Tony Hendra: British comedy's great unsung talent

The 'Spinal Tap' star created 'Spitting Image', discovered John Belushi and was even asked to join the Pythons. But now, after writing a bestselling memoir, he faces allegations of sexual abuse - from his own daughter

The way an interview traditionally works is like this: you talk first about your subject's current project, then their earlier professional achievements, before broaching the more intimate business of their life. If there are any compromising episodes in their past you bring these up last, culminating, if necessary, with the inquiry that is sometimes referred to as "the ejector question". This, I remind Tony Hendra, is the common-sense strategy that Jessica Mitford confessed to having employed for decades in her 1979 book Poison Penmanship. And not much has changed since: if you have recently strangled your dog, torched the local synagogue, or bought truffles and Chartreuse with the funds you raised for starving orphans in Chad, but still wish to plug your DVD, the best tactic is to promise the interviewer three hours, then get called away after 90 minutes and never come back.

It's just the way things are and, broadly speaking, both sides understand the process - nobody more so than Tony Hendra, a former editor at both National Lampoon and Spy magazines. Hendra is one of the most brilliant - and least recognised - comic talents of the post-war period. He forms the link between the Footlights team of John Cleese, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman (of which he was a member) and Saturday Night Live stars such as John Belushi and Chevy Chase, both of whose careers he can claim to have launched. He was also a co-founder of Spitting Image, with Peter Fluck and Roger Law. "Hendra," says Fluck, "is one of the few genuinely talented people I've met in my life."

You may know Tony Hendra as an author. His magnificent history of subversive humour, Going Too Far, is a book I've kept at or near my bedside for years. His latest publication, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, an account of his 40-year friendship with a Benedictine monk, reached number one on amazon.com. Perhaps you remember his performance as Ian Faith, band manager in Rob Reiner's classic 1986 comedy, This Is Spinal Tap. Or possibly you've never heard of him at all: it was his anonymity in the UK - in some ways his most remarkable achievement - that made me want to come here, to his Upper West Side apartment, and talk to Hendra. Before I left London, I'd gone through his slim English press archive. I was on a plane heading for New York when I opened the file of American cuttings which reported allegations of child abuse.

I don't quite feel able, I tell Hendra, to chat about his life in comedy before ambushing him with these unproven accusations. The whole situation, I explain, makes me feel queasy. (At this point I'm prepared for him to terminate our meeting.)

"No," he replies. "It has to be said. Almost two years ago, when Father Joe was about to hit number one, Jessica, my younger daughter from my first marriage, resurrected allegations she had made privately about 10 years earlier. She went to the New York Times which - staggeringly, to my way of thinking - printed them. The result was devastating for us. My second wife, Carla, and I decided we were not going to get into a media free-for-all. I'm sure there are people who assume by my silence that these allegations are true. They are not. I do not want to go any further. We need to protect our young family," he says (Hendra has three children of school age with Carla). "That has been the rationale of our silence."

The New York Times' decision to publish Jessica's claims that her father indecently assaulted her on two occasions in her childhood, is not widely regarded as the most glorious episode in its history. "In 40 years of reading the Times," wrote Tom Zito, formerly of the Washington Post, "I have not come across so scurrilous a piece. What possible purpose was served by running it, other than to make its subject consider suicide?"

The Times article appeared on 1 July 2004. Ten days later its public editor, Daniel Okrent, expressed unease. "What if the charge is false?" he wrote. "Either way, Tony Hendra will bear the scars of this article forever. [Others] will suffer; the children from his second marriage, for instance. There is a difference between the right to know and the need to know and in this case the need escapes me." If the allegations are true, he argues, Hendra deserves greater punishment than humiliation in print. (omega)

Then, last autumn, Jessica Hendra published her own book, which graphically describes her alleged experiences. The title, How To Cook Your Daughter, is taken from a feature her father wrote for National Lampoon in the Seventies. Jessica, now 40, asserts that the US statute of limitations precludes criminal prosecution. Tony Hendra says that he has issued two writs - one against his first wife and one against a childhood friend of Jessica's - in London.

