July 27 2005 UPDATE! Henry doesn't have a computer, so Laurie sent him a printout of this page and a copy of Archaeology, and here's what we got back!!

Arthur Sultan is alive and well and has left Bognor for Saskatchewan. We spoke with Henry Woolf on the phone on May 26, 2005. He was warm and witty and we had a ball talking to him. Because we think it's more honest and fun this way, here's the entire conversation!

 

H: Hello?

B: Hello Henry?

H: Yes.

B: Hi this is Bonnie.

H: Yes hello Bonnie.

B: Yes are you ready?

H: I am.

B: Okay great. I’ve got Laurie here too. She’s my partner in the website.

L: Hello!

H: Hello, hello Laurie. Now this isn’t going out live anywhere is it?

B: No, no, no. I’m recording it. But I’m going to transcribe it and just put it up on the website in text.

H: Oh, okay my dear. And how long are we going to be talking for?

L: As long or as little as you’d like.

H: Okay. Okay my dear. Fire away.

L: First thing I would like to know is where you were born and how you started getting into acting.

H: So is this… is this interview about me?

L: Well, we do want to hear about Rutland Weekend, but we’d like to hear some about you as well if that’s all right.

H: Yeah, of course it’s all right. I was born in London in 1930 and I started acting in America actually. I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. And I was supposed to be writing a history thesis. But actually someone offered me a part in a play. I was writing a very boring history thesis that would absolutely stupefy you if I told you the title. The title is actually The Influence Of The American Civil War on Cotton Imports to the Blackburn area of Lancashire if you can believe it. How ‘bout that, eh?

B: No one had studied that before. There was a hole to be filled.

H: Ha ha! A big hole and I was jumping right in it. But anyway, someone offered me a part in a play called Dial M for Murder. And I played the inspector, and suddenly I realized that life on the stage was life to the power of 26. It was much more exciting than ordinary life because all the boring bits are left out. Lining up at the checkout, you know. And going to the bank and cleaning one’s teeth and polishing one’s shoes; you didn’t have to do that on stage. The boring bits were left out. And it was a heightened wonderful immortal form of life because you couldn’t die unless you were killed in the play, and the phone couldn’t ring and no one could bother you and you could just enjoy yourself. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. For about 50 years. And so I was very, very lucky in that way. In 1957 I directed Harold Pinter’s first play. The first production of it. The Room. I don’t know if you know about Harold Pinter. Maybe you don’t.

L: We’ve heard about him.

H: Good old girls. I didn’t mean to insult your scholarship. Ha ha! So that’s how it happened. That’s how I started. And then I got um, I got into Rutland Weekend Television with Eric Idle who was the most generous of men. Because I’m a bit of a playwright and he used to come to my plays and say lovely things about them. But uh, I was in Rutland Weekend with him and of course the Rutles, you know, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful movie. I’m sure you’ll agree. And I did think he and Neil Innes and the people around him were straight out of the English absurdist surrealist tradition of comedy. Goes all the way back, you know, well at least as far back as Alice In Wonderland. And way before that. You know this surreal humor, which actually you’ve got in the states in… I’ll tell you what absolutely typified that sort of humor was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. Do you remember that? You wouldn’t. You’re too young.

L: No, we remember that. We’re not that young, honey.

H: Ha ha ha! And a marvelous movie which is a long time ago with Martha Raye called Hell’s A-Poppin. That was also surrealist and humor is surrealist. You know, it takes life and stands it on its end. And what Rutland Weekend had was a marvelous lack of reverence or respect for the establishment. And the Rutles too. So they had these marvelous chaps who were really in the fantasy tradition of humor. And there’s a show that there’s no reason you would have heard of… radio is great for surrealism, you know. For absurdism. Because you can do so much so quickly. There was a show called It’s That Man Again that actually kept British morale up during the war. I think that’s why we won the war, with the enormous help of the Americans I hasten to add. Without the Americans, democracy would not be flourishing to this day and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So we owe everything to the Americans. I well remember eating powdered eggs. Thousands of tons of powdered eggs were sent to the Brits, and every once in a while a marvelous parcel of Hershey chocley bars, chocolate bars would arrive and they’d been sent across the Atlantic by the Americans who – I’m not saying this to please you – are easily the most generous people in the world. So as chocolate was terribly rationed, we each had two ounces to last a week and no ice cream. This is all during the war. It was great to get these Hershey bars from time to time.

