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

No comments:

Post a Comment