"There are many things I'd like to say," he tells me, adding that his attorneys have forbidden him. He's now in the unenviable position once described by his former colleague at National Lampoon, Michael O'Donoghue. "He can take it," O'Donoghue said, "but he can't dish it out."

"The whole thing has been horrendous," Tony Hendra says. "Absolutely horrendous."

It hasn't been the ideal introduction. Even before we sat down to talk, Hendra seemed affable but wary - a bit like a GP who's been warned that someone who visits his surgery this week will pull a gun on him. He's 64 and, I think it's fair to say, has the face of a man who has known the pleasures of the world.

The events which have poisoned his life in New York - accusations of homicide would surely have been easier to bear - were precipitated by the US publication of Father Joe, in May 2004. A difficult book to categorise - part-autobiography, part-theology, part-professional memoir - it is structured around his meetings with Joseph Warrilow, a Benedictine father at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, who died in 1998. It was an improbable relationship: Hendra is, by his own account, a heavyweight sinner while Warrilow, who also counselled Rowan Williams and Princess Diana, is widely considered to have been a saint.

Tony Hendra was 14 when he first met Father Joe. He'd been flirting in a caravan near Harpenden; the woman he was seeing told her husband, who took the boy to Quarr.

Warrilow told him: "You've done nothing truly wrong, Tony dear. God's love brought you here before any real harm could be done."

This sets the tone for Father Joe's consoling responses to Hendra's sins throughout his life; the Catholic equivalent, some might say, of a Get Out of Jail Free card.

"Whatever happened to roasting in hell?"

That vision, Hendra replies, was never part of Warrilow's credo. "I did once write a piece called 'I Miss Hell'. It was such a comfort to know that the rich twit who roared past you in his Aston-Martin would one day be buried up to his Adam's apple in molten dogshit."

"So you were never plagued by visions of demons?"

"Absolutely I was. When I was 10 I had waking dreams about hellfire. I'd run into my parents' room, screaming that I was dying. And that I was damned. The burning fires of hell get into kids' heads. Because they're images of suffocation. And drowning. And burial."

A recurrent theme in Father Joe is Tony Hendra's merciless self-castigation. "No father could have been more selfish," he writes of his first marriage, "treating his family like inconveniences." You can't accuse him of being easy on himself. He's the first interviewee I've ever had who's described himself as "a self-pitying fuckhead asshole" and I say this as someone who once spent a week on the road with Lord Archer.

Now this is not a comparison you'd want to carry too far, but in some ways Father Joe reminds me of De Profundis, Oscar Wilde's letter from Reading Gaol. Both writers identify with a religious icon: in Wilde's case, his own very modern conception of Christ; in Hendra's, Father Joe. Each book gives the appearance of a confessional, except that, with relation to the writers' own conduct, they are very light on detail.

Jessica Hendra - whose belief that she was abused is clearly as sincere as her father's denials - was angered that Father Joe ignored what she alleges is his most significant transgression. In addition to its central accusation, How To Cook Your Daughter contains innumerable further disparagements - Hendra is revealed as a man who gets too stoned to play Monopoly, spits when jogging, and makes opponents weep when he plays croquet. It can be to the satisfaction of neither author that, when you enter Father Joe on amazon.com, Jessica's book appears in the "If You Bought This You Might Also Enjoy" box. The Lithuanian author Czeslaw Milosz famously asserted that "when a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed", in response to which the Hendras - together with the Pryors, the Hancocks and the Belushis - might chorus: "Try comedy."

Tony Hendra grew up in Harpenden, the son of an agnostic stained-glass window painter and a Catholic mother. At school in St Albans he fantasised about being a monk, imagining the hood of his duffel coat was a cowl. He pleaded to enter Quarr but was dissuaded by Warrilow, who urged him to accept the place he'd been offered at Cambridge.

There, at the Arts Theatre, Hendra saw Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe.

"I entered that theatre a monk," he explains. "I came out a satirist."

He fell in with his contemporaries, John Cleese and Graham Chapman.