B: Well you’re welcome.

H: Ha ha ha! I just wanted to say thank you.

B: On behalf of my grandparents you’re welcome.

H: Ha ha! That’s right. You’ve got the age bracket exactly right.

B: You were in a show before Rutland Weekend. What was it called Laurie?

L: Commander Badman.

H: Um, well, I was. I don’t remember much about that. But I was in so many shows you see, that it’s only the outstanding ones like Rutland Weekend and, and the Rutles that I really remember on television. I had an amazing amount of stage acting, you see. I used to be… you know, I played in more attics and basements than you’ve had hot dinners. I was always in attics and basements and doing world premieres. One in 1960, long before your mummies were born, I was in a play, an absurdist play. They always put me in absurdist plays. I wonder why that is. I wonder what it is about me. Because I’ve been in an absurdist play called Rhinoceros with Laurence Olivier and directed by your very own Orson Welles. And dear old Orson put me in his stage version of Henry IV part 1&2 by Shakespeare. Um, he was playing Falstaff and I went everywhere with him. And I had a lovely time with Orson. He’s the only real genius I’ve ever worked with. You understand I’ve never worked with either of you.

B: Well he was very surrealistic. There was a lot of controversy over whether he knew damn well that War of the Worlds was going to cause what it caused.

H: Oh yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t much missed him. He was a great genius, and he was a marvelous actor. He really was. He just was a marvelous actor, and he was terrific fun to be directed by. And I reached up to his kneecap. I’m not… I’m rather vertically challenged actually, in fact extremely vertically challenged and I think I reached up to just about his kneecap. He was lovely to me actually. And he was the one who put me in Rhinoceros just after Chimes At Midnight, which they later made into a movie and you wouldn’t believe this but his daughter played my part. How about that?

L: That’s a stretch.

H: Ha ha ha! So I did all kinds… I did millions and millions of plays and thousands and thousands of you know, television. I had my own… I presented my own children’s program called Words and Pictures for about three years, but you don’t want to hear about that.

L: Of course we do! We want to hear about all of it. Anything you’d like to talk about.

B: I don’t know if you realize Henry that you’ve got a little cult following. There are a lot of people who just love Rutland Weekend who think, including us, that you are just the funniest thing on it.

H: Oh, come on. You’re such nice girls I’ll buy you the largest whiskey money can buy. But I actually, you, met my… absurdism and lunacy have followed me all my life. I actually met my wife on Broadway in a play called Marat/Sade. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. Directed by Peter Brook. And this is oh, a long time ago in nineteen ba ba ba ba, 63, 64, 65 maybe. And I met my wife in that. We’ve been married for 40 years now. And on Broadway. I always loved – I’m not saying this to be nice – New York is the funnest place to be in the world, you know. And I was last there just before in a Pinter festival at the Lincoln Center, just before the 9/11 actually. In fact I went up the twin towers just about 3 weeks before they got smashed. And then I was at the Old National after that in a Pinter play, you know in London. So I’m not totally stuck in Canada although I love it here. It’s a lovely place Canada, you know.

B: What made you go to Saskatchewan?

H: Saskatoon. Well I was invited to teach at the university here. And I ended up – you won’t believe this; you’ll have to suppress your giggles – I ended up as the head of department. So an absurdist head of department who likes playing lunatics.

B: You won an award.

H: I won, yeah they gave me the Master…

L: The Master Teacher Award.

