Simon Furness – On Ian Hendry + Acting: An Appreciation Of A Character Actor

A few days ago, I reached out to Simon Furness and asked him if he’d like to contribute an article for this website. Simon is an actor, director and teacher with over 30 years of experience in the profession. He’s also a huge admirer of Ian’s work. And I’m very pleased to be able to report that he agreed.

A few days later, I received his draft in my inbox. A wonderful, thoughtful piece on Ian Hendry, acting and the character actor. You can read it in full below.

But first, I’d like to set the stage.

Simon had commented on a piece that I had written and curated about Ian’s last ever acting role as ‘Davey Jones’ in Brookside [1984]. The original episodes had been found, but I must admit that it was with some trepidation that I shared a compilation of them on the website. In publishing this material, I really wasn’t sure what the response would be like or what comparisons might be made to Ian’s younger self.

Ian had always stressed the importance of being vulnerable. I think he saw it as a way of revealing hidden layers of a character and developing a deeper emotional connection with the audience. But that vulnerability wasn’t just restricted to his professional life. It was very much part of his own personal make-up too.

Picture: Ian Hendry as ‘Davey Jones’ in Brookside[1984]. His last role as an actor.

In Brookside, Ian was perhaps more vulnerable than ever. He was recovering from a throat operation which, at times, made it difficult for him to deliver his lines and he was clearly not in the best of shape, Regardless, he still managed to produce a brave and mighty performance. Despite his challenges, fellow cast and crew members recalled how positive and life-affirming Ian had been during his time in Liverpool.

The comments that people shared when they saw this compilation video were life-affirming too. For they expressed humanity, understanding and kindness. And for that I thank you.

Simon’s comment is a great example of this, full of warmth for Ian’s performance:

I was really pleased to see this at last. Ian was a great character actor and there are really far too few of them around these days. I think people would be nervous of real talent like Ian Hendry’s. He doesn’t miss a beat, simple, truthful and a great listener on camera. He puts me in mind here of Wilfrid Lawson, another British character actor and also sadly an alcoholic. It’s such a terrible disease. Thanks so much for posting.

This was the perspective of another actor who clearly understood Ian and appreciated his work. I was keen to know more and I am very glad to say that Simon agreed to expand further.

So with the stage now set, I’ll leave it to him to share his thoughts on Ian Hendry and the world of acting and the character actor.

It’s my very great pleasure to welcome Simon to the Official Tribute To Ian Hendry.


On Ian Hendry + Acting: An Appreciation Of A Character Actor

By Simon Furness

I was looking over some clips of Ian’s film and television performances recently. I’m an actor and teach acting and whenever I feel a bit disheartened by my own progress or lack of it or the multiple iniquities of the acting profession, I come back to his work. It restores my faith.

Once again, I was struck by the breadth and depth of his portrayals. His mimetic and vocal precision enabled him to play, always authentically, a whole host of characters across what was in the 50s and 60s a very clearly defined class system. Class hasn’t really gone away but money and technology have erased the boundaries that were very clear in 1950s Britain when Ian came of age as an actor.

It would be rare today to see a screen or stage actor revealing such variety as Ian Hendry did over a career spanning several decades. There are one or two who stand alongside him, including Judi Dench who noted that even at drama school Ian was in a class of his own as an actor.

Picture: Ian Hendry and Bernard Cribbens – Reluctant Heroes, Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch [1955]

Like so many of his generation, his talents were honed in British regional repertory theatre, a world that’s largely vanished. Even when I got started in the late 80s, it had all but disappeared, though regional theatres still mounted what are called ‘straight’ plays. Indeed the prospect of even seeking work at all in the theatre bemuses many of my students. It’s easy to forget that in this world of streaming and downloading, theatre was until the late 50s and early 60s, the dominant form of entertainment for many. Many of the finest actors have paid their dues there and Ian was no exception.

Picture: Ian Hendry and Yvonne Furneaux – Repulsion [1965]

There seemed to be a brief moment when Ian seemed destined for film stardom as a leading man – a prospect which diminished as the 60s wore on but perhaps we should be grateful as this sequence of events allowed him to turn in some remarkable character studies: crooks, frauds, secret servicemen, brutal militarists and implacable detectives, to cite only a few. Often his performances, even in small roles occupying a few scenes, make the entire film watchable as in ‘The Bitch’ or enhance a work of genius like ‘Repulsion’.

Ian would be regarded today as he was then, as a character actor, a somewhat misused even overused term. It’s often the label slapped on an actor who’s survived into old age – but still playing essentially a version of their younger selves.