"I was very close to Graham," he says. "We started doing shows together. One was an opera called Il Buffone, in which one would kill the other. The dying one would sing an incredibly loud aria, then kill the other, who sang an even louder one. When we were working together, Graham sent me a Valentine's card. It said: 'You are my favourite person. I mean that. I truly do.' I've still got it. I was too naïve to realise what he meant."

"Did he realise?"

"At that stage, probably not."

When Hendra left university, his girlfriend, Judy Christmas, was pregnant. He was playing London clubs with the actor Nick Ullett, when the American comic Jackie Mason suggested they relocate to the US. Hendra agreed.

In Los Angeles, the two Englishmen were signed by NBC.

"Somewhere," Hendra says, "I have a letter from John Cleese, written around this time. He says: 'We're thinking of doing a new television show. You might want to come back and discuss this.' NBC had paid $25,000. I said no."

"It's that other future you could have had."

"Perhaps. Nothing came of the NBC project. But I don't want to suggest that I ever believed I would be good enough to be in Monty Python."

Hendra married Judy and she moved out to Los Angeles. They were still there in 1970, when he started to write for National Lampoon, the newly launched satirical magazine based in New York. The following summer he drove his wife and two young daughters, Katherine and Jessica, to the east coast, to be close to the magazine's offices. He settled his family in New Jersey, but often slept on fellow-editor Michael O'Donoghue's couch in Manhattan.

The sense of morality that had drawn him to Quarr found another outlet at National Lampoon.

"I took new vows," he says, "of disobedience, and stability of satirical purpose."

In Tony Hendra and his colleagues O'Donoghue, Sean Kelly and Doug Kenney, Richard Nixon found humorists as brutal and unforgiving as himself.

Tony Hendra's first issue of Lampoon as editor, in January 1972, carried a parody of the souvenir "baby books" popular in the US. The Vietnamese Mother's Baby Book - to judge its taste and contemporary impact, you might alter the first adjective in the title to Iraqi - included entries such as: "Baby's First Word (Medic), Baby's First Wound (Attach sample of dressing here), Baby's first funeral (US air force give me condolence payment of 50 plasters, almost enough to buy another Baby Book)."

Hendra - who, according to Peter Fluck, "moved to America from fear that Britain, being a small island, might one day run out of alcohol" - adapted quickly to the culture of rampant hedonism in the Lampoon office.

"He was seriously out of control," says Roger Law, who met him in New York at this time. "You'd go for a drink and you were out for literally three or four days. I remember once fleeing for the airport. I had to be helped on to the plane by a paraplegic, on one of those motorised carts. That's how bad it got. On the plane, I had to plead for beer, to keep my alcohol level up."

Refused a drink in one bar, according to Law, who has now stopped drinking, Hendra hurled a dustbin through its plate-glass window. It is behaviour which, on the face of it, is difficult to reconcile with his monkish instincts.

Hendra recently wrote that Michael O'Donoghue was driven by "a fascination with pushing things far beyond all reasonable limits into a void where sacredness, decency, any kind of social norm had no meaning. He was a friend of that void. There was something mystical about his attraction to it. If he had any belief system at all, it was that there existed a mirror-image of the sacred, an absolute not-sacredness which he was always striving to attain." If ever there was a case of projection - of a man identifying himself in the character of another - this is it.

At National Lampoon, nothing - cannibalism, genocide or famine - was sacred. At a time when Joan Baez's reputation had reached divine proportions, Hendra composed a parody with the refrain: "O pull the triggers, niggers / We're with you all the way / Just across the Bay." ("So very many grievous wrongs," it continues, "for me to right with tedious songs.")

"Pull the Triggers, Niggers" appeared on Radio Dinner, the first National Lampoon LP. Produced by Hendra, it also feat-ured "Coming Down From Me" by "Kris Kristofferson", and a James Taylor pastiche that was entitled: "I'm Taking The Stockridge Exit Off The Massachusetts Turnpike Turning Right On To Route Seven And Going A Mile Down To The Intersection With 102, In My Mind." (omega)

Tony Hendra, working with Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap, who went on to direct Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind) produced the off-Broadway show Lemmings, a parody of Woodstock. Hendra was casting when he received a tape from a comic called John Belushi. He flew to Belushi's home town of Chicago, to watch him perform.

