Benny the Butcher or Benny Hawkins?
Feared turn-of-the-century Birmingham mobsters The Peaky Blinders butchered Benny from Crossroads’ grandad, the Sunday Mercury can reveal.
The razor-wielding gangsters – now immortalised by a BBC2 series – struck as hardman Georgie Broadhead rode his pony and trap through the streets of Northfield, and cut his throat from ear to ear.
“It was immediately after the Great War,” says Paul Henry, the man who will forever bear the brand of cloth cap-wearing simpleton Benny in the Second City motel soap that became a running joke.
“It was the result of a feud between families,” explains the Shakespearian actor who played soap’s favourite dim-wit. “They just jumped on his pony and trap and slit his throat.
“That was despite the fact that Grandad had a reputation as a very tough man. He was a roadworker who used to light the fires for the tarmac. My uncle, a top boxer, was also pretty handy.”
Paul, more Brummie than Bournville chocolate, would love a part in Peaky Blinders, he says. He’d also love to wolf down Witchetty grubs, kangaroo penis and crocodile eyes in I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here.
But there’s a problem. A lot of people believe the 68-year-old grandfather is DEAD.
Premature news of his passing flooded internet forums last April. That, however, was another Paul Henry, a TV personality from Down Under.
Paul, remarkably tanned and healthy for a dead man, met the Sunday Mercury to lay rumours of his demise to rest.
He also wanted to remind readers that he is still out there and open to offers, despite wandering a theatrical wildnerness since his last major stage role as legendary Birmingham comic Tony Hancock in touring production Hancock’s Finest Hour.
“It didn’t help,” he shrugged, referring to the bogus obituaries. “People were ringing up my wife and sending letters of condolence.
“But you always look for excuses. Maybe the public just don’t like me anymore.
“Acting has retired me,” he laughs then, flashing a Benny-like wide grin.
“To be honest,” he confesses, sprawled on a leather seat in plush Hill Valley Golf Club in the Shropshire town of Whitchurch – the actor’s home of 16 years now – “that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
While other Crossroads stars have been recruited for a one-off DVD episode to celebrate 50 years since the much-maligned soap was first broadcast, Paul is still waiting for the phone to ring.
The Sunday Mercury had sought Paul out to ask why the soap’s best-known character has not been included.
“I can’t comment on it,” he says, “because I don’t know anything about it. I’ve been away. My agent did send me a text and I sent one back, saying ‘Look into it’, but I haven’t heard anything. I think it’s for charity.”
Bluntly, Crossroads – even the cold ashes of a soap lampooned by comedians, lambasted by critics – would not be Crossroads without Benny Hawkins, the series’ undisputed star from 1975 to 1988.
Storylines including his engagement and arrest for murder – a plot that spawned “Benny Is Innocent” badges and banners – thrust Crossroads to the top of TV ratings.
Paul, happily married to wife of 45 years Sheila, may be currently pondering how such a glittering career stalled, but has only two regrets.
“When I left the show I should’ve taken everything I was offered,” he sighs. “Back then, I wouldn’t do I’m A Celebrity, but I would now...”
It is impossible to detect Benny – innocent and worldly unwise – under the bear-like frame of Paul, a man who gained a tungsten toughness on the streets of Aston and Shard End.
He peppers conversation with profanities and of his time as landlord at Billy’s Bar, Digbeth, and the Jewellery Quarter’s Actress and Bishop pub, Paul admits matter-of-factly: “The most we had was 850 people inside. We didn’t have trouble – I had connections.”
He famously “dropped” a persistent photographer in a Sunderland nightspot, but doormen took the rap.
It is his Brummie bloody-mindedness that has seen him overcome terrible tragedy.
Daughter Justine died in a car crash at the age of 18, and Paul struggled for years to find a way through the fog of grief.
“Five people were in the van, and four walked away,” he says, darkening. “I didn’t remember for five or six years. Even now, I don’t remember the funeral or anything.”
Brummie grit has also seen him through illness. Earlier this year, his right eye, damaged years earlier, was removed at Shrewsbury’s Royal Hospital.
But that Brummie humour has not been blunted.
Our photographer bustles breathlessly into the interview, scattering a confetti of excuses for his late arrival.
“Bloody hell,” smirks Paul, “the bullshit has got a lot better since my day.”
It’s a remark that could be tossed across any Digbeth bar.
But, then, the actor’s ties to the Second City remain chain-strong. Brother Tony Smith was a long-time production manager at the Birmingham Mail, sister Tracey Cox works at Solihull Council and until recently 17-year-old grandson Jake was part of Birmingham City FC’s academy.
For Paul, who toiled as a Morris Motors worker – “They told me to pull my socks up and that was it, I was gone” – before gaining a scholarship to Birmingham School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, Benny is something of a mixed blessing.
The woolly-capped innocent shunted the career of a young actor looked on as a rising Shakespearian star in a new direction.
Paul, a staple of Birmingham’s Old and New Rep, a thespian who performed alongside luminaries such as Michael Gambon, Timothy Dalton, Brian Cox, Ronnie Barker and Lynn Redgrave, was forever destined to carry the Crossroads cross.
Paul refuses to dwell on “if only” and is proud Benny was very much his own creation.
“It was my brother’s fishing hat and I’ve still got it,” he grins. “The accent was a bit of everything – Birmingham, Black Country, Kidderminster.”
And he steadfastly refuses to join the army of critics who delight in deriding Crossroads, a soap he initially joined for a six-week stretch that turned into 13 years.
“That first day of filming,” Paul laughs, “was on a Sutton Coldfield farm. Me and a goat that had been kept with a dead goat, so it stank. We had to work very quickly, like a reporter on a deadline.
“And the sets never wobbled,” he adds.
Paul also refuses to dish dirt on the show’s fellow stars.
“Nolly (Noele Gordon, who played matriarch Meg Mortimer) had a presence. She respected me and I respected her. You had to respect her for all that she’d done. She’d say, ‘I’m not an actress, I’m a personality’ and she was right.
“Ronnie Allen (David Hunter in the soap) was always immaculate. He was a very gentle person, a very, very handsome man. I can see him now, drinking coffee and smoking fags.”
Paul grudgingly concedes, however, that veteran actress Ann George, who played cleaner Amy Turtle, lacked the seamless professionalism of her colleagues.
“She was hilarious,” he laughs. “So unprofessional it’s untrue. In one scene, she had to hand me a cup and saucer. She didn’t let go! We were playing tug of war on camera.”
Ann’s at times stuttering performances were satirised in Crossroads spoof Acorn Antiques, with Julie Walters’ playing Mrs Overall – a shuffling, Brummie cleaner.
Despite seemingly a Crossroads ever-present, Paul only dedicated six months of any year to the show.
“I mixed it up,” he says. “Benny opened up different doors. I started doing panto in 1976 – I was the first soap star to do panto.”
But a new producer, coupled with Paul’s insistence that, as far as Benny was concerned, he knew best, spelled the end.
“I was unhappy and wanted to see the main man,” Paul grins, “but he got there before me.
“I knew my character. I knew one look was enough, but they were trying to create something stupid. In one scene, they wanted Benny to chat in the background and I said ‘No’ because he wouldn’t do that. He’d only talk to people he knew and loved.”
That leads Paul to his second regret.
“I took the character too seriously,” he admits with the grim candor of someone confessing a secret drink problem.
In hindsight, method acting and Crossroads Motel were never going to be comfortable bedfellows.
But Paul’s Shakespearian skills could well shine in Peaky Blinders, providing there’s room for woolly headwear among the cloth caps