Friday, 10 January 2014

Old Woolhat Is Back

I spent far too much time - and far to much money - over the Christmas and New Year period looking for more crap to confound you with. Whilst perusing eBay I was lucky enough to find, and purchase, a copy of a 45 I have been after for years - the very one I present for you today.

Born is Aston, Birmingham in 1947, Paul Henry went to school with Jeff Lynne, who would of course go on to form the Electric Light Orchestra with Roy Wood. He trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and went on to spend eight years at the Birmingham Rep before, in 1975, joining the cast of TV soap Crossroads, playing the role of the simple-minded handyman Benny Hawkins until 1988.

It’s true to say that Benny wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer: under his soft wooly hat lurked a soft, wooly brain. As the Birmingham Mail once put it our Benny was ‘slightly smarter than a plank, though not quite as bright as plankton’. But the character soon became one of the most popular in Crossroads, and Henry’s turn as Hawkins provided plenty of material for TV impressionists. No wonder then that, in 1977, he was dragged into the studio by Simon May to produce this monstrosity. May had long been associated with Crossroads, penning hits for several of the show’s stars and storylines, including Born With a Smile on My Face for Stephanie de Sykes (used within a storyline on the show), More Than in Love for Paul McCartney’s cousin Kate Robbins and The Summer of My Life, a Number Seven hit for May in late 1976 and which originally appeared in Crossroads. He would later have chart success from his involvement with BBC shows Howard’s Way and EastEnders. 

Benny’s Theme is a seriously peculiar record: ominous and orchestral, with Paul reciting the lyrics as if they were a Shakespearian soliloquy. The lyrics reflect Benny’s lack of luck in the love stakes, and the music at times hits a John Miles/Jeff Wayne vibe: the song was recorded in the same year as Wayne’s version of War of the Worlds but issued before that particular bombastic nightmare. The B-side, an instrumental version, is credited to Paul Henry and the Mayson Glen Orchestra; I believe that Mayson Glen is a pseudonym for Simon May himself.

The disc peaked at number 39 in the UK Hit Parade in January 1978. Crossroads co-star Kathy Staff recorded her own tribute to the wooly-hatted handyman, Benny, but that failed to chart. A second single, Waiting at the Crossroads, (issued in a black and white picture sleeve featuring Henry as the hapless Hawkins), also bombed.

Benny was a hard act to follow. “I ended up playing the sort of popular character who got trapped in the public imagination,’’ he told a reporter from the Birmingham Mail. “That’s certainly what the Benny character was.

“People ended up expecting me always to be Benny. I had to try to break away from that if I wanted a career beyond Crossroads.” Although he struggled for many years to leave behind the bumbling bumpkin he’s still acting: in 2010 he toured the UK in a play based on comedian Tony Hancock’s famous Face to Face interview.



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