OBITUARY : Don Henderson
Wednesday 25 June 1997
The gruff-voiced Don Henderson seemed perfectly at home as the quirky character, who enjoyed music, reading and playing with his electric trainset. Just as Inspector Morse was later to indulge a love of opera, Bulman would quote Shakespeare and other classics. It was Henderson's portrayal of the detective that helped to raise the programme to a level above the run-of-the-mill police series. By the time he had taken Bulman into semi- retirement, Henderson made the character memorable for the plastic shopping bag that was always with him, gold-rimmed Edwardian reading glasses and a generally scruffy image.
This was, in fact, a reflection of the actor in real life, who admitted to owning just one suit and wore jeans for his second wedding, to the actress Shirley Stelfox, in 1979. This came two years after the death of Henderson's first wife, Hilary, from a mystery lung disease. In 1980, Henderson underwent treatment for throat cancer that left him with burns that he often hid with a scarf. The cancer, which he overcame, also meant that he spoke in a whisper. Another of the unmarried Bulman's trademarks was his pair of grey woolly gloves, worn by Henderson to cover up the wedding ring he could not remove from his finger.
The only son of a carpenter, Henderson was born in London in 1932 and brought up in Epping, Essex. Having grown up in a working-class environment, he was embarrassed by wealth in later years and said: "I could never have a chauffeur or servants because I'd be so bad at telling them what to do. I dislike giving orders. It isn't me."
Henderson did not become a professional actor until his thirties, after working in amateur theatre and spending almost 20 years of his working life as a dental technician in the Army, a CID officer with Essex police and a salesman. Then, he accepted a "dare" from a friend to audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company, was taken on and stayed for six years, from 1966 to 1972, taking parts that included Perolles in All's Well That Ends Well, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the title-role in Peer Gynt and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Henderson later played Floyd in Sam Shepard's Melodrama Play in New York.
He first became known to television viewers in the BBC drama series Warship (1973-77), which followed the adventures of the frigate HMS Hero and her crew. Many television roles followed, in programmes such as Poldark, Softly Softly, Dixon of Dock Green, Ripping Yarns, Dick Turpin and The Onedin Line.
But it was the character of George Bulman that made Henderson a household name. The XYY Man (1976-77), based on a novel by Kenneth Royce, introduced Bulman as a police sergeant in the story of a cat burglar, Spider Scott (Stephen Yardley), who was recruited to work with British intelligence services. Bulman progressed to his own series, Strangers (1978-82), in the rank of detective sergeant, serving in Unit 23, a police squad working under cover in the North of England.
From 1980, Bulman and his colleagues' unit was renamed the Inter City Squad and attempted to solve crimes nationwide. Mark McManus, who later starred as the tough Glasgow detective Taggart, was their boss, Chief Superintendent Lambie. By the end of the final, fifth series of Strangers, Bulman had been promoted to the rank of detective inspector.
Henderson revived the character in two series of Bulman (1985, 1987), who by then had retired from the force but maintained a contact in the British Secret Service. He did freelance detective work while running a small antiques shop that specialised in repairing clocks. "You were born to be a detective, not a clock mender," he was told by his assistant, Lucy McGinty (played by Siobhan Redmond), the criminologist daughter of a former colleague.
Teaming up with the former EastEnders actor Leslie Grantham, as Frank and Danny Kane in two series of the gangland thriller The Paradise Club (1989-90), Henderson played a defrocked priest reunited with his brother after the death of their tyrannical mother. He also appeared in the 1987 children's fantasy series Knights of God, mixing religion and the Arthurian legend, and throughout the Eighties and Nineties - despite his star status - the prolific actor was happy to continue taking character roles in dozens of television programmes, such as Jemima Shore Investigates, Annika, Dead Head, Doctor Who, Minder, Dempsey and Makepeace, Last of the Summer Wine, Moon and Son, Look At It This Way, The New Statesman, Cracker, The Detectives, Harry, Medics and Casualty.
He also joined his friend Michael Elphick to present the cookery series The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Cookery, as well as acting in television films and plays such as Mavis, Squaring the Circle, Black and Blue and Pat and Margaret.
Henderson's film appearances included roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968, with the RSC), Callan (1974), the Oscar-winning special- effects extravaganza Star Wars (1977, as General Tagge), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), Carry On Columbus (1992), As You Like It (1992), The Trial (1993), The Wind in the Willows (1996) and Preaching to the Perverted (1997, as yet unreleased).
Donald Francis Henderson, actor, writer and producer: born London 10 November 1932; twice married (one son, one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Warwick 22 June 1997.
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