Cult Movie: The late Nicky Henson offered much more than just light-hearted comic turns

Nicky Henson as gang leader Tom in 1970s cult classic Psychomania
Ralph McLean

Nicky Henson

WHEN the actor Nicky Henson passed away this week at the age of 74 after a two decade grapple with cancer, the world of cult TV and film lost a very familiar and much loved face.

Most obits for the London-born Thespian zoomed in on his solitary appearance in Fawlty Towers in 1979 where he played the character of Mr Johnson in an episode called The Psychiatrist. In some ways that's understandable. His role as an apparent lothario with shirt unbuttoned to the waist and Basil's wife Sybil hanging on his every word was a masterpiece in beautifully judged comic acting.

Watching John Cleese as the manic hotel owner Basil Fawlty who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that Henson's character has a woman in his room is pure 70s sitcom gold, but focussing in on just one single performance, no matter how effective, from the man's multi-faceted career does him a serious disservice.

Henson was an affable all-round actor capable of delivering both groundbreaking theatrical performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre and easy-going humorous turns in classic sitcoms. He was first diagnosed with cancer on Christmas Day almost 20 years ago but his dedication to his art meant that he kept on working right up until last year.

More recent television appearances included parts in EastEnders and Downton Abbey, but for the purposes of this column we remember his raft of remarkable roles in some of the most beloved cult offerings of the post-war era.

He graced the 1968 folk horror masterpiece Witchfinder General as a friend of both the film's star Ian Ogilvy and its troubled director, Michael Reeves, a film that even today stands proud as one of the most visceral tales of terror ever committed to celluloid.

His good looks and easy going on screen charm ensured he added a light-handed touch to such swinging London nonsense as There's A Girl In My Soup with Peter Sellers and The Jokers, Michael Winner's hugely undervalued comic caper from 1967 with Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed.

Best of all though, and the reason he will forever be enshrined in cult heaven, is the fact he gave us Psychomania in 1973, a film usually referred to as "a British zombie biker flick" as if such a genre actually exists. It's awful and wonderful in equal measure.

Directed by Don Sharp it tells the unlikely tale of a bunch of gormless English bike riding hoodlums called The Living Dead who make a pact with the devil that apparently allows them to kill themselves and return from the grave unharmed, free to wreak havoc in the sleepy main streets of suburban Britain.

Henson plays the feeble gang's leather-clad leader Tom and he smirks and dances his way through the onscreen madness while swopping ludicrous lines with the likes of Beryl Reid and a particularly depressed looking George Sanders.

Mad and marvellous, it's the perfect way to remember a fine actor who was just happy to make people smile.

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