Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two Wheels, Eight Legs... An interview with Harley Jane Kozak

I sat in the waiting room. The therapist had said she wouldn't be that much longer, and as I waited more people started to come in and sit around the circle. I had never done anything like this before, I had relied on patches and willpower to give up smoking, but this was something else... My fear of those eight legged little monsters had ruled my life for the past 40 years and now was the time to tackle it. 

The group had been recommended by a friend, who'd told me that  they brought in actual spiders to crawl on you! If I could do that, well then... It would be a bloody miracle.  

I started biting my nails, a horrible habit, but what the hell - I wasn't infecting my lungs any more, I was tackling this...and, hell, there were always false nails, right? I made a mental note to call my manicurist after the meeting.

After a few minutes the group leader popped his head round the door and said they were going to be late, apparently the Sex Addicts had gotten accidentally mixed in with the Claustrophobes and there was all kinds of trouble. I sighed and smiled knowingly at the woman beside me. I hadn't really looked around yet, but I'd expected it to be the same old crowd, a mixture of nervous wimps like me and a couple of burly men who were embarrassed by their irrational fears. There was always one of those. Doing a double take though, I realised I knew who the woman beside me was, at least I knew she looked familiar. I glanced quickly at her name tag, it read "Harley". I knew it! I bloody knew it! It was Harley Jane Kozak... Oh my God!

Harley Jane Kozak (born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on January the 28th, 1957) is an American actress and author.
Kozak starred in movies such as Parenthood (1989), Arachnophobia (1990),  
Necessary Roughness (1991), All I Want for Christmas (1991), The Favor (1994), Magic in the Water (1995) and the soap operas Texas (from November 1981 to December 1982 as Brette Wheeler), Guiding Light (from 1983 to 1985 and a one-day voiceover in February 1990, as both Annabelle Sims Reardon and Annabelle's deceased mother, in 1983 flashbacks, Annie Sims) and Santa Barbara (from 1985 to 1986 and again in 1989, as former nun, Mary Duvall McCormick). 
In Santa Barbara her character died in an accident where a giant neon letter "C" toppled on top of her during an argument atop the Capwell hotel. Viewers were so angry over Mary's death that they started a letter-writing campaign demanding for her reappearance. The show received such huge amounts of letters that eventually they admitted their mistake and asked Kozak to come back. She declined the offer since she was already working with other projects and she was proud of the unusual way her character had made her exit. 

And here she was... in an Arachnophobes meeting? Maybe appearing in "Arachnophobia" had scared her as much as it had me? And I only watched it!

I smiled again and introduced myself,  and we got chatting:

So Jane, what made you want to be an actress and writer? If you weren’t either of these, what do you think you would be? 
"Well, the fast answer would be...God. Or Destiny. Or just my nature. Whatever you like to call it. From a very early age, telling stories through writing, or by acting in plays, was fun. Obsessively fun. And even though I was socially shy, I felt free on the stage or on the page. And if I weren’t any of these, I imagine I’d be a frustrated something else, longing to act or write."   

I heard you worked as a waitress before making it in movies, this seems a natural progression
for actors! Did you serve, meet or even work with anyone who helped your career? 
"It’s true, I was a waitress for about 8 years, starting when I was still in high school. I was—I hope this doesn’t sound immodest—a very good waitress. But although I made great friends, some of them lifelong, no, none of them led to any Big Breaks. My best waitress memory was waiting on Tennessee Williams and William Borroughs. They ordered chilli."

So Harley... That isn't your real name is it?
"In the early 80’s I was living with a guy in a loft in New York City and the guy parked his motorcycle in the living room and one night, inspiration struck. Yes, I named myself after his motorcycle and legally changed it a few months later. It just seemed like the right thing to do."

I thought about my apartment and my past partners who left things in my living room, maybe it wouldn't be so cool if I named myself 'Garfield Coffee Mug' or 'Dirty Old socks'.

Now I knew Harley was a mum of 3, so the next question was easy... 
How do you find working and being a mum? I know you’ve had to pull out of jobs due to pregnancy?
"When I became pregnant with my first child, I was a series regular on an hour drama and they asked me to sit it out because they really didn’t want my character pregnant. That was a gift for me, because it let me go home, be pregnant, finish my first novel—and get paid for it."

And do your kids ever go on set with you?
"I have acted a few times since, and yes, my kids once or twice went on the set with me, but honestly, I took about 15 years off to be a mom and a novelist. I was very happy in my acting career in my single days, but I’d never have been able to raise kids with the kind of schedule I had then."

Do any of them have acting aspirations? 
"So far my kids have expressed little interest in acting, which is fine. A relief, even. For one thing, I’m way too lazy to be a stage mom. For another, it’s just not the easiest lifestyle. There’s a lot of rejection. It’s one thing for me to be rejected; I can take it. But watch my kids go through that? Horrors!"