H: They did, and they made me… hey this is awful self promotion. They gave me a doctor of laws honorary degree. I thought that was very nice of them, eh? ‘Cause I can do joined up writing, you see. That’s what it is. That’s a wonderful line I think from Eric Idle. I think it was in Rutland. He’s talking about a general. And he says, “He’s extremely intelligent. He can do joined up writing.” Ha ha ha! But I have a huge affection for Eric, and I’ve lost touch with him now, but I’m delighted that his musical is doing so well on Broadway. That’s lovely. And I think – I don’t know what you think – I think the performances in the Rutles are just marvelous.

L: It’s fantastic. It really is.

H: And I love that song about you need feet to put your socks on. And I need feet to run away from you. That sort of thing. I love that song. And there’s all these shots of feet everywhere. In fact I wrote… when I saw that again I wrote a poem about feet and they’ve got it up in the local shoe shop. After all, it’s quite right; you do need feet to put your socks on, don’t you?

B: Do you have any memories that stand out from either Rutles or Rutland Weekend that you can just gab about?

H: Yeah, well I’ll tell you what was very nice, you see, dear old… when we were doing the Rutles I was playing as you know the Maharishi of Bognor. You know, the chap in a rain coat and a flat cap and a pair of sandals. And they just let us improvise it. “Come on,” they said, “Henry you just say what comes in your head.” And at the very end as I was delivering some particularly holy mantra about, you may have beds of nails in India, but we have cold hot water bottles in Bognor to strengthen the spirit. I suddenly, having delivered this holy advice, I suddenly lunged at one of the four young ladies who was listening. In a very unholy way. But they thought that was alright so they kept that in. And Rutland was terrific. I wish Rutland had had a wider follow, a wider showing.

L: We’re trying.

H: Are you really trying?

B: Every time we see Eric Idle we ask him why he doesn’t release it on DVD and he just sloughs it off like, oh, that was like a bad marriage. I don’t think about it anymore.

H: Oh that’s a shame. Do you see Eric a bit then?

B: We see him when Neil does things, because we hang out with Neil and Eric is there. We’ve never hung out with him, just kind of stood there and talked to him a bit.

H: Well I didn’t know Neil very well although I worked with him but I did like him. I thought he was amazingly talented. Extraordinarily funny and a brilliant musician. But you know all that. You know all that. I think he’s a lovely fellow. Is he doing well?

B: He’s doing very well. He’s still married to Yvonne.

H: Really?

B: Yeah, they’ve been married 39 years.

H: Unbelievable. That’s just marvelous. Have they got any children?

B: Yeah they’ve got three and they just got two grandchildren too.

H: Unbelievable. So have I. I’ve just got two grandchildren. And someone… my… I’ve got two daughters and two sons and one of my daughters lives in France and she’s called the little bloke Henry.

(phone goes wonky)

H: Hello?

B: What’s going on?

H: I don’t know. Some noise. From outer space.

B: They’re listening.

H: Give Neil my very best. He won’t remember me but give him my very best. And Eric too if you see him. Tell him I’m so delighted about the success of his musical. Is Neil in it?

B: No.

H: But tell me something just indiscreetly, they’re still great friends aren’t they?

L: No.

H: I’m really sorry because they were so, you know, close and so sort of fed off of each other in humor.

B: Did they? I always pictured Eric just wrote alone and brought in the scripts and you just performed it.

H: I think that is generally true. But I felt of all the people that were on the show, you know, David Battley, myself, that excellent girl who plays the Nazi...

B: Gwen Taylor.

H: What’s her name?

B: Gwen Taylor.

H: One of the most talented women I’ve ever bloody worked with.

L: Yeah, she’s great.

H: Are you in touch with her?

L: We’re trying.

H: Well if you ever are in touch with her, say Henry Woolf sends his best and his admiration. I still think she’s just a marvelous review artist. You know, sketch. And David Battley. But of all the people on the show, it was Neil that Eric was closest to. Because they’re the same generation. They’ve got the same sense of humor. Now where can I see your website?

B: I was told by the theater that you don’t have a computer.

H: I don’t, but I’ve got learned modern friends and children.

L: I was gonna say, someone you must know has one, right?

H: That’s right. So if you give me a… yeah, somewhere in the Western world there must be a computer. But tell me your website number if you don’t mind.