"From the moment he came on," Hendra says, "he was just fucking amazing."

Lemmings, which also starred a young Chevy Chase, was adoringly reviewed in New York, then toured the US. Belushi was not a moderating influence. When the future Blues Brothers star came to Hendra's house in New Jersey, he picked up a tyre and flung himself into a stream.

"It was deep," Hendra says, "and incredibly dangerous. John jumped in and disappeared. I was terrified that he'd drowned. Eventually he climbed out, and lit a joint. He'd bashed his head on some rocks. He said: 'Man that was great! Hendra, you chickenshit, why didn't you follow me?' "

Tony Hendra's own behaviour was scarcely less erratic: 3,500 miles from Quarr, he devoted his energies to secular pastimes such as heavy drinking, infidelity, and fishing with high explosives ("Illegal," Hendra tells me, "but very effective.")

"And you were Hoovering up cocaine..."

"I wouldn't say that. The people Hoovering cocaine were making hundreds of thousands a month. At the time of Lampoon, cocaine was too expensive."

"But there came a time when it wasn't."

"Later. I never had to go to rehab."

"Though you did try to kill yourself."

"Yes, but that wasn't to do with cocaine. That was to do with... a whole bunch of things."

"Such as?"

"My marriage had fallen apart. I was coming down off the high of success. I thought if I did 15mg of Valium and a pint of vodka I'd never wake up."

"Some comics I know drive home on that."

"Yes. That shows how much I knew about pharmacology."

In Wired, his book about Belushi, who overdosed in 1982, aged 33, Bob Woodward claims that Hendra introduced the performer to cocaine.

"That's ridiculous," says Hendra. "Just like the idea that John was 'doomed'. He partied too hard one night and that was that."

"And yet the mortality rate among the National Lampoon circle was unnervingly high."

"That was a question of quality," Hendra replies, "rather than quantity."

His fellow editor Doug Kenney fell off a cliff in Hawaii, aged 33 (supposedly while looking for a suitable place to commit suicide). O'Donoghue died at 54, of a brain haemorrhage. He and Hendra were long estranged, after the Englishman slept with his girlfriend. "You're slime, Hendra," O'Donoghue had told him. "You're nothing but scum."

We break for lunch, at an unpretentious Manhattan brasserie. Tony Hendra's professional problem, I suggest, is that he has never produced one blockbuster with which he can be instantly identified. He dropped out of the Cambridge Mafia at just the wrong time; he may have made stars out of Chase, Belushi and others, but that was as a writer or producer. This Is Spinal Tap is recognised as one of the greatest film comedies of all time, but Hendra was a humble supporting actor. He never made his Fawlty Towers or his Knowing Me, Knowing You.

"I suppose I thought my 'one great show' was going to be Spitting Image," he acknowledges. "But I always get thrown out, or screwed."

Tony Hendra was, according to Lewis Chester, author of Tooth and Claw, the definitive history of the programme, "the original comic lion of Spitting Image." He hatched the idea with Fluck and Law in New York, when the two British artists were producing work for National Lampoon. But he was eased out during the first series of Spitting Image, following disagreements with producer John Lloyd, whose success with Not the Nine O'Clock News had owed a certain debt to Hendra's earlier invention, Not the New York Times.

"At Spitting Image," Hendra says, "I wanted to do something truly explosive. The equivalent of Reagan was in power in Britain. I developed the idea about Thatcher talking to Hitler over the garden fence..." He assumes a formidable German accent. "'She reminds me of a she-wolf.' I loved all that." A lot of his ideas, like "The President's Brain is Missing", stayed in. "But John Lloyd wasn't interested in my sort of material. It was too political for him."

Hendra's drinking, Roger Law says, was also an issue.

"When Spinal Tap came out, we had a Spitting Image works outing to see it. There is a point in the film where Tony declines a drink. Three rows of the cinema stood up and cheered. It was the first time any of us had ever witnessed this."

