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An Interview with Tony Hendra (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/12/01


An interview with Tony Hendra. He discusses: geographic, cultural, and linguistic background of family; self-definition as a satirist, actor, and writer; Cambridge University Footlights Revue; work with Spitting Image; previous interview with Paul Krassner and reflection on Lenny Bruce; and advancement of free speech in ideas in comedy as well as in popular culture.

Keywords: Actor, Satirist, Tony Hendra, Writer.

An Interview with Tony Hendra: Actor, Satirist, and Writer (Part One)[1],[2]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, &bibliography & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*

1. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?

As you can tell from my rather rusty British accent, my providence is the British Isles. My heritage is Celtic. My mother’s maiden name was McGovern. Even though, she pretended she was Scottish. She was from County Latham. My family name is from Cornwall. We’re basically Celtic as a family. I spent the rest of my life in the not terribly remunerative career of satire.

So, that is the other thing that shaped my general outlook on things.

2. You self-define as a satirist, and actor and writer.

I am not an actor. I act when I am asked to act. I was lucky enough to be in one fairly famous movie. That is not my métier. I always wanted to be a writer. I never really wrote in any substantial way, except little skits for a comedy team I was a part of. Until, I arrived for National Lampoon and started to write what I wanted to write.

So, that is part of it, but the other part of it worth thinking about. It is not as true in America as in England, at least in the time I grew up – being Irish meant that you were very much an outsider. It is partly the anti-Catholicism of the English. This is ingrained anti-Catholicism. It is also just the odium that the British have for people they enslaved for 800 years, which seems to me what happens to people that enslave other people.

They hate the people they enslave. It is interesting. That definitely shaped my growing up. I was an outsider at school, mainly because I was Catholic, but I was an outsider to a sufficient extent that when, for example, in England they have this awful system of prefects and captains, and so forth, who are allowed to discipline the other boys.

It is usually at boys’ schools. I was told by my head master in no uncertain terms that I could not be head of school, even though I had a scholarship to Cambridge and belonged to many teams. All of the right things. I could not be head of school because I was a papist. He took great delight in using the word papist.

It gives you a real snapshot of the background that I have.

3. You were part of the Cambridge University Footlights Revue in 1962.

I was, indeed. I joined a couple years before that after seeing a magnificent revue called Beyond the Fringe, which was immensely influential in terms of British comedy and, probably, in terms of British writing too because it dared to open doors nobody dared to open before.

I was at Footlights. During the time that I was there, and immediately before I was there, two of the members had been on the fringe, who were Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller. Miller later became a distinguished director. David Frost preceded all of us. David Frost was in London at this point.

In my own year, I had John Cleese and Graham Chapman of Monty Python. They were two prominent members. That is who I grew up with.

4. When you came into television, more prominently with Spitting Image, when you are having that writing experience, how do you think that set you up for later work?

Spitting Image was more like the middle of my career. I am so ancient.



It was a unique show. It used puppet sized puppets made of foam. The puppets were representations of public figures. It was in the mid-80s, when we developed the show. We had caricatures of everybody from Maggie Thatcher to Ronald Reagan to whoever was the leader of Russia at the time.

There were several in a row. All kinds of celebrities in every walk of life including the Pope, etc. We made the puppets do outrageous things. It was the type of writing that no one had done before because only television made this possible. Only puppets could do a lot of the things that an actor could not have done. It was a marvelous vehicle for satire.

Unfortunately, I never succeeded in getting to export it to the States, but it was an enormous hit in England and ran for about 10 years.

5. In a previous interview with Paul Krassner, we talked about his being a child prodigy for violin. At one point, Lenny Bruce approached him. He said Krassner should do comedy. He took the advice.



After listening to him play the violin?



He was standing on one leg telling jokes, playing the violin, I think. Something like that. Who were some individuals that set you on a course for writing, comedy, satire, and so on?

There were several. The most important and earliest I had was a show in England. A radio show called Goon Show. The Goon Show was three guys: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers. It was where Peter Sellers got his start. It was an extraordinary Dadaist approach to radio in which complete non sequiturs and insane scenes would be conjured up by sound effects and the magic of radio.

It was immensely popular in England around the turn of the 50s. Its high point was probably 52, 53, and 54, when I was growing up. I was an impressionable young man. That comedy had a strong strain, even though it was a few years after World War II. They had a strong strain of anti-militarism. It was making fun of the military. It was probably because they had all fought in the war.

One sketch, I remember vividly, is a character named Major Bloodnok was an extremely pompous, jingoistic soldier. He was barking commands and constantly horning at everything. Major Bloodnok had this wonderful plan of constructing a cardboard replica of England and floating it into the English Channel to fool English bombers.

They would play it out. You would hear rustling of cardboard. They would float the replica down the English Channel and then bomb it. You would have wet cardboard floating. That sort of humor, which was very satirical in its thrust, was also very wild and surrealist.

I loved that as with most of my generation, I think. Other influences were rather odder. My mentor, as a young adolescent, was a Benedictine monk. I wrote a book called Father Joe. A wonderful, funny and contemplative monk on the Isle of Wight in England. In rather odd circumstances, I came under his tutelage.

He was wonderfully funny too. He was wonderfully irreverent. I found, even though I loved his spirituality most of all, his irreverence very shocking at the outset. Later, I realized it was very spiritual in its own way. In that, he was always testing his own faith and the faith of others.

As he would say, “The beginning and end of faith is doubt. Not certainty. Those who have certainty are usually very dangerous.” That was an important influence. Many years later after I became a satirist. He asked me to explain satire in a modern context. I tried to explain it. It wasn’t easy.

He said something fascinating at the end of it. He said, “Tony dear, what I think a contemplative monk does and a satirist does are very much the same thing. We see the evil in the world around us and we go about trying to do something about it.”

When you dig down into it, it is an interesting insight into why satirists do what they do, and why some satirists are quite religious. As I was, or as Evelyn Waugh was, it is a sense that the moral universe is askew. You don’t have that sense. Unless, you have some deep sense of what is and isn’t moral.

So for that, Joe was an influence on all parts of my life, including wanting to become a writer.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Actor, Satirist, and Writer

[2] St. Albans School; Cambridge University.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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