You write, you act on TV as well as in film.. What do you prefer? 
"Apples and oranges. Impossible to say, really. They all have their up-sides."

You’d been in some iconic 80's comedy/romantic comedy movies such as ‘When Harry met Sally’ and ‘Parenthood’, bit of a jump from that to a horror/thriller (albeit a comedic version). Was it easy transition? What do you prefer?  
"Actually, my very first film was a horror movie (The House on Sorority Row) my first play was an opera (Dido and Aneas) and my first TV show was a soap. Every part is its own thing and we actors adore the variety. When Harry Met Sally was such a tiny part—just one scene—that it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as Parenthood. But it was an iconic film (they both were) so I’m proud to have been a part of it. Some of my best acting and most fun has been in dumb films so it’s hard to pick “favourites” –  one film had the most wonderful co-stars, another had the greatest director, one had the most exotic location, one was filmed during an especially happy year in my life, in one I got to work with wolves, one had the best-written dialogue, one had a genius cinematographer, etc. etc."

Now, we’ve heard so many rumours about Steve Martin, (Whom I think is a comedy genius) but what was he really like to work with? A bit of a diva? 
"Not a diva at all, but a rather shy man unless he knows you well. He has a lot of dignity, which is not what you might expect, given the wild and crazy guys he plays. I think he was less comfortable being recognized (constantly!) in public than many stars."

And I have to ask about the lovely Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, what were they like? 
"Both really wonderful and generous and made me feel very welcome. When you only work one day on a movie set, you feel like a visitor to someone else’s home, but they were extremely hospitable."

Would you like to have your novels adapted into movies? If so, what roles would you like best? 
"YES! YES! I have kids to put through college. If you mean, what roles would I play, the answer is none. I never seem to remember to write myself parts in my books. I’m way too old for the heroine (Wollie, in my series books.) I suppose I could play Wollie’s mother."

When you write, does your acting background make it easier to write dialogue? 
"Definitely. It’s the most obvious advantage of being in both worlds. I act out my dialogue all the time and constantly mess with it until it feels natural to me-the-actress."

Did you ever meet Robin Williams? What a tragic loss… It must be such a pressurised industry? I used to work in post-production and that was tough enough, but I can’t imagine what incredible pressure it is being judged for every move you make. 
"I auditioned once with him and remember him as the kindest person imaginable. He was a huge star, of course, and I was a complete nobody, but he treated me as an equal. It’s hard to overstate what that means to an actor in an audition. I don’t even remember the part – some small part in Awakenings, I think (which of course I didn’t get). But I’ll never forget him. It is a tragic loss. And yes, it’s a lot of pressure to be a star of his magnitude, and there’s no doubt that fame derails people all the time, but in Robin’s case I assume he was dealing with depression. And depression that serious can affect anyone, in any profession, at any age."

Actually, I thought, what is it like being famous? 
"I am honoured that you think of me as famous, but I promise you, if you came over for dinner and said that, my 3 kids would look at you and say, “why are you asking her?” I can shop for food and pick up the drycleaning and walk the dogs all over the neighbourhood. I’m pretty sure Brad Pitt can’t do that. He’s famous. I’m just...an actor. And a writer. Which is much better in terms of sanity... and picking up drycleaning."

Now I couldn't put it off any longer, I had to ask about the film Arachnophobia (1990), I just had to. I took a very deep breath and started. 

I bet you have lots of people telling you their ‘I was so terrified at Arachnophobia’ stories. My favourite is the one my husband tells - he is not at all scared of spiders – He was 18 when the film came out and went to see it with friends and a bag of rubber bands. During each spider scene they would launch their bands into the audience; there were screams, cries and people jumping out of their seats! Rod and his friends found it hilarious, until they were forcibly asked to leave. Still a great story though! 
"Wow—very creative, your husband. That’s actually the best story I’ve heard, although reportedly some poor woman fainted in some theatre and had to be taken away by ambulance the week the movie came out."

What was the audition process like? What did you have to do? 
"I probably read a scene or two and had a nice chat with Frank Marshall, the director. He asked if I had a problem with spiders, and I said, no, and that was that."

What was it like filming with the spiders? 
"It was fine. The scene at the end where they’re all over the house? A good portion of those were plastic. And many of the shots were done without the actors, and edited to look like we’re all there together. It wasn’t that challenging, frankly."