For me, character acting is the icing on the cake. The tragedy is that so few actors now are permitted to exercise their abilities to alter themselves vocally or physically to create the illusion of character. Instead, many of my students – if they work at all commercially – are asked to play versions of themselves which are readily accessible. As Sanford Meisner put it, ‘The tragedy of the modern actor is that so little is asked of him’.

Ian was a genuine character actor though. He could always get behind a character’s point of view with empathy honesty and human understanding. He was also able to make the requisite alterations to voice and body to complete the scale of the illusion. His portrayal of a camp hairdresser in the television drama Dial M for Murder is a great example of this.

Picture: Ian Hendry, The Hill [1965]

In the wartime drama The Hill, a film I saw first with my father, himself a soldier, I was struck by how skilfully he denied the camera his eyes in a chilling portrayal of psychotic sadism. Never bettered in my view and worth any amount of overblown Hollywood theatrics.

Another indication of Ian’s subtle accuracy is apparent in his flippant joviality as the conniving salesman in Live Now Pay Later – in many ways a more sombre and bleaker study of the perils of deception and materialism than Alfie, with which it’s often compared.

I’ve no doubt that Ian’s spell in the theatre, including his circus ring apprenticeship as a fall guy to a clown, helped him in these rich creations. His timing, diction and delivery were always impeccable and even when he was playing broad farce comedy as in the episode as a Russian agent in the Dick Emery show or a baffled policeman opposite Tommy Cooper, his performances always had the ring of truth. So few actors today can play effectively in more than one genre. The unerring accuracy of register and tone never left him, even in his final poignant and haunting performance on Brookside as Davy Jones. Like all his work, his portrayal of the weedling old sailor was founded in reality and a generous empathy, putting me in mind of a character in a play by Gorky or Chekhov.

I doubt I shall look upon Ian’s like as an actor again but thanks to Gabriel Hershman’s fine biography and the collection of scenes on the excellent Ian Hendry website there’s still much to savour.

Simon Furness


Simon Furness – Short Biography

Simon Furness has been an actor since 1989. He trained at Exeter College, Oxford (1985-88), Guildford School of Acting (1989); Mime Centre London (1992); London School of Musical Theatre (1993); London Group Theatre (1994-97) and the Actors’ Temple (2003-present). He studied with Tom Radcliffe and Martin Barter, direct students of master actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner.

Simon has worked widely in the theatre and on film, recently appearing as Seth, a businessman facing a takeover bid, in the feature thriller ‘Clay’s Redemption’, directed by Carlos Boellinger for Tin Cowboys Films. He was cast as Chris, a drunken businessman in ‘At Your Fingertips’, a short thriller directed by Thanos Pantsos for Met Films.

He began his teaching/coaching career in 1999 in Milan, Italy, where he successfully ran his own acting studio and summer courses, as well as teaching for the Limelight Theatre Company.

Since April 2003, he has been an integral member of the teaching staff at the Actors’ Temple a training and production company with an approach to acting founded in the principles of the work of legendary actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner, founder member of the Group Theatre of New York.

‘The Stage’ said of the Actors Temple:

‘In less than a decade, the Actors’ Temple has earned an enviable reputation as a place where students are free to be themselves.’

Simon has coached a number of actors who have subsequently gone on to work in film, television and theatre, including Harry Potter, Peaky Blinders, Emmerdale, East Enders, Holby City, Mr Selfridge and many more.

Further Resources:

Simon Furness – Spotlight Link
Simon Furness – Showreel
Simon Furness – IMDb
Simon Furness – Website
Simon on Twitter
Simon on Instagram
Actors’ Temple – Website

Equity Membership No: M00130420
Agent: Union Management
Tel: 07752-727624

I’d like to thank Simon for sharing his thoughts on Ian and for highlighting some of the challenges of the profession. Away from the bright lights and any perceived ‘glamour,’ it’s a tough industry in which to work and survive. Ian knew that all too well.

In his biography, Gabriel Hershman noted the many times that Ian helped, encouraged and supported his fellow actors and aspiring students. And I’m sure that he would not only have been touched to read that he had been an inspiration to Simon but he would also have been the first to wish him all the very best, not only in his work as an actor and in his teaching – but in his life too.

Until next time,

Neil Hendry
Editor, Official Tribute To Ian Hendry

Further Reading

A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography:

Read:‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

Send In The Clowns - The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry

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