B: It’s neilinnes.org.

H: Neilinnes.org.

B: And that’s it.

H: That’s it. That’s great. So listen, do give dear old Neil my very, very best. I’m trying to think of things that are amazingly relevant, extraordinarily appropos and funny at the same time. As a result my brain has become a blancmange. Just you know, a blancmange with a lot of sour cream in the middle and a (?)

L: Delicious.

B: But we can tell you one of our favorite things that you ever did was the little man from the off license.

H: Oh, ha ha, you really know that series! That’s so nice of you. But you know what I used to enjoy doing enormously, I did a Dr. Who once, and I was called The Collector. I put the heroine in a steamer and was generally a nasty little so and so. And I ended up disappearing down a plug whole somewhere. But I loved it because I had an electric runabout chair I can run about in. And I told the BBC, I had to have lots of rehearsal time for it. So I spent the morning scooting about this rehearsal area in my electric chair. That was fun. And I clear out with my bald head all over the place. You know, I had a bald wig on. That’s neither here nor there. I’m very, very touched that you even know of my existence.

L: Oh my gosh, you’re revered in many circles. Don’t worry.

H: Well I’m still wanted by the police in many countries.

L: We’re not talking. Don’t worry.

B: And we have to ask you about, even though this doesn’t have anything to do with Neil, Laurie and I when we were 14 years old met through Rocky Horror. So we have to ask you about that.

H: Oh! Well I’m going to tell you a story about Rocky Horror that isn’t generally known. Before I… I enjoyed doing that, you see. But just before I came to Canada, the day before, I did a day’s filming with the Sex Pistols. Do you remember Sid Vicious?

L: Absolutely.

H: And they were real gentlemen. The were lovely, actually. They kept us waiting for 12 hours which cost a lot of money for all the people there, the extras and everything, and then they arrived. Extremely courteous. They went to the Winnebago to shoot up and then they came out. And they were but really gents and I’m very, very sorry for what happened you know and all that went on. But on the… this is where it comes up to Rocky Horror. On that movie, was what was the leading extra in England. A great big fella. And I said, “Hello, I haven’t seen you since the Rocky Horror.” He said, “No, I’ve only just come back to work.” I said, “Why? What’s the matter?” He said, “Well, you know that gigantic sort of Gugenheim cheesecake they had that we all stood around and Meatloaf rode around on the, on his Harley. Do you remember that?

L: Yes.

H: A giant kind of cheesecake really or something. Well, this extra told me that Meatloaf was roaring round this and during a take, and his Harley came off about 15 feet up in the air. And old Meatloaf would have been severely injured I think if he’d hit the ground. This extra stepped forward, took the full weight of Meatloaf and the Harley. His ankle snapped, and he sort of lowered Meatloaf and the bike to the floor, and he wasn’t injured. You know, he could have been very badly hurt, what with the bike falling on him and everything else. But so I said to the extra, was Michael White the producer and everybody amazingly grateful to you because you just saved the movie? I said, did they shower you with gifts, presents, and extra money? He said no. I said did they visit you in hospital? He said no. I said did they sent you grapes or flowers or a few extra quid? He said no. So I always tell that story because I think it’s a story of base ingratitude. You know. What about that story, eh? And I’ll tell you who’s a lovely bloke though is Tim Curry. He’s a lovely bloke. Meatloaf was very nice. And the actors were terrific. You know, lovely. I had a lovely time in Rocky Horror actually. We used to… when we were shooting the wedding scene right at the beginning, I had a Volkswagen camper. And it was a freezing bloody day, although it’s supposed to be spring. And we used to nip into the camper, the whole lot of us, and drink brandy. That’s what we did for that wedding. That’s why it’s got such vivacity. You know, and Patti Quinn, you know Magenta is a great friend of mine. Great friend of me and my wife’s. We’ve been in all kinds of plays together. Patti Quinn. She’s great. But of course now she’s Lady Stevens because she married the actor Robert Stevens who got knighted. So now she’s got a – I shouldn’t be saying any of this – but she’s a lovely girl. But she’s a Lady now. Lady Stevens. So I’m really delighted for her.