Did they have ‘stunt’ spiders? I know they have people providing the spiders; did you have to be careful not to actually hurt them? 
"I don’t believe spiders are truly trainable, so I don’t think there were any star or stunt spiders. Except for the animatronic ones. Also, they had people assigned just to the spiders. Wranglers. It was a highly professional set—a Steven Spielberg production—and it was a point of honour not to hurt any spiders. I don’t think I ever touched them in the film; at most I just shared some shots with them."

Did you have a stunt double, or did you do your own stunts? 
"I have a vague memory of the burning house scene at the end that required a stunt double—running away from the fire, I think. It wasn’t much of a stunt, but it’s not a badge of courage to do your own stunts and usually you’re not given a choice. They hire one for you when they think it’s necessary (unless it’s a low-budget, non-union film, and then—good luck.) If a star is injured in a stunt, the production would have to shut down or film around him/her, which can be wildly expensive. Also, stunt people are well-trained and very talented, so why use an amateur (the actor)? It doesn’t make economic sense. And the actor is usually paid more than the stunt people and it’s not a good use of the actor’s working hours—using stunt people is a bargain. Also, I have a great respect for stunt people and wouldn’t want to deprive them of work." 

What was Jeff Daniels like? He seems so lovely... and John Goodman? 
"Both fantastic. Just what you’d expect. Wonderful actors, great guys."

How on earth do you get yourself prepared for a role like that?! 
"It was pretty easy. I was just your basic wife and mother, confronted by killer spiders."

Were any of the cast scared? 
"I don’t think so. If they were, they probably kept it to themselves. We had spider tutorials and very talented spider wranglers and so it wasn’t like the arachnids took over the set.  I remember them as being very well-behaved. Although, when they got cold, they’d curl up and refuse to move. Very unprofessional."

We laughed about how ill I was when I first watched the movie and asked...

...and you?
"I am so sorry to have made you ill. And no, I’m happy to say I’m okay with spiders. It’s rodents I can’t stand. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I just don’t like them. Except for Mickey and Minnie Mouse. They’re okay."

Was all the fear acting then?! 

Ok... I thought, this was getting weird, so she wasn't really scared of spiders?? But just as I was about to broach the subject of why she was here the group leader came in, all smiles and apologies for his lateness. he sat on the other side of me and looked very friendly, but he didn't seem to have any spiders with him? Maybe they came in later I thought.

We were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves, as I was sitting beside him I was asked to go first. I tentatively rose out of my chair and stated my name, then started telling the tale of my childhood and how my brother had put a spider down my dress and how this lead to years of fear and terror at the very mention of them. I went on and on about how I was bitten by one once and my hand swelled up, and waxed lyrical about how that made it some way a logical fear and so I shouldn't really be blamed for it...

It was only after about 10 minutes of going on and on, that I noted that a few, if not all of the other people in the room looked confused. I looked at Harley who was looking as confused as the others if not more so. I also noted in her hand her new book. This was confusing...

Then it hit me, I hadn't had I? Oh lord please say I hadn't? I quickly pulled the course timetable out of my back pocket and checked the schedule. 

"Is this room B15?" I asked the guy, "Arachnophobes Anonymous?"  

"This is D15," he replied "Creative Writing. Special guest speaker Harley Jane Kozak" 

My cheeks burned red and I looked back at Harley. She smiled at me with kind eyes but the damage had been done, I grinned with embarrassment, apologised for my mistake and started making my way out of the room. Then I suddenly thought...come on! One more question, nothing could make this worse! I turned back to Harley and asked, 'So if a crazy load of man eating spiders did attack your town… Do you think you could handle it???' To which she answered with a grin...
"YES! YES! BRING THEM ON! I’m ready!"

And so was I! As long as I could find room B15 that was...

For more information on Harley, go to: 

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Tall and the short of it... An interview with Carel Struycken... dan na na na... *click click*

My first week day on the job and with a few happy customers behind me I was feeling confident.
I knew when I got into the game of chimney sweeping that it might not be easy, but then my father was a sweep and his father before him... It was in my blood. 
These days people preferred gas heaters to warm their homes, but there were still one or two that liked to keep it natural and they were my bread and butter.

I found a street that looked promising, I checked the name... Cemetery Lane... Hmm... Curious, but then again that large house at the very end looked incredibly promising!

I knocked on a few doors down the lane and was greeted by a friendly "Hello" and a smile, but no takers for my services. Shame, I thought, but there was still that house, number 1313.

Eventually I got to the building, it was more a crumbling mansion than a house and looked like it should have been condemned... A number of times! But it had chimneys, lots of chimneys that looked like they hadn't been swept in centuries, let alone years and if these guys needed them cleaned then I could make enough money to retire! 

I took a deep breath and pushed on the enormous metal gate... creeeeeeeeek it went as I pushed with all my strength, these people obviously didn't have visitors much, I had some WD40 in my van, I made a mental note to offer some to whoever in gods name lived here.

