Though perhaps best known to today’s viewers as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass in the ITV drama, Heartbeat, actor and comedian Bill Maynard has a long list of theatre, TV and film appearances to his name. The release of a number of his series on DVD seemed to be the perfect excuse for a chat with the man who has specialised in loveable rogues and larger-than-life characters.
“I did a Greek anti-war play called Stand Up and Retreat Onwards about 40 years ago during the Edinburgh Festival. On opening night there were two men at the door in black suits from the Greek Embassy, I think because it was written by a dissident. They were about the only audience we had.”
I’m talking to veteran actor Bill Maynard over the phone from Edinburgh as he recalls one of his many appearances on stage in the Scottish Capital, part a of a career which stretches back to the mid-1930s and his time touring men’s working clubs in his native Midlands.
Bill’s on good form. After enquiring how he’s keeping – “It’s best not to ask. When you get to my age you’re just happy to get up in the morning,” – I ask how he got into the profession.
“I started at the age of eight as a turn in the clubs, and the day after my first performance I was carted off to a sanitorium with scarlet fever. Whilst I was there my dad brought me a ukulele which I learned to play. When I came out about four months later, leaving the ukulele behind because it was contaminated, I was ready to be released on the unsuspecting British public.
“By the time I was nine I was doing nine entirely different acts, including being in drag singing a song called I’m Knitting a Singlet for Cecil then doing a routine about my boyfriend. I also did an act with a guitar playing cowboy songs and one as a soldier, plus one about a QC with a few jokes about judges.
“We didn’t have to be PC back then, so one was about a cross-eyed judge who has three defendants in front of him. He says to the first one “What’s your name?” and the second one says, “Smith.” Judge says, “I wasn’t talking to you,” and the third one says, “I haven’t opened my mouth yet.” Then he has two in front of him and he says to the first, “Where do you live?” and he says “No fixed abode, Your Honour.” He says to the second one, “What about you?” and he says, “In the flat above him.”
“My first series was in 1955, when I did Great Scott! It’s Maynard with Terry Scott, similar to The Two Ronnies, and then in 1957 I decided I wanted to be a film star – and still do! – and realised I needed to learn to act. I didn’t know you didn’t have to. After a number of years in the theatre, I did my first TV drama as the lead in Dennis Potter’s Paper Roses, then six months later I did Kisses at Fifty at the BBC which won a BAFTA.”
So is it fair to say that most of his work has been in the theatre? “Well, quite a bit has been the theatre, but there’s been a mixture of music hall, TV and around 35 films, most of them forgettable. I try to do as much as possible and bring in to the characters things I’ve learnt.
“For example, when I did Davies in The Caretaker, he wore an army greatcoat and when I went into Heartbeat they wanted me to wear a long black Crombie overcoat. I said it was too sombre and, remembering The Caretaker, I said get him an army greatcoat, because in many ways Davies was like Greengrass, an old rogue and a con merchant.”
I note that for much of the 1970s he was best known as a regular in British sitcoms.
“If producers know they can rely on you then they’ll ask you back and if you’re spending money you can’t take chances. With dramas you don’t need much expertise: a gentlemen much greater than me once said all you have to do is learn the lines and try not trip over the furniture.”
One of Bill’s biggest hits was The Gaffer, which ran from 1981 until 1983. Was it an enjoyable series to make? “Oh yes, I mean it was shot in front of a live audience every week, and to do a sitcom is really hard work, not like doing a drama which are the easiest things to do in the world. To do comedy is fifty times harder than any drama, you’ve got to be a specialist to do comedy but not drama. Anyone can do drama but not everyone can do comedy.”
Bill starred alongside Callan’s Russell Hunter in The Gaffer. “Russell was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and became a very good friend. The last time I saw Russell he was in pantomime in Perth, and I went to see him. The one thing I remember about Russell is that he had the greatest collection of whiskies of any man I know.”
Bill was also known to younger audiences as Sergeant Beetroot in Worzel Gummidge, a show he remembers with fondness. “That was great fun to make, the only problem was having to get made up. Jon Pertwee would be in the make-up chair for two hours every morning before he could even speak, and I had to have purple make-up and green leaves stuck on me.”
Worzel also occasionally featured appearance from Barbara Windsor, while Bill also starred in some of the Carry On films. What were the Carry On team like on set? “Barbara’s a love. Sid James used to love playing poker, so whenever we had a break we’d sit down and have a poker school, but it was great fun. If you got it wrong you could do it 20 times till you got it right, not like a sitcom when you have to do it all in one night in about 50 minutes.”
The main reason for our chat is the release on DVD of Heartbeat, which recently ended its run on ITV1 after an impressive 18 years. Bill was one of the original cast members, the unforgettable rogue, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass.
“Stuart Doughty, the first producer of Heartbeat, phoned me up to say he was doing this drama which he didn’t think was going to go anywhere, but that there this character called Greengrass and if I could go in and do something with him there may be a spin-off.
“He dangled that in front of me and I was given carte blanche to do what I liked. It was so simple: I had no responsibility and all the joy. It was a fabulous time. Unfortunately Stuart left before it was shown and it was screened at the terrible time of 9.30 on a Friday. They were shocked when it went in at number seven in the charts and we were number four the following week. They had a hit on their hands.”
I suggest that it was a clever concoction, a police procedural and medical drama wrapped in the nostalgia of the 1960s.
“It was really three things: a drama, a soap and a sitcom,” corrects Bill. “Put the three together and you have a hit. When Greengrass left it lost its humour, there was nobody to put it in. Whereas I was a comic, the people who replaced Greengrass were actors and they’re probably not able to change things to make them funny. I would change complete scenes if they didn’t make sense and nobody else had the arrogance and knowledge to do that.”
What about modern TV, does he enjoy it? “I love watching drama on television,” says Bill. “My real beef is that they’ve cancelled The Bill, which I thought was one of the greatest things on television, so beautifully made and shot, the camera work was sensational on that programme. I could have played a dead body easily on that, I don’t sneeze much.
“Comedy-wise, I absolutely love the newer comedians such as Rhod Gilbert and Stewart Lee, they’re brilliant. They don’t do 10 minutes like we used to, they do an hour or more. Billy Connolly is another one, and when he was in Mrs Brown he was brilliant, it must have been so easy for him – he only had to play a Scotsman, which he does quite well!”
Before he goes, I ask Bill for more memories of his time on the Edinburgh stage. “In 1969 I played Archie Rice in The Entertainer at The Lyceum and I was almost suicidal. It brought back so many memories of the death of variety it made me feel very depressed because I remembered the time when theatre died.
“Another time we had to kip down in a snooker room. We had nothing to eat, and my son sent me a 10 shilling note so I went to buy some cabbage leaves and some mince and we had a stew which we cooked in the kitchens.”
Would he return as Greengrass if ITV asked him? “Of course, as long as there wasn’t too much running about. At one stage Greengrass became a horse trainer because a friend of his died, and I’d have loved for that to have continued, with all the dodgy bits about horseracing that I know about, to my cost.
“I’d do it as long as I’m sitting down – I could just stay in the pub.”
Edit on Sunday 3 October: I should have added this clip yesterday but it somehow slipped my mind: enjoy Bill singing about being a Pheasant Pluckers son: