Cinematic heroes 5: Brian Glover

 

(c) Universal

 

The Wikipedia entry about Brian Glover begins with a quote from the great man that served both as a mission statement and as a career summary: “You play to your strengths in this game.  My strength is as a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.”  For a quarter-century, Glover played characters that were shiny of pate, pugnacious of visage and flat of vowels in many a British movie, TV show and stage play.  In the process he made himself one of the most recognisable character actors in the country.

 

Born in Sheffield, brought up in Barnsley, the young Glover followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional wrestler and used ‘the Red Devil’ as his ring name.  Whilst attending the University of Sheffield, Glover found wrestling a useful way of funding his studies and he fought bouts under the moniker of ‘Leon Aris, the man from Paris’.  Glover was a good-enough wrestler to appear on television, during those Saturday-teatime wrestling slots shown on ITV’s World of Sport that 40 years ago turned such bruisers as Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Jim Brakes and Big Daddy into legends among impressionable kids like myself.  He continued wrestling long after graduating and after settling into a respectable day job, which was teaching English and French at Barnsley Grammar School.  One of Glover’s colleagues there was Barry Hines, who’d written the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which in 1968 was filmed as Kes by the incomparable Ken Loach.

 

Loach needed someone to play the puffed-up, preposterous and unwittingly loutish Mr Sugden, the PE teacher at the school attended by Kes’s young hero, Billy Casper; and Hines suggested Glover.  For his audition, and to test Glover’s believability as a teacher, Loach staged a playground brawl and got Glover to break it up – which obviously wasn’t difficult for him, being a teacher already and a wrestler.  Glover’s turn as Sugden, who organises a football match with his pupils, insists on taking part himself, and then fouls and flattens the kids while dashing at the goal and mouthing an imaginary commentary – he likens himself to “the fair-haired, slightly-balding Bobby Charlton” – provides a bleak film with its one shaft of comic sunshine.  (The 1998 Loach movie My Name is Joe, which has its own amusing footballing sequences, indicates that the beautiful game is the one thing guaranteed to make the famously anti-establishment director lighten up.  Small wonder that when he finally got around to directing a comedy, it was 2009’s Waiting for Eric with Eric Cantona.)

 

 

Glover spent another two years teaching before his next acting assignment, which was a role in the Terence Rattigan play Bequest to the Nation.  Thereafter, he swiftly became ubiquitous.  On television he appeared in Coronation Street, Dixon of Dock Green, The Sweeny, The Regiment, Quiller, Minder, Last of the Summer Wine, Bottom and Doctor Who – in that last show he got gunned down by a Cyberman.  He gave particularly memorable performances in two 1970s shows scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who at the time wrote virtually the only British TV sitcoms set outside London and the middle-class Home Counties.  In a famous 1973 episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads he plays the devious Flint, who makes a bet with Geordie heroes Bob and Terry that they can’t get through the day in Newcastle-upon-Tyne without hearing the score of an important football match.  A year later, Glover joined the cast of Clement and La Frenais’ revered prison sitcom Porridge, playing the hapless, slow-witted convict Cyril Hislop, whose key line was: “I read a book once.  Green, it was.”

 

When not playing convicts, crooks and thugs, Glover could leaven his northern tones with a twinkling gentleness, which made him popular among advertisers.  As a result, when his face wasn’t popping up on TV shows, his voice was popping up on commercials between those shows.  Most notably, he voiced the TV advertisements for Allinson’s bread – “Bread with nowt taken out” – and for Tetley teabags.  In the latter ad, he played the leader of the Tetley Tea-Folk, an animated tribe of diminutive, white-coated and cloth-capped characters dedicated to giving each teabag its ‘2000 perforations’.

 

Meanwhile, during the 1970s, Glover became a regular in British movies – including Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 oddball epic O Lucky Man!, Michael Crichton’s 1979 period adventure The First Great Train Robbery and Terry Gilliam’s 1978 medieval comedy Jabberwocky, in which he played the foreman of an ironworks that’s reduced to chaos when Michael Palin blunders into it.  In Douglas Hickox’s 1975 London-set thriller Brannigan, he was a minor villain who got roughed up by John Wayne.  Brannigan features Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters; and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

(c) United Artists

 

In 1981, John Landis made his much-loved horror-comedy-romance-tragedy An American Werewolf in London, the opening scenes of which, set in a northern pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, called for a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.  Obviously, there was only one man for the job.  Landis duly cast Glover and the resulting scene, wherein he entertains the Lamb’s patrons with his ‘Remember the Alamo!’ joke, is, along with Kes, his finest cinematic moment – both films show what a fine comic actor he was.  (Unfortunately, the jovial mood in the pub is then ruined when David Naughton and Griffin Dunn inquire about the strange five-pointed star painted on the wall.)  Three years later, Glover turned up in another classic werewolf movie, playing a villager in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic short story, The Company of Wolves – he gets into a brawl with the previous subject of this Cinematic Heroes series, David Warner.