I made my way up the path and as I did a curious thing happened, the once gloriously sunny day got darker and darker with every step up the path, eventually covering the entire sky, I looked back at the street, still sunny? But... How? Why? 

I started to turn back, just the outside of this place made my bones rattle and the blood freeze in their veins, what the hell would the inside look like? Or it's residence?! I stopped and told myself to pull it together, this could be worth a fortune! I took deep breath and turned back.

Getting to the door was just the first step, the house loomed above me like a something from a 1960s horror movie and the knocker on the door was heavy and monstrous... Everything seemed to be screaming at me "Run!!!" But I didn't, I had made it this far... Time to see who, or what was inside...


I stood outside, my brushes rattling as I shook with fear... Then suddenly with a loud creek the door opened and I was greeted with... a belt and trousers? For a second I was perplexed and then I looked up... and up... and up... And there standing in front of me was a man, now I'm not too tall, but this man was huge... and familiar looking... Very familiar looking... 

And then he smiled spoke and I knew exactly who he was....

Carel Struycken is a Dutch film, television, and stage actor. He is best known for playing the Giant in Twin PeaksMr. Homn in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Lurch in the films The Addams FamilyAddams Family Values and Addams Family Reunion. He is an exceptionally tall man at 2.13 metres (7 feet) and thus is often called upon to play character or comedic roles in which height plays a major part.

Oh my goodness what a chance... Never mind the chimneys I thought, lets ask some questions!!

I had to ask about the height thing... So, when did you or your family first realise how tall you were going to be?  
"From 1st grade on, I was always the tallest of my class. My grandfather on my mother's side was about 6.8 and many male relatives on that side of the family were well over 6 ft. By the time I was 14, I was already 6.5 ft. We were living in Curaçao (an island in the Caribbean) and there was no culture of basketball, so being that tall was just considered freakish. Not easy for a 14 year old!"

I knew that he had been born in The Netherlands, grew up in the Caribbean and have had most of your career in the US, So, I wondered, where do he consider home?
"The US is where my wife and children are, so that is home now."

He'd graduated from a directing program at a film school in Amsterdam, following which he did a year at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, so I wondered if he'd wished he had stuck to it or did he prefer acting?
"I got hooked on the medium as a teenager when I saw a Japanese movie, called "The Woman in the Dunes".  The style was very minimalist and stark, and I was fascinated by how evocative and powerful a simple montage of shots could be. I fell in love with the medium in a very elemental way. Most of my life so far has been one giant distraction with mishaps and tangents. I hope to soon restart a project I had to abandon 6 years ago."

I'd heard this great rumour... Apparently, as it goes, the screenwriter Rene Daalder abandoned his car in a Hollywood street calling “We need you for a movie!”? I asked how on earth did that make him feel??? I wondered if he'd looked around and thought “Is she talking to me?” 
"You got two stories mixed up. When I moved to the US in 1975, I worked on a few projects with Rene Daalder. He already had a few features under his belt as director. We were working on a musical feature, using some great characters we had assembled from the local (Los Angeles) punk scene, when Mabel Collins, the personal assistant to the director of the Sergeant Pepper's movie, spotted me from her car. It was perfect timing for me, because I was flat broke."

... and to immediately start working with such a prestigious cast… Were you star struck? What were they like???  Were there any stand out cast members? I asked.
"I was very much immersed in the punk scene during that time, so most of the Sergeant Pepper's talent was considered a bit over the hill. But I remember how incredibly likeable and down to earth the BeeGees were. 

Steve Martin's performance as Dr. Maxwell was one of the highlights of the film for me."

I looked at the house again and only one film sprung to mind... I had to ask, you must have been an obvious choice for Lurch in the Addams family? Did you just sit back and wait for the call?? 
"There was not really a "casting call" for the Lurch part. I just got invited to have a talk with Barry Sonnenfeld (the director) and Scott Rudin (the producer). 

So how did he sweet talk him, I wondered...?
I told them that people in the street often asked me if I was Lurch and it would be a relief to from now on be able to answer in the affirmative."

Now there is a very famous cast member called 'Thing', who unlike the rest is just a disembodied hand. I wondered what was it like filming with just a body part? I guessed that there had to be a real body to go with the hand... So was it hard having to act round the body when it’s not supposed to be there?
"Movie making is a very technical endeavour. With something as simple as an "over-shoulder" shot, the camera operator determines where you should look. You are never allowed to look the person you are talking to in the eyes. Always a number of inches to the left or the right instead. Nowadays, with so much done in a blue-screen environment, acting is even more demanding in that respect. Pretending to interact with a disembodied hand is child's play by comparison."

