The Rebel Series 2 interview: Simon Callow

We caught up with the legendary stage and screen actor to get the low down on Series 2 of The Rebel.

Simon Callow interview

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've 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 and Margaret matters a great deal to him.

How does his relationship with his daughter Cath progress in this series?

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 are very similar in certain ways. They're both very stubborn and determined and quite intolerant of what doesn't conform to their philosophy.

Is there any hint of romance between Henry and Margaret?

Margaret is someone Henry might have been drawn to in another life. Like Henry, she has had a bohemian life. In the first series, there was the suggestion that something might happen between them, but it never did. He still finds her a remarkable woman, though. She has an extremely canny brain and is very exotic. There are hints about Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon in her past.

What makes Henry angry this time around?

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. He believes that all of them exist merely to exploit the rest of us. They're not there to help us, but to rip us off. And being Henry, he expresses himself quite forcefully about this.

Why do you think audiences identify with Henry?

They 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 brings out the audience's inner rebel perhaps...?

Henry's behaviour really does touch a nerve. 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."

Beyond the impulsive, irritable side of Henry, do you think audiences connect with something deeper in him?

Henry is a wonderfully rich character, somewhat like Falstaff or a German mischief-maker or Punch. 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 angry at the world?

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.

Did Henry's former job also influence his behaviour in retirement?

Yes. He was a quantity surveyor for over 40 years. He held down a difficult job which involves talking to a lot of 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.

Could Henry possibly be 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 have you found it working with Bill and Anita?

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 [laughs]. 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 Pyjama 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.

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 sort of things set off your inner rebel?

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!

Is Henry Palmer someone you admire?

Absolutely! When I grow up, I want to be like Henry!