 

Glover had another monster, a slimy one rather than a hairy one, to deal with in 1992’s Alien 3, wherein he played the warden in charge of the stormy prison-planet where Sigourney Weaver crash-lands (unwittingly bringing with her a cargo of egg-laying alien face-huggers).  Directed by a young David Fincher, Alien 3 is a much-maligned film.  It can’t help but seem anti-climactic after the previous film in the Alien series, James Cameron’s barnstorming Aliens in 1986, and the fact that it begins by killing off most of the characters left alive at the end of Aliens didn’t endear it to long-term fans.  It’s got some wonderfully grungy set design, though, and there’s something heroic about the film’s uncompromising and un-Hollywood-like pessimism.  Even Weaver herself gets it at the end.  One of Alien 3’s biggest problems is that, due to incompetent scripting and editing, most of its interesting characters – Glover, Charles Dance, Paul McGann – vanish from the story halfway through.  (For British audiences, Glover brought a little too much baggage to his role in Alien 3.  When I saw the film in an Essex cinema, there were guffaws during a scene where Weaver confronts Glover in his office and the Voice of the Tetley Tea-Folk absent-mindedly dunks a teabag into a cup of boiling water.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Glover must have got on well with Sigourney Weaver, for he subsequently turned up in 1997’s Snow White: a Tale of Terror, in which Weaver played the evil queen.  Another late role was in the endearingly off-the-wall 1993 comedy Leon the Pig Farmer, in which a young Jewish Londoner, played by Mark Frankel, discovers that he’s the result of an artificial-insemination mix-up and his father is actually a Yorkshire pig farmer – inevitably a bald-headed, rough-looking one played by Glover.  What makes Leon, which also starred Fawlty Towers’ Connie Booth and former Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, a little melancholy to watch now is the knowledge that lead actor Frankel died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years later.

 

Glover’s stage CV was as busy as his film and TV ones.  He appeared with the Royal Shakespearean Company in productions of As You Like It (playing, appropriately, Charles the Wrestler) and Romeo and Juliet, while other theatre work included Don Quixote, The Iceman Cometh, The Long Voyage Home, The Mysteries and Saint Joan.  Lindsay Anderson, a stage director as well as a film one, cast him in productions of the David Storey plays The Changing Room and Life Class and Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.  Such was Glover’s fame by the time he appeared in a West End version of The Canterbury Tales that it was advertised with a slightly amended version of one of his catch-phrases: “Chaucer with nowt taken out.”

 

It’s often overlooked that Glover was a literary figure as well.  He was a prolific playwright and writer, responsible for over 20 plays and short films, and he also penned a column in a Yorkshire newspaper.  Asked to contribute a script to a 1976 TV drama anthology called Plays for Britain (which also featured writing by Stephen Poliakoff and Roger McGough), Glover found himself short of inspiration, so he paid a visit to a police station and inquired if they’d experienced anything unusual lately that he might be able to use as an idea.  While he was at the station, a woman trooped in to the front desk to report indignantly that someone had pinched her front door – and suddenly, Glover had his story.

 

Meanwhile, I remember seeing Glover on a TV arts programme, discussing – with Anthony Burgess, no less – Paul Theroux’s acerbic 1983 travel book about the British coastline, The Kingdom by the Sea.  Glover, who during his wrestling days had toured many of the towns Theroux wrote about, took particular exception to Theroux’s abusive comments about the people of Aberdeen: “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.”

 

Alas, in 1996, Brian Glover met his own Alamo.  He underwent an operation for a brain tumour, although a fortnight later he was back at work, making what would be his final film – Up and Under, which was fittingly about the popular-in-the-north-of-England sport of rugby league football and was made by the dramatist John Godber, whose debut play Bouncers has become a much-performed classic.  (Glover was among the first people to go and see Bouncers when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 and was quick to offer Godber words of encouragement.)  The tumour eventually killed him in July 1997 and he is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London, where a simple gravestone describes him as a ‘Wrestler – Actor – Writer’.  Not just a Yorkshireman, then, but a true Renaissance man.

 

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