B: Was the Time Warp scene filmed in a sound stage or in that house?

H: It was filmed in a great big, the great big… we rehearsed in that sort of mansion place. You know, ruined kind of mansion. And it was shot in there. It wasn’t a sound stage. So you two met by going to Rocky Horror?

L: Yeah.

H: Did you dress up?

L: Yes!

H: I’ll bet you looked great. What did you dress up as?

B: I was Magenta.

L: And I was mostly Transylvanians and I did Columbia a couple times.

B: This was like 1978.

H: Oh, that’s wonderful. I bet you were both terrific.

L: Yeah, we rocked.

B: We were good.

H: Of course you were.

B: And the friends we made then are still our friends now 25 years later.

H: Oh, isn’t that… that’s remarkable and marvelous. Do you spend… none of my business but you can’t possibly keep alive by making websites. You’re probably independently wealthy.

L: Oh, yeah!

H: Three Mercedes Benzes waiting outside.

L: And he’s funny too! No, dear, we’re both quite poor.

H: It’s none of my business. Listen, you know the best people in the world are not necessarily affluent. It’s their virtue that keeps them going or something like that.

B: Particularly in America they’re not so virtuous.

H: No… oh boy. Oh boy.

B: Well half of us are.

H: I prefer not to comment. Ha ha ha! I can tell… it’s pure thoughts and deep breathing that have kept me going all these years. But listen, have I said anything that’s of any interest?

L: Are you kidding? All of it.

B: So why did you move to… oh, you already told us that.

H: Yeah, because they invited me to teach here and all that. And that was fun. I had great fun teaching. You have to retire in Canada when you’re 67. I had to retire but I run a Shakespeare company here. You know, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. We did summers in a great big tent here. And it’s still going on but I retired after ten years. You know, that’s enough for me but I still rush about in all directions. I’ve just been in a movie, the Tommy Douglas Story. Tommy Douglas is a Saskatchewan hero. He introduced Medicare to Canada. He became Saskatchewan’s prime minister and we just made it… I just did a few days on that movie. And I’m going up to the Yukon next week. I’m going up to the Yukon to do a Pinter play called Monologue. The Yukon’s great. And I’m doing a… I shouldn’t say this, it’s all about me. I had a little book of poems published.

L: You did?

H: I did a couple a weeks ago… a few months ago actually.

L: Where can we get it?

H: I’ll send you a copy.

L: Oh aren’t you sweet?

H: Yeah, if you tell me uh… but I mean they’re not… I don’t, you’ll probably hate them…

L: You’re supposed to say we’ll probably love them.

H: Oh, you’re too kind. But where should I send them?

L: Me!

H: I know that but I need an address.

L: You can’t just magically send them.

H: Is that Bonnie with a Y or an IE?

B: Oh, it’s Laurie you’re going to send it to.

H: Oh I beg your pardon.

L: That’s okay (gives address)

H: Listen. Thank you for that. Don’t feel any hesitation to throwing the book into the garbage.

L: Oh, goodness no.

H: It’s just a little book, and I’ll just… you know. I’ll send you a copy and you’ll think, my god, I can do better than that.

L: You know what I’m going to do for you? When you send me that, if you put your return address on there, I will send you Archaeology.

H: Love it! Hey, that’s more than kind. Are you sure?

L: Absolutely.

H: Hey, you’re more than kind.

B: We can also print out the interview and send it to you in printed form.

H: I’d love it. Absolutely love it. And listen girls, has this been of any use?

B: Oh absolutely!

L: This is fabulous.

H: Oh, you’re kind.

L: We’re thrilled.

H: Well bless your heart, and listen, give my very best to Neil, will you?

B: Okay.

H: And to Eric if you see him.

L: Okay.

H: Bless your hearts.

B: Well thank you so much!

H: Ha ha, thank you! Lovely talking to you.

L: Have a wonderful day.

H: Bless your heart.

L: Thanks sweetie.

H: Bye Bye.


 

 

 

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