Ian’s father) was a member”.
In 1972, in a pub, he met Sandra Jones, a 23-year-old nanny who had that day broken up with her boyfriend. They’d marry in 1975 and have daughter Emma.
A few weeks before Christmas, 1972, former wife Janet died of heart failure, which “certainly exacerbated his drinking”. As time went on, Gabriel writes, “Ian seemed to be losing the battle with his demons and good parts were dwindling”.
The actor sometimes visited his parents at Little Bealings, near Woodbridge. “The relationship with Ian was occasionally tense… James and Enid Hendry viewed Ian’s London existence as rather debauched, far removed from their self-respecting, thrifty lives in sleepy Suffolk.” That said, they were proud of his success – Enid subscribing to a media cuttings service and amassing a large collection charting his career.
At the end of 1979 the Inland Revenue sought £35,000 and Hendry was declared bankrupt early in 1980.
A new twice-weekly serial called For Maddie with Love offered a chance to get back on his feet, but the demands of soap – six days a week, 17 hours a day – took their toll. He asked for a fortnight off to recharge his batteries. When ATV refused, he quit.
Offers became fewer and fewer, though he did fly to Jersey for an early episode of Bergerac, with John Nettles. Gabriel reports that the 50-year-old appeared more like 70. “He looks dreadful but still gives a Herculean performance.”
The following year was the first time in 26 that he made no appearances on stage, TV or film.
Things appeared to be looking up with a job in Thailand early in 1985 for Lace 2. However, on Christmas Eve, 1984, daughter Corrie found him on the bathroom floor, blood everywhere. The actor had died of a huge stomach haemorrhage. Liver cirrhosis was to blame.
Gabriel feels many articles, including obituaries, did not do justice to Ian’s life or career. Watching old shows, he was struck by the actor’s “extraordinary gift”.
“He was, in John Nettles’ words, hitting every line ‘dead centre’ so that it felt like you were watching reality, not drama. To use a darts analogy, Ian was hitting bull’s-eye every time.”
• Send In the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry will be available via www.lulu.com/gb by the end of March and from other outlets (including Amazon) later.