A conversation with the star of the classic British exploitation movie
From its first dreamy frames, as a gang of leather clad, skull faced bikers poured into black leather come charging over a mist drenched hill in slow motion, to its final surreal wind down, with men, women and motorcycles morphing into massive tombstones, to all its cheeky, wonderfully lunatic mayhem in the middle, cinema history has never, ever seen the likes of a picture quite like Don Sharp’s unapologetically mental PSYCHOMANIA.
Released in 1971 (in some markets on a double bill with the equally nuts WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS) and made to crassly ride the coattails of EASY RIDER, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with perhaps a dash of ROSEMARY’S BABY added for supernatural spice, PSYCHOMANIA (filmed as THE LIVING DEAD and also known as THE DEATH WHEELERS) is an artifact of post-mod, British kitsch, admired with irony and worshiped by millions, perhaps thousands, even dozens of cult movie fans around the globe.
The film charts the misadventures of cocky, lithe London based bike gang leader Tom Latham (WITCHFINDER GENERAL’s Nicky Henson), whose devotion to his gang of miscreant riders known as ‘The Living Dead’ is matched only by his interest in black magic, not to mention his love for his mystical mother (Beryl Reid). When his shady butler Shadwell ( a slumming George Sanders) turns him on to the secret of eternal life through suicide, Tom leads his followers into an outrageous ( and unintentionally hilarious) orgy of self sacrifice and night riding living death. Meanwhile, composer John Cameron’s ear shredding psych-rock score buzzes away in the background…
And though he would evolve into one of Britain’s premier theatre and television stars, the wonderful Nicky Henson (who indeed, as the devil-may-care Tom, owns every frame he’s in) still holds the experience of making this demented gem close to his former-frog worshiping heart.
I rescued Henson from his stone monolith prison to blaze the trails of his memory about those glory days of British B movie bliss…
ALEXANDER: So, you know that in some circles, PSYCHOMANIA is considered the epitome of cool…
HENSON: Cool? (laughs) I can’t believe that, I don’t think it was ever cool! But I’m astonished at its popularity, really. It’s just bizarre that I now get invites to go to universities and talk to their film societies about it.
ALEXANDER: Well it was written by two ex-patriot Communist sympathizers. And if you really dig, there IS subtext there…
HENSON: There is? Well, I guess you can make anything mean anything, can’t you!
ALEXANDER: You’ve had such a long and varied career on stage and screen, but can you recall the time when the script for PSYCHOMANIA ended up in your hands?
HENSON: Yes, I remember distinctly. I was in the theatre, I have always been at the theatre, that’s me, that is where I live. But at the time, I was at new theatre called The Young Vic, run by Frank Dunlop, who was my mentor. It was a theatre for 15 – 25 year olds, for a young theatrically virgin audience, to show them the classics. The money was low – only 35 pounds a week – but it was a great experience. Now in England at the time, we still had the B movie industry and the unions would allow you to be in a play in the evening and you could do films in the day time, until 5:30pm. So this script comes through the letterbox one day from my agent and I since I was always a motorcyclist…
ALEXANDER: In your first film, you played a biker…
HENSON: Yes, I did! It was called FATHER CAME TOO, you’re right. So, this script comes by and it opens with the line “Eight chop hog Harley Davidson’s crest about a hill…” and I said, ‘hey I’ll do the fucker!’ without even reading it. Then I get on set and they weren’t Harley’s at all but rather they were these terrible Norton’s that were 20 years old at the time. They had four mechanics working full time on set just to keep these things going and that was the biggest expense in the movie, believe it or not.
ALEXANDER: Did you do your own stunts?
HENSON: I did, yes. All but three. You know, in America a professional stuntman can specialize; one makes a living falling off horses, another flips cars, others fall off houses. But English stuntmen at the time had to do it all. My guy – and God, I don’t even know if he’s still alive – was a bloke named Cliff Diggins and for those three stunts for me, he ended up in the hospital every time. I always knew Cliff was doing a stunt when I heard the ambulance wailing…
ALEXANDER: Was one of those stunts the scene where Tom goes through the wall?
HENSON: Yes, and again he ended up in hospital after that. The first one he did was the bridge, where I fly off and kill myself, that was him and he managed to hit the water before the bike did and the bike landed on top of him. The second was the wall. It was a polystyrene wall which was painted, and when he went through it was like a Warner Bros. cartoon in that the bike went through but he stayed the same side!
