Paul Henry was no stranger to television drama when he arrived at Crossroads, with a number of small-screen roles behind him, he probably didn’t expect the part of Benny to become one of the most remembered characters from the original series.
What was your initial reaction when you first read for the part of Benny – did you realise immediately that he would be such an enduringly popular character?
Well, it was very weird really because I didn’t read for the part I just got it! What happened was that I was working for the Birmingham rep, across the road, I’d been there for 8 or 9 years, and I was sharing a dressing room with an actor called John Rollason who had just started writing for Crossroads and he suggested me for the part ‘cos he said: “Paul would be able to play it”.
He’d presented these storylines, they’d accepted it and then he was writing the story, so I was actually looking over his shoulder at this stuff he was doing when we were doing the show. I finished on the Sunday night at the Birmingham rep, arrived at ATV television on the Monday morning to be taken off to a location where I first met Sue Hanson – and the goat – and in that 1 day, we did scenes for the 6 weeks of Crossroads.
And I went into the wardrobe picked out some clothes, took this woolly hat that was my brother’s, I thought he’d wear something on his head and I thought “Well, I don’t want a flat cap” so I picked up this woolly hat that he used to wear for fishing which has been the plague ever since ‘cos I play a lot of golf and everybody wears these woolly hats and if I put one on they’ll think I’m trying to, (laughs)!
Benny had a number of very strong storylines down the years such as his engagement to Maureen, which resulted in tragedy when she was killed on the morning of their wedding and the time when he was falsely accused of murdering Lisa Welch. What are your memories of those storylines and what sort of public reaction did you get from them?
Well, I think getting married to Maureen, that’s when we went to number one in the TV charts and everything during that period, we were 1, 2, 4, and 5 over that period. I always said, you see, Benny was the big feller, you know you always got the small feller who got the sympathy, and Benny was the big, lumbering, child-like person, you know.
I mean in real life if people had made the nasty comments because he was a great one he was so easy for the press to pick up on if he’d have been somebody, ‘cos I know lots of Bennys in this world, there are a lot of them about and if they’d have said the things they did, people would have said that wasn’t politically correct, you know. But he had marvellous reactions from the Maureen storyline when he was getting married and she died on the bike because everybody felt for that, it was amazing.
And then the murdering of Lisa Welch, I mean that was just hysterical, everybody loved it and they stuck up for Benny and people got really annoyed at the fact that he’d been accused.
And I mean students, Birmingham University and up north, Bradford I think it was, as you went through Bradford there was a bridge “Benny is Innocent”! And the universities they were all hanging things out the windows saying “Benny is Innocent” and that was the tongue in cheek side, and there was also the side that really, you know…
See it’s funny because soaps, people love it but they know it’s not real but they love getting involved with it and the students actually summed it up when there was all “Benny is Innocent”. Everywhere I went on the side of vans “Benny is Innocent” it was fantastic really (laughs).
How difficult was Benny to play – did it take a long time or you to evolve his way of speaking and his personality?
People used to say where does that accent come from? Well, it never really came from anywhere! If you were in Birmingham they thought it was Worcester, and if you were in Worcester it was Birmingham and anywhere outside of Birmingham they thought it was Birmingham. What I tried to do was make it an accent that nobody could actually decide where it came from.
And I suppose at times there was a bit of Brummy in it and that. And the actual character, I had played some characters similar to it. The child-like thing I’d played on the telly I’d done the “Recruiting Officer” I played Bullock before the Benny thing and then I also did “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” with a great cast and I played Flute who plays “This-be” in that and he was a bit of a child-like figure. So it was a mixture of a lot of characters I’d played in theatre and I just pulled a few of them together, plus people I’ve met over the years in different situations who were a bit slow.
How much input did the scriptwriters give you? Were you ever able to say no if they were going to make Benny say or do something that you thought was wrong or out of character?
Well, I think that’s where it went a bit wrong in the latter years. In the early years as I said to you, the script-writers, John Rollason set up the character, then people who took the character on, over the time I was in it probably 12 years I think it was, although I never did more than 6 months in a year, over the time I was in it, if I thought something was wrong because I knew the character better than the new writers so really it was a together thing and with the directors as well.
I mean I always tried to avoid making him absolutely stupid if you know what I mean, and I didn’t think you had to write material which was silly. You had to write a situation and Benny would make it silly. And sometimes he didn’t have to say anything. My idea of Benny was like if someone came in and said “It’s raining cats and dogs out there” all you had to do is take a look at Benny and you could see in his eyes he was trying to work it out. He took everything literally so you didn’t have to have him saying, “Where’s them cats and dogs?” you just knew.
He did something once where he did the chicken and he cooked it with the giblets inside. Now everybody’s saying “How stupid!”, but I know so many people who’ve done it! But then in the last year, the new producer came in and I suppose they thought I was being a bit, you know, over the top, “Who does he think he is?” type of thing, but I used to say “Look I can’t do that because the character wouldn’t do it.”