I asked what were the cast and crew like? – Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, Acting alongside talents such Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd etc. Did you socialise much with them between filming
"The cast and crew were great. Barry was already a famous DP, but this was his directing début. I got the sense that the Addams Family project was very dear to Scott Rudin and especially the first few weeks he was always on the set. The shoot was technically extremely demanding and we often had to stand on the set, waiting for the lighting adjustments. Raoul Julia would often entertain us singing arias or songs from a musical. "

I wondered if he you ever imagined that dear sweet little Christina Ricci would grow up to be so beautiful and successful?
"Christina Ricci was already a great actress, always finding ways to add something to her performance."

Now, The Addams family was as funny as it was creepy and kooky, so, I enquired, was it hard to keep a straight face all the time? SUCH a straight face!
"With something like an Apatow production, where all the actors are seasoned comedians who may decide on the spot to change or add something to the scene, there may be moments where it is hard to keep from laughing. But the Addams Family productions were technically complex and slow and there never were unexpected funny moments on the set. But Barry Sonnenfeld can be very funny."

Most of the roles Carel plays are mute,  I wondered if he would like to do more vocals? 
"It is difficult to maintain a presence on the screen when there is no dialogue. I have found the speaking parts easier and more rewarding."

And do people ever assume that he is actually mute? 
"When I am out with my family, people sometimes approach my wife or one of my (by now grown-up) children and start asking questions about me as if I am not there. That is always a bit puzzling. Maybe they think I am an extraterrestrial, which is fine with me."

Now, I'm not tall but I do have a group of friends who call themselves “Altitude with attitude” and are all over 6ft 7 inches,  I went for a drink with them once and at 5ft 5inches I felt a bit ridiculous, especially when they kept resting their drinks on my head! I thought he might like the group and wondered if he knew of anything similar? 
"I have never had the slightest urge to make other people feel short. A few times I have met people who were as tall or taller and that is a very strange experience for the first few seconds."

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him if it was cold up there, but I resisted the urge and asked, instead, if other people say it?

"I don't get the silly remarks any more. Maybe because I am older, or people recognize me from a movie."

I knew the Dutch nation are the tallest in the world, I asked if he felt more ‘Normal’ when he visits? 
"Yes, the rest of the nation has caught up with me :-) I think it has to do with the milk surplus Holland had in the 60s and 70s. They would practically force-feed it to the children in elementary school. Most of the tall tribes in Africa are nomadic herders. Maybe they also drink a lot of milk. I am lactose intolerant by the way, so this theory does not apply to me."


I noticed him shuffling in the door way, I knew I'd pushed my luck and how ever lovely and polite this man was I couldn't keep him chatting all day, so I thought of my last question... I asked... what would your dream role be and who would you like to act alongside?
"I auditioned for Princes Bride, and Rob Reiner thought I would be good in comedy. But I was already committed to Witches of Eastwick and Andre the Giant got the part instead. He did a great job, so it was probably for the better. But I would still like to do a more comedic part some time. "

That was fantastic, I thought as we said our goodbyes and with a creek and a Boom the heavy door slowly closed behind me. 

I walked down the path on a high, what a story to tell to my wife, she'd never believe me! 

I tugged open the gate with some effort and walked out to the sunny summer afternoon, I was deliriously happy but  there was something nagging at me... What was it?

I wrestled all my brushes and poles into my van and drove off... But still had this nagging feeling that I'd forgotten to ask him something... But what was it? What could it have been? 

It was only as I was sitting in bed ready to sleep that it finally hit me and I realised what I'd forgotten to ask....

.... THE CHIMNEYS!!! I'd forgotten to ask about the bloody chimneys!

Find out more about Carel at:

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

From Good Girl to bad Girl - An interview with Helen Fraser

I sat at the train station, nervously fiddling with the tag on my old, battered suitcase.. My train was late. 
I thought to myself, was I really ready to go? Was I ready to change my life so dramatically? It was such a big step... From my quiet, sleepy little town where I could dream my dreams... where I could be the queen of the town swathed in fine silks and diamonds or the greatest actress to grace the silver screen, walking up the red carpet to collect my own Oscar... Was I ready to leave that behind and become just one of the regular people...? Was I...? 
As I sat panicking someone came and sat beside me on the bench, I looked up to give a courtesy smile and nod when I realised who it was... I was struck dumb... I must of starred just that little to long because she started to shuffle uncomfortably down the seat... 
"Ohh... no...Ohh s..s...s..sorry" I stuttered "Please, I'm not nuts!"
As there, sitting beside me was Helen Fraser...
Helen Fraser (born Helen Margaret Stronach in; Oldham, Lancashire 15 June 1942) is an English actress, she has appeared in many television series since the early 1960s. For international audiences, she may be best known her roles in Billy Liar (1963) and Repulsion (1965). She is also well-known for portraying the role of miserable warder Sylvia Hollamby in the prison drama series Bad Girls. She appeared in the series from the very first episode in 1999 to the very last in 2006. She was married to Oscar winning soundman Peter Handford until his death in 2007. 
I smiled and after a minute or two, she seemed to believe that I wasn't crazy, just a bit stressed and a big fan... It turned out that she was waiting for the same train as me, I offered her one of my cheese spread sandwiches for my Tupperware box, she declined politely... Suddenly an announcement came crackling over the Tannoy, our train was going to be another half an hour... More time for me to change my mind I thought... We both sighed... After a while Helen noticed I was nervous and asked if anything was wrong, I told her of my dilemma to which she laughed and told me my story sounded very familiar... I realised what she meant and we began to laugh together, lifting my tension, breaking the ice and giving me the opportunity to start asking all the questions I had wanted to ever since I'd first seen Helen as the kind hearted Barbara in John Schlesinger's classic 1962 film "Billy Liar"...
So Helen, you've been in the business a long time, how do you think it has changed over the years?
“Oh well I mean things have changed, as far as technicians go, they don’t have the skills that my husband [Peter Handford 1919 – 2007] had, it all looks very clever but it’s because times moved on, back then men actually did those special effects and the sound effects, and it’s the same with the actors… it’s so easy for them now because they just swear and say cut and somebody prompts them [laughs] You don’t have to have the technique you had when I started.”
Right one question down... Now I had to get to the classic film Billy Liar!
So what was it like getting the part in Billy Liar?
“I’d done ‘A kind of loving’ (1962) the year before, which was John Schlesinger's first film, I was in rep in Manchester when the casting director found me... June Ritchie was in that film, we’d been to RADA together and all he wanted was to have to friends to adlib and gossip… and of course it was just so easy because we knew each other! So I had done that for him and then the next year he was doing Billy and he just rang me up and said “You are my Barbara”… because I was rather podgy and a very innocent 19 year old with a northern accent, I was just perfect, it could have been written for me that part!”
Now we all remember poor Billy at the end of the movie, making his excuses on the train and running home leaving the ending open to interpretation… So what do you think happened? Do you think there could have been a future for Billy and Barbara?
“Billy and Barbara? Oh yes, I mean… Was it last year or the year before?... hmm… Anyway there was a tour of Billy Liar and I was asked to play the mother, but I didn’t want to do it and people said “Oh Helen you’ll have gone full circle if you do that!” Because he would never have gone to London, he would never have had the courage and he would have come home and yes, he would have married Barbara and Barbara would have become mum and it would have gone round in a full circle! And that’s what happened when I did the play I thought yes, I’m just playing Barbara 30 years on!”
So how did you celebrate when you got the part?
“Well I was so innocent I didn’t really know what it all meant to do such a big film on 
location! But of course the best thing that happened was that I met my husband, he did sound on that film and the very first scene we did was the graveyard in November and I don’t know if you’ve ever sat on a gravestone in November? But it’s freezing! And this lovely man came up and said would I like to sit in the sound truck… Now I didn’t know what a sound truck was, some old common van…? But then he said “Would you like to borrow a coat?” and he lent me some old army duffle coat which I was glad of because it was so cold. When I went back I asked “Who was that nice man?” and they said he’s the sound recordist … and I didn’t know what that meant either! But he just seemed rather nice, that was the first week and we were up there for 8 weeks so I got to know him quite well… and we fell in love so it’s very special for me.”
So talking of that scene in the graveyard, exactly how many oranges did you have to peel?!
“To tell you the truth I didn’t have to peel them because we had prop men… and there was continuity to think about so the propman had to know how many segments I’d eaten on that particular sentence and so I didn’t have to do the job of peeling them… But I did have the job of eating them…”
How many did you eat?!