ALEXANDER: One of the great eccentric touches in the picture is the very odd, unhealthy relationship between Tom and his mother, played by the great Beryl Reid…
HENSON: I knew Beryl from before, in the theatre, and she was lovely. They were originally going to cast another American actress but she turned it down at the last minute, so Beryl was having a quiet time and she did it. And of course , there was George Sanders…
ALEXANDER: Yes, whatever was he thinking doing this grotty little film?
HENSON: Exactly. That’s what he was thinking, I’m sure. They shot all his scenes in 10 days to save money because he was making so much, more than any of us. In order to save 15 bob or something, the production gave Beryl and I chairs that didn’t have our names on them so when George arrived two weeks into production, there were these two famous prop men at Shepperton Studios named Jack and Bobby who were so ashamed that they brought a chair out onto the set with his name printed on the back in ball point pen. And poor George , the story goes, eventually saw a answer print of the film and went back to his hotel in Madrid and killed himself.
ALEXANDER: He did kill himself and there was that very sad, despondent suicide note. Do remember Sanders as being morose on set?
HENSON: No, not at all, we laughed and laughed and laughed. There are even moments in the film that are meant to be serious where you can see the corners of his mouth start to twitch because he couldn’t contain his laughter.
ALEXANDER: Tom is such a charming character and its clear at all times that you’re having a good time…hard to take such a cheeky lad seriously as a villain.
HENSON: Yes, I know, I know. Incidentally, all the gear I wore in the film was mine, the leather pants and jacket. I used to arrive in work in them actually.
ALEXANDER: Do you still ride?
HENSON: No I stopped riding at 40. I had a big smash and burned myself very badly and so my kids said no more dad, sorry.
ALEXANDER: Those bad-ass helmets have become iconic. Did you get to keep one?
HENSON: No, no, none of us kept them. They had to hang on to them for re-shoots, I believe. It’s too bad because maybe they’d be worth money now…
ALEXANDER: In some circles, yes, they would be. Everyone loves the scene when that beautiful folk song ‘Riding Free’ is played with you about to be buried while mounted on your bike. Was that you in that shallow grave or a dummy?
HENSON: That’s me! Had to sit there while this guy is singing this stupid fucking song and throwing flowers at me and keep a straight face. Ridiculous!
ALEXANDER: What are your memories of Don Sharp?
HENSON: Don was a man under a huge amount of pressure. He had just done the second unit on PUPPET ON A CHAIN, doing boat stunts in Amsterdam so he chosen because he knew how to film these stunts. There was no budget, it was a short shoot and it was terrible with these bikes breaking down and all these young kids who we could never find were always sneaking off, having smokes in the bushes and playing this card game we always played, which actually makes it into the picture in the scene when we’re in jail, he could never finds us. He was very patient, because we were a nightmare.
ALEXANDER: Genre fans also remember you for your part in an equally celebrated , but for very different reasons, film: WITCHFINDER GENERAL. And like Sanders, director Michael Reeves took his own life not long after that film…
HENSON: God yes, it was a great loss, and Michael was a great friend. It was a great loss to cinema and a great loss to us – me and my best friend (and WITCHFINDER co-star) Ian Ogilvy, who used to make movies with Micahel when they were kids. We would have all been movies stars if he lived. He was supposed to do BLOODY MAMA for Roger Corman and we would have been in it. WITCHFINDER was important, we knew it was important when we made it. It’s the only British Western, really.
ALEXANDER: And Vincent Price was magnificent…
HENSON: Yes, Michael never wanted Vincent, he wanted Donald Pleasence and Vincent had heard this and it bothered him to no end. At the time he was one of the foremost art lecturers and collectors, acting was just his hobby. They would fight endlessly. Michael would say “Vincent do nothing, do nothing, stop acting!” and Vincent would retort “ This is my 94th picture and you’re doing the wrong way, how many pictures have you made young man!” and to that Michael said “three good ones, Vincent.” Vincent walked off the set and never said goodbye. Three months later he saw an answer print and wrote to Michael and said” my god I’m sorry, this is the best acting I’ve ever done.”. When Michael died Vincent paid his own way to come to London to tell that story at a tribute festival.
ALEXANDER: You’ve had a very fruitful, interesting career as an actor, Nicky.
HENSON: Yes, I’ve been very, very lucky. And lucky that it didn’t all end with PSYCHOMANIA!