I mean there was one particular director, this is when it all went wrong, who said to me: “In the background I want you talking to those customers” I said, “Hang on, he wouldn’t stand and talk to customers, he’d avoid talking to anybody.” The only people he wanted to talk to were people he knew. He said “No, well it looks better for the picture”, and I said, “No, well that doesn’t work for me!” So there were little things like that you see… but of course, people thought you were being a bit, you know, because I did care about the character, you see.
And because it was always on the line of being stupid, I had to be very strong how far I wanted it to go because all they did was stay six episodes and then they went and directed something else – and nobody knew who they were (laughs).
Benny had many people at Crossroads who took him under their wing but none more so than Diane Lawton – “Miss Diane”. What was it like working so closely with Susan Hanson?
Oh, she was fabulous. I mean, as I said she was the first person I sort of got involved with when I first arrived and it was very much like a double act wasn’t it? And you know the “Miss Diane” which actually was never written, I mean “Miss Diane” was something that I put in, it was always “Diane” but of course in later times as new writers came in again it would all be “Miss Diane, Miss Diane” (laughs)But “Miss Diane”, I thought was just a sign of showing respect to her. [Jack Haig as Archie Gibbs had first used the ‘Miss Diane’ term in the 60s of course, but Benny made it his own.]
Is it true that you were not allowed to shave regularly while playing Benny as the character always needed to be scruffy?
No, no I was never told I had not to, but … a lot of the continuity really you had to do yourself. You know it was so difficult sometimes, ‘cos I used to not shave probably on a Wednesday morning till Saturday, because we used to film Thursday, Friday because I wanted it more or less the same length which was easier in those days because we just used to shoot the episodes – 1 episode, 2 episode, 3 episode, 4 episode. But of course, when we started filming or shooting out of sequence it was a bit difficult trying to keep it at the same … and make-up never looked the same anyway.
So it was just my own thing I mean I did it because I wanted to because it was right for the character.
What did you think of the controversial killing off of Miss Diane and the storyline in which Benny bought a donkey and named it after her? Do you think the producers made a mistake in writing out Diane?
I think it was wrong that they killed her off. And I think probably, I don’t know why, but in that last year, it was like they wanted to get rid of everyone eventually that was of the old Crossroads.
And what people forget is, that as far as I was concerned, I was never the old Crossroads, because when I came into it everybody had been there for so long and they were Crossroads, like Nolly and Ronnie Allen and everybody and of course I was a newcomer so I went from being a newcomer, because I think it was probably 10 or 15 years before you became a regular (laughs) in those days because people didn’t change much and I was like a newcomer that suddenly became one of the old stays overnight.
I was suddenly one of the main characters who’s been in it all the time and of course whereas it could be a bit, you used to get a bit scared in some ways or nervous when it was all the old guard, suddenly it was all the new guard and they were looking at you like you were the old guard and you’ve never gone through it! And when they got rid of Sue, it probably was a toss-up between me and Sue and I think they probably thought “Well, we can get rid of Benny eventually”.
And they started bringing in these new families – not that they weren’t good – but nobody was interested because as I said you need an established person to initiate the new characters. And then, of course, he brought in the upmarket Benny to work with me instead of Sue and it just didn’t work.
The “upmarket Benny”, would that be Charlie?
Yes. And it just didn’t work because you were burlesquing burlesque. And I think what he (William Smethurst) wanted to do basically was get rid of the show, everybody who was established and make his show with his own people.
Now all he had ever done was an editor on The Archers and really what he should have done was say “No I don’t want to do Crossroads let’s finish it and I’ll do a new series with my new characters.”
Benny named a donkey in Diane’s memory. Was that storyline perhaps a bit offensive to the fans of Diane?
I thought it was funny but some people think it was an insult to Susan Hanson: I don’t think it was an insult as far as Benny’s character was concerned, it wasn’t an insult but they should have had some character say to him, “Look Benny, it’s not very nice”, try to convince him to do it some other way, have a plaque made or something like that or something for the grave.
‘Cos I mean I think that’s where the humour was with Benny he didn’t think there was anything wrong with things.
As Benny you had a particular affinity with animals – you also had Starry the goat, Moses the dog as well as several creatures that Mavis Hooper wasn’t too keen on! Did you enjoy working with all these animals?
The actual goat was at the beginning and that was the first filming we did. And I think you know a lad on the farm, I mean I’ve been to farms where people have had the sheep that’s been the kids’ favourite and it’s a great big fat thing in the garden and it’s their pet and they had a name for it.
So I think it was the same as any child, he had these animals and of course, working on the farms he spent a lot of time on his own – I’m going by what the character to me had done in his past. So he did love the animals and he’d feed them and he’d probably go down and sit for hours feeding the wild ducks. I mean I have somebody where I live now and he goes down to where all the wild ducks are and they know the colour of his buggy and he goes down and sits there and these wild ducks come and sit on his lap and he feeds them, which is incredible.
And how did you feel: did you enjoy working with the animals?
Well, there’s a funny story about Starry and the first day’s filming I did, that it had been in with a dead nanny goat so it stank. And the first scene I did was putting my arm around this goat and it absolutely stank, you know, saying “This be my goat” sort of thing (laughs) and that was the last time I ever saw Starry!