“Oh I can’t remember but I didn’t want to see oranges for a long time I can tell you! They’re such messy things, full of juice and the poor wardrobe people had to come and dab my blouse for continuity!”
All this talk of oranges made me hungry, I took another sandwich and thought it only polite to offer Helen one again, this time she took one and as we munched, I changed the subject. 
So, now Barbara was such a sweet character, who did you base her on?
“Well I had never read the book to tell you the truth, I had just read the film script,
but the thing was that Barbara was so like me, so precise and correct… and I was looking for a little Billy and a little Barbara and a cottage in the country and that was in a way my dream as well so… it sounds awful but it almost like I was playing myself, but with an actress technique. Tom [Courtney] had been in my class in RADA so I knew him very well, so there were no barriers to break down and it was easy to act with him.”
So what is Tom Courtney like?
“Yes he is, very quiet…”
And so different to Billy?
“Yes, yes… He’ll never live down Billy, I mean he’ll always be Billy Liar to people”
Do you think they’ll ever make another Billy?
“They couldn’t! They couldn’t manage it! It’s a classic, I mean I haven’t made many films but most of the ones I have made have become classics and that’s certainly one of them. You know they revived it last year, because it was 50 years old and they had a new version of it. But you know it still stands up, it still makes people laugh, people recognise families in it – so no, no they could never remake it.”
But if they did, who do you think would make a good Billy and Barbara?
“I don’t know… I’m so out of touch with these new actors and you know I get so cross because they have it so easy today… Well not so easy I suppose because they become stars overnight and then 6 weeks later they’re back working in Tescos! I’m so glad I learnt my trade at the time I did because they have nowhere to go the young ones… No repertory theatre’s anymore – They go into television and they’re stars and then just as quickly they’re forgotten… So it’s not a business that I grew up with. I learnt to act when I went into Rep in Manchester… And that’s where you learn to laugh, or to sit down in period costume… it’s the older actors with experience that show you that and the young ones… I don’t know how they learn these days.”
Now you’ve done far more than Barbara! Can you tell me about working on the Dick Emery show?
“Well that was extraordinary because I did one episode of it… and remember he used
to play all the different characters? The bovva boy and Mandy and the funny vicar with the teeth? Well, the writers found this new character for him called Mr Lampwick, and when I did the first show with him they came to me and said that Mr Lampwick is going to have a daughter and would I be interested? Well I said yes, I’d love to, I ended up doing seven series with him, which was wonderful! And comedians used to do a pantomime and a summer season, so all their television work was Spring and autumn and I could time my life which was amazing!”
So, what was he like? “Oh he was lovely, I loved him! I’ve worked with so many comics and they’re all insecure, terribly insecure… and Dick was particularly insecure and he would ask “Do you think that worked Helen?” and he loved me because I was what he called a ‘proper actress’, so I could time gags for him, you know a gag is only as good as it’s timing and he appreciated that! But no, he was lovely and it was a very happy time."
As as well as Dick, you’ve worked with so many other amazing comedians! Ricky Tomlinson, The Two Ronnies…
“Len Rossiter…”
Yes! Leonard Rossiter!
“He was very nervous, very conscientious… all those twitches he used to do in Rising damp? They were all timed, he didn’t just put those in! I had been used to working with a lot of comedians, because I did a lot of light entertainment and you used to think “Oh this is an easy job, we’ll be finished by lunchtime” as they were so lazy – comedians - they didn’t want to rehearse… But Len wasn’t like that, he worked every day ‘till 5 o’clock, until he got it absolutely right… and I mean he died in his dressing room, on the job really… Yes, he was just very conscientious… Funny man, but it was a bit hard to take sometimes… being so serious.”
You also worked on the 1965 Roman Polanski masterpiece ‘Repulsion’, what was that experience like?
“Well, it was an experience because [at that time] no one had heard of Roman Polanski, I couldn’t believe it when they told me his name because I thought ‘Nobodies called that!’ And he couldn’t speak English, he spoke polish and very good French fortunately because Catherine Deneuve was in it and she couldn’t speak English either… She learned her lines frenetically, so there was this little pause after I’d finished saying something, as if to say “Have you finished now? Is it my turn to speak?” It was an extraordinary experience because no one had heard of Polanski and didn’t know what he was going on to be and do… I didn’t think much about it while I was doing it, but years later it’s become a classic!”
And Gorillas in the mist (1988)?
“Oh that was only because my husband was doing the sound on it… My husband did Out of Africa and won an Oscar for that… and then of course he was in demand for all these other films made in Africa! [Laughs] So I used to go with him and I went out to Ruanda for Gorillas in the mist, and you know, it’s an awfully long day hanging about getting sunburnt and things, so I said to the producer if there was anything I could do just let me know, so there was this tiny… well one line really… part in this scene with Sigourney Weaver and the Gorilla and this character, Van Vecten wanted to take two baby gorillas back to his zoo in Belgium and she didn’t want to let them go, so there was this great row and Mme. Van Vecten tried to calm it down by saying “Claude, Claude” and shouting and they asked if I would like to do it and I said “Yes”, I’d be delighted to do It. Then the producer came and said “I feel awful Helen because I have to ring your agent to get your fee” and I told him I don’t want any fee, but what I do want is a credit… And there it is… You sit there for twenty minutes watching all these credits go and there at the very end Madam Van Vecten… Helen Fraser…”