The fragmentation of Hendra's career accelerated in the Nineties, when he became what he describes as "a full-time journeyman writer". He was editor-in-chief at Spy magazine and developed various movie projects, none of which broke records at the box office.

He enjoyed a parallel career as an actor, but never found his niche in quite the way he had in Spinal Tap. When he'd first been approached for that part, he recalls, "Rob Reiner called and said that Christopher Guest and the others had this idea for a 'rockumentary', and were looking for a manager for the band who was an untrustworthy, thoroughly sleazy kind of a guy. Rob said: 'Just play yourself.'"

Sleaze, it has to be said, is a word that crops up a lot when the conversation turns to Hendra.

"I met him in New York, 10 years after Spitting Image," Law recalls. "He'd just been sacked. We went for the inevitable drink. He said: 'Rog - this guy who fired me - did he ever ask you about me?' I said: 'Yes. He wanted to know whether to hire you.' I told him, 'Tony Hendra is a great satirist. But he is a lying scumbag and an alcoholic and he will fucking let you down.' Tony said: 'Will you repeat that in court?' When I asked him why, he said, 'Well, he fired me. It's cost me $200,000. I mean Christ, Rog, the guy was forewarned.' "

The crazed bohemian from the Seventies is hard to recognise in the man in front of me. Hendra drinks red wine over lunch, but not to wild excess. His main preoccupation is the welfare of Carla and his family - even though there was a point in the restaurant when - unless I misheard him - he did remark, ironically, "perhaps I really am the devil".

Carla Hendra - the couple met in Chicago in 1981 - is a co-senior at the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. He proposed after she dumped him from her car on the New Jersey Turnpike, saying she'd only come back if he married her.

"You told me that your first marriage 'fell apart'. That makes your marriage sound like some Mexican high-rise - something external, that was not your responsibility. What caused your separation?"

"I met Carla."

"So you left Judy."

"Yes. But it was a very emotionless relationship."

His first wife and elder daughter Katherine still live in the United States. He hasn't seen Jessica, who has two young children, since 2004, though he says that they had an amicable relationship before she read Father Joe; she even worked for a short time with him on Spitting Image.

"She must have been harbouring certain resentments."

"I can't comment on that. I'm sorry."

"Have sales of Father Joe been damaged by Jessica's book?"

"If I was a lawyer," he replies, "I would definitely say yes."

Her father is firmly back in the Catholic fold now; his return to the faith is movingly described in Father Joe, in a scene where he returns to Quarr in 1988, and confesses himself to Warrilow. He now attends mass regularly, at a church close to his apartment, but is not certain how long he will remain in Manhattan.

"I don't see much future for Tony and Carla Hendra in the United States," he tells me.

After lunch, he asks whether I want to join him that evening for dinner. It's only when I enter this second restaurant - a fashionable establishment, popular with New York's elite - and sit down with Hendra, Carla his wife, and other guests including the author Valerie Hemingway - that I understand how very hard it must be for him to go out in this city.

Oscar Wilde was spat upon by strangers as he stood waiting on the platform at Clapham Junction station, on his way from Wandsworth prison to Reading - but at least he'd had the benefit of trial by jury.

Hendra's manner, in this crowded restaurant, could be summed up in a phrase he once quoted from the comedian George Carlin, who was under severe pressure at the time.

"I'll be fine," Carlin said. "I know who I am and my friends know. Fuck you."

When I get back to the UK, Hendra calls, and sends me a proof of his first novel, which appears in the US on 4 April. The Messiah of Morris Avenue is the story of a group of far-right evangelists who encounter the reborn Christ. They loathe Jesus on sight, and despise his teaching, with its emphasis on mercy, forgiveness and non-violence. Their own philosophy is symbolised by a digital display they've erected on Death Row, which reads: "CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS! NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!" It's a wonderful idea, brilliantly executed.

His current plan, he tells me in a last telephone conversation, is to relocate to France and work on his second novel. Meanwhile he is still without that one, definitive accomplishment which will make the name of Tony Hendra universally recognised, and still determined that - should this ambition ever be achieved - it will be as the result of his work.

'Father Joe' by Tony Hendra (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is out now

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