I think it was in a few episodes but only at the very beginning, and that was because we did filming one day for several episodes, it was only in probably about 4 or 5 times if that, I can’t remember now but it wasn’t in a lot but I probably referred to it a lot.
In one well-known storyline, Miss Diane taught Benny to read which I believe led to a national literacy campaign. Can you tell us about the impact that that storyline had?
I recall there was a storybook character called Clumsy Charlie who made Benny giggle a lot. I think the storyline probably made people aware that there were a lot more people than they realised that had difficulties through one reason or another. I mean Benny could learn to read but nobody had taken the time. I mean don’t forget we still do that now don’t we?
In a slightly more unusual storyline, Benny developed psychic powers in the ’80s when he foresaw the death of his landlady Mrs Price and then a bus accident which Mavis Hooper managed to avoid after Benny’s warnings. What did you think of this storyline and did you get any public feedback from it?
I don’t really remember much about that I think it was one of those that you played it and I tried to do it and stop it being too ridiculous. I know there was something funny that happened, I can’t quite remember what it was in that storyline but I know it was something like I was in trouble or something and it was ridiculous because it was in the middle of the bit where I had the psychic powers! (Laughs)
I think it was a storyline that somebody wrote and thought “Oh this will be fun” but it’s the old story, the people playing it are the ones that have to see it through and you know on the whole I didn’t too badly with the stories.
But it was one of the hardest things in the world because that was almost impossible to play if you know what I mean! But when you’re in a soap for a while I’m sure every soap actor will say they had storylines that were absolutely ridiculous. But you can’t have great storylines 52 weeks of the year. If you get 2 or 3 in a year, and everyone gets 2 or 3 good storylines, you’ve got a successful soap.
I mean I always find now that people come up to me now and say “Oh, get back there! That EastEnders and that whatsit, it’s terrible now.” But you’ll find that every show has its downtimes. And I think what they did with Crossroads at the end, well I think it was self-inflicted in a way. But every soap goes down and then comes up.
Benny, like Miss Luke, regularly disappeared from the motel for long periods – was this to enable you to appear in other things?
At the beginning, it was because they didn’t have storylines for us and later on we were always involved in other things. I always did something on stage and then I started doing pantomime so it was always put in that I did my pantomime and things and I always worked on stage, at least did one play once a year which I liked doing because it kept me going on stage.
There has been a lot of talk about a possible return for Benny – in fact, the Crossroads Fan Club has been running a campaign to bring Benny back to Crossroads. Are you still prepared to return and can you say anything at the moment about the likelihood of this happening?
The man who brought the show back didn’t want the character in it, he said: “over my dead body”. He must have disliked the character intensely! (laughs) So we’ll just have to see what the new production team feel regarding the character. People have said to me that they’d have 2 or 3 million extra viewers if Benny came back. But as I said to them he might get people who tune in just to see him that remember…I mean I just get amazed how many people still remember the character.
I was in Aberystwyth last week with my grand-daughter, and we parked outside this fish and chip shop in Aberystwyth, when I came back to the car there was this big note on the window saying “We love you Benny, miss you, wish you were back”. So people still remember the character but it’s whether they’re interested …but as I’ve said before, I mean that’s not saying I definitely want to go back!
So you wouldn’t definitely go back?
I don’t know I mean it’s like everything in life, isn’t it? I’m not saying I wouldn’t and I’m not saying I would. I mean, to say I wouldn’t would be the wrong thing because I’m not sure. It would depend on how I felt if it was right.
Do you still have the green woolly cap?
Oh, it’s probably somewhere about, I’ve had hundreds over the years! I mean I used to send them off to charities. There’s one story that I got more for my woolly hat than Edward Heath got for one of his ties! All the little ladies used to knit me them and send them to me. But some of the ones I used to get sent were all colours. (laughs)
One character that Benny was very friendly with was Joe MacDonald – Mac from the garage. Sadly Carl Andrews who played Mac passed away some years ago. Could you tell us a little about him and what he was like to work with?
Oh, he was a great lad, I mean Carl was one of the early ethnic lads on television wasn’t he? And he had this lovely ..he had the West Indian thing you know, laid back and never got himself in a panic (laughs).
What would you say are your fondest memories of Crossroads?
I suppose all the things that went with it. First of all, I loved the character he was a great character and for an actor, I’ve said this before I believe there are about 7 things you that have in a character and with Benny you could use all 7 to extremes. He could cry, he could lose his temper, he could do whatever and it’s great for an actor to be able to go to these extremes with his emotions which you could as Benny.
And so basically it was the character I loved playing you know each storyline was a bit of a challenge (laughs) and perhaps that’s why 1 or 2 people used to worry about me but I did care about the show and the character. And I think that towards the end there were people trying to use it as a stepping stone or were taking the micky because they were only in for say a few weeks or they were going off to do something else or they were just directing 3 or 4 episodes and they didn’t really care that much, don’t get me wrong there were lots of people who did, but there was that little influx of “were we really interested”?
Interview conducted by Daniel Landsberger for the Crossroads Fan Club, 2001.