And did you actually see any Gorillas
“Well no, because they were endangered… I mean I went out with tonsillitis and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near them! An, I can tell you the truth now because it’s so long ago, the gorillas weren’t even allowed to be filmed! That’s how protected they were, so when you saw Sigourney Weaver with a gorilla in her arms it was actually a chimpanzee with a mask on…”
Really?! Oh my gosh!
“Yes, that particular scene when the VanVectens are coming very close to her and she’s clutching this baby gorilla, but he has got a mask on…”
We laughed, that was crazy! I made a mental note to re watch the film as soon as I could! 
Suddenly the Tannoy screeched into action once again... This time announcing that the train would be another 10 minutes... Now normally this would be bad... But it just meant that Helen and I had more time to chat... 
So would I be!!
So now… We have to talk out Sylvia Hollomby!
“Oh yes we do!”
So how did the lovely Barbara become ‘BodyBag’?
“OOOh, she never answered to that! She never answered to ‘Bodybag’ she was always say “And it’s Mrs Hollumby to you!” Which became my catchphrase really… You know there would be workers up on a roof somewhere and they would shout “Eeer BodyBag!” And I would call back “It’s mrs Hollumby to you!” And they would laugh!”
So what research did you have to do to get into the part? Did you visit any prisons or consult any Prison gaurds?
“It was based on Holloway, but we weren’t allowed into there as they are rather ashamed of Holloway then… So we went to Winchester prison, and when we first started it was very serious, and we had proper prison officers on the set telling me how to manhandle the prisoners, or how to lock a cell, or how to do things properly… but gradually it became such a sort of "send up" of prisons and as time went on they didn’t bother whether it was correct or not… and that’s how Sylvia became more and more outrageous – When she started she was really pretty fierce, but then it became very comic as it went on and they latched on the fact that the public loved her and liked to laugh at her!”
And what was the reaction from real prisoners or guards?
“Well the inmates used to send me fan letters, they love me! They said I wish you were in charge of our prisons! And apparently I was doing everything right! It’s a quite and interesting job, but it was Monday to Friday and the set was the biggest in Europe, it was very lifelike, the cells locked and the gates clanged and if we had a storyline that was quite upsetting, like a suicide, I was jolly glad to get home on a Friday night I have to say! Some of it was very realistic…”
Harsh reality!
“Yes, yes…” And then there was the musical!
“Yes, yes… You know that was the last box to be ticked in my ambition, because I’d always wanted to do a West End musical… and because I’d been in stage school I was the only one from the television show in the musical… And it really needed me for publicity, there was this 10ft picture of me outside the Garrick theatre. But it didn’t last because once all the groupies had been and it was just left to the tourists and they couldn’t understand what on earth it was all about!" “Ooh and you know… I don’t know who Vera Bennet is!”
Ha! She was the Australian version of you! In Cell Block H… Weren’t you ever tempted to watch it??? Weren’t you ever intrigued?
“No, because everyone said don’t watch it because it was such a poor version of ours – the set used to rattle and it was more of a "send up" prison and I think they thought out was a more serious version.”
So, back to you, who would you have loved to have work with?
“Oh well I would have loved to have worked with Sir Lawrence Olivier! I was in his first national theatre company and he was my idol because I’d seen him as Heathcliff and he was gorgeous! He was an extraordinary man because you know, he ran this theatre company but he didn’t know any of our names! We were all called baby! He used to get round it by saying “Hello baby how are you?” But he was a wonderful actor as well … A classic actor and I wouldn’t have minded working with Robert Redford really!!"
Well, who wouldn’t?! So, did you always want to be an actress.
“Oh no, I wanted to be a ballerina, but I went to stage school when I was 9, I had a very ambitious mother and she sent me away to stage school and I can’t do anything else.”
And lastly tell me about your one woman show that you were touring with this year?
“Well after my husband died I moved to a little town in Suffolk, and the gentry came
to see me to ask if I would do a fund raiser in the town hall, so I rustled together a show about my life and it made £1200! And I thought, I don’t think I can waste this somehow! So I worked on it a bit and I that was what I was focused on this year, mostly around East Anglia and one show in London. People are just fascinated about how did it all start and what was he [her husband] like? And because my husband was an Oscar winner, we suddenly went into a very glamorous life and that’s another side of my story as well, so there was plenty to talk about. But the tour is finished now, my book is next!”
There certainly was, and I could have talked for hours if it hadn't been for the high pitched peep and the chug chug of the train as it pulled into the station... Helen got up and picked up her bag, she looked down at me... But I didn't move, all my anxieties had returned... all the thoughts that swam round my head had resurfaced... was I ready to go? Was I?..............
For information on Helen, visit her official website www.helenfraser.co.uk – Helen’s IMDBhttp://www.imdb.com/name/nm0359542/ - Peter Handford’s IMDB http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Fraser