My irascible character goes beyond Victor Meldrew | Simon Callow on the return of The Rebel © UKTV

My irascible character goes beyond Victor Meldrew

Simon Callow on the return of The Rebel

As The Rebel returns to Gold, the sitcom’s star Simon Callow what makes his character – and himself – so angry and passionate.

 How has Henry developed since the first series of The Rebel? 

 We’ve taken it a stage further. In the first series, we focused more on Henry’s single-mindedness and aggression, but this time we have shown there is more to him. We can now see that he is very passionate and addicted to sensual pleasures. And we also understand more that his friendship with Charles (Bill Paterson) and Margaret (Anita Dobson) matters a great deal to him. 

At heart Henry is a good man, but he’s so intolerant of superficial irritants. So his poor daughter gets a lot of stick from Henry. In this series, we see that he and Cath (Anna Crilly) are very similar in certain ways. They’re both very stubborn and determined and quite intolerant of what doesn’t conform to their philosophy. 

What makes Henry angry in this season? 

The idea of ‘safe spaces" is not one that appeals to Henry. He believes passionately in just coming out with it. If you’re angry or fancy someone, just let it out. You don’t have to second-guess Henry’s feelings in any way. 

And  banks! In this series, Cath is in debt,so Henry tries to raise the money for her. But he runs up against a number of institutions – banks, estate agents – who just won’t give him any money. 

Audiences connect with his anger at petty bureaucracy. He hates two things: to be confined in any way and to be told "no". There is nothing worse than that for him. 

In one episode, he ends up in hospital, and he loathes it. Everything in hospital is governed by regulations. You’re infantilised and put into weird baby garments for no reason that anyone can work out. Everyone can relate to his fury. I certainly can!

It goes beyond Victor Meldrew, who speaks for conservative Middle England. Henry surpasses that and thinks there’s always been a vast conspiracy to stop people expressing themselves freely. He sees himself as a free man and says to anyone who’ll listen: ‘I’ll not be told what to do. I won’t be forced into a mould.’

 Henry is a wonderfully rich character, somewhat like Falstaff or a German mischief-maker or Punch. He is someone who upends the grocer’s cart and ties the cow’s legs together. 

Henry is very naughty, and when he has nothing to do, he gets up to mischief. When Henry’s hands are idle, the devil makes work for them. He can be quite devilish, but underneath there is a tenderness and a dreaminess about him. It’s marvellous to be able to create a character like this. 

He is potentially a character like Steptoe or Hancock - complicated, irascible, romantic, aggressive and contradictory. He’s a character to whom you can relate. Sitcom is one of the most immediately attractive ways of telling stories about our lives. Characters like Alf Garnett become archetypes without becoming stereotypes. I would certainly love to do more episodes as Henry.

What do you think has made him so irascible?

His relationship with his parents. I think he had a very weak father and a very indulgent mother. His mother just approved of him all the time, while his father would make a feeble stand against Henry’s waywardness. He had no parameters. No one told him what to do and what not to do. 

Also,  he was a quantity surveyor for over 40 years. He held down a difficult job which involves talking to other people. He had to conform to the straight and narrow. So now he’s letting himself loose. He’s off the leash now! He’s always asserting himself, and underneath that is the anger of someone who feels he’s lived the wrong life. 

But  at the heart of it is his relationship with his deceased wife. She was everything to him, and her death is powering his anger. He now has no one to play with in the way that he did with her. 

Is Henry a role model for older people? 

Yes. He’s raging against the dying of the light. All around, his friends are dropping dead. When you reach his age, you’re viewed in a very different way by society. But he is prepared to lock horns with anyone who thinks he’s old! 

How similar are you to Henry? 

He’s got opinions about everything and he enjoys creative conflicts – almost to excess. I’m guilty of that, too. 

Henry also romanticises his past. He looks back on the golden days when he was taking on the world. I share some of that. When I started out, the point of acting was to change the world, but unfortunately we didn’t! The world changed us. In the same way, the world has changed Henry, and he is furious about that. 

What gets up your nose? 

A particular thing that enrages me is when people feign concern. If I knocked my hand against a table, in the past people would ask, 'You OK?’ When that happens now, people appear to be on the verge of calling a paramedic! Nothing has happened. Their reaction is completely phoney! 

What is the most Henry-esque thing you have ever done? 

 I once had my tonsils out at the Wanstead General Hospital. The only operation I could get was on Christmas Eve. So I was there on Christmas Day eating disgusting hospital food. I simply couldn’t endure it, so I just got up and left. I went home, had a delicious supper with a great deal of wine and smoked 20 cigarettes. Very Henry! 

How have you found it working with Bill Paterson  and Anita Dobson? 

They’re intolerable! I can’t believe they lasted to the second series. I request their dismissal on a daily basis - it can’t be hard to recast them.

No, of course, I love working with both of them. Bill and I have known each other for a very long time. He’s a very old friend and a wonderful actor. I directed Anita in The Pajama Game many years ago. She is brilliant and always spot on. She’s extraordinarily focused, fantastically sharp, utterly attractive and gracious. It’s a fantastic joy to be around them both. 

• The Rebel returns to Gold at 10pm on Wednesday November 8. Read an inteview with writer and creator Andrew Birch here.

Published: 25 Oct 2017

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