confessions of the biker from hell
Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh

We meet Trooper Swallow himself - the priceless Nicky Henson

As long ago as 1976, Nicky Henson claimed in Films and Filming to have made more bad films than any other actor of his generation. Among those films, however, are three Horror pictures, one of which (Psychomania) has attained cult status while another (Vampira) maybe deserves to. And the third, Witchfinder General, recently made the BBC’s list of the 100 best British pictures ever made
A Shivers interview by Jonathan Rigby

selected from Shivers #66

To the discerning eye, Nicky is now one of the deftest comic actors on the British stage, which is hardly surprising given the fact that his father was the famous rubber-faced comedian Leslie Henson, who died in 1957.

Through “my old mate” Ian Ogilvy, Nicky met the brilliant young director Michael Reeves, who in September 1967 would start work on Witchfinder General in East Anglia. “Looking at pictures of Mike now, I’d forgotten how good-looking he was. But to us, he was a real nerd; we just thought he was the world’s most unattractive geezer and we all used to feel sorry for him.

"What he did have, though, was an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies, and when he walked on the set he was a completely different man. He knew exactly what he was doing and he was a wonderful referee: he’d listen to ideas from everybody. On Witchfinder, we all knew we were onto something special; it was one of those real old hard-bitten English units, but they all knew.

“When Mike used to do scary things in his movies,” Nicky continues, “he would put in things that scared him. For instance, he couldn’t stand people’s faces being covered in anything. So when Victor Henry as Ian’s erstwhile friend in The Sorcerers gets beaten up, he also gets covered in oil. Mike was Sam Peckinpah before Sam Peckinpah really. I remember on Witchfinder he used to walk about with a viewfinder and a blood squirter; he’d just come up and squirt it over you. He had it with him all the time to avoid constantly giving orders to the costume people. He’d also come at you with scissors and cut your clothes so that there were proper bullet holes in them.

After Witchfinder, Nicky became a founder member of the Young Vic but still managed to make several films, though the lead in the Confessions films was one career opportunity he passed up. In the last months of 1971, however, found himself in something called The Frog, which subsequently became The Living Dead and was finally released under the perplexing title Psychomania. This project appealed to Nicky’s longstanding love of motorbikes; indeed, his first ever film role, in 1963, was as ‘Motorcyclist’ in the Stanley Baxter vehicle Father Came Too.

“That film Psychomania has haunted me ever since,” he laughs. “I swear that every time I do something really good in the theatre somebody at the BBC sticks it on deliberately. ‘Oh, he’s playing Vershinin at the Royal Court with all the Cusacks is he? Put Psychomania on.’ I accepted the script because it plopped through my letter box and the first thing I read was, ‘Eight Harley Davidsons crest the brow of a hill.’ So I said to my agent, ‘I’ll do it!’ I get on the set and there’s all these 350 AJSes and BSAs. I said, ‘Where’s the Harley Davidsons?’ ‘Harley Davidsons?’ they said. ‘We can’t afford them!’

"We had five mechanics working round the clock on that picture because the bikes kept breaking down the whole time. It was a very tight budget and a very short shoot. I remember saying to the producer, ‘How the hell did you get the money to make this piece of shit?’ And he said, ‘I actually wrote it, you know – under a pseudonym!’ And then he said, ‘To be honest, I’ve got a lot of much better films in mind but I went to my backers and said ‘Motorcycle gang commit suicide then come back from the dead’ and they all opened up their cheque books and gave me the money.’

“Of course, now it’s become known as this great Horror-comedy,” Nicky points out. “But we made it dead straight – it wasn’t supposed to be funny – and maybe that’s why it works..."

Read the full interview with Nicky Henson in Shivers #66

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