Specs, God and rock'n'roll

Interview: Deborah Ross talks to HANK MARVIN

Deborah Ross
Monday 17 March 1997 00:02

Hank Marvin is wearing a navy, chevron-patterned jacket which turns out to be Versace II but, touchingly, looks very C&A circa 1974 on him. Hank has that effect on things, always has done. He has never been a sophisticate. Or sexy, even. Mostly, he has looked like a myopic Butlins redcoat on a weekend off. But that's part of his charm, I guess. As is his delicious, Cliff Richard-style unworldliness.

Hank, I ask at one point, do you think of yourself as a good person? "I try to be," he replies. "Although I accept I am human and imperfect and make mistakes." What kind of mistakes, Hank? "I am not willing to discuss them here," he retorts stiffly. Oh, go on. "Well ... sometimes I mean to send a lovely card to someone, but never get round to it." And, bless him, a blush creeps up his cheeks. And he looks truly ashamed.

If you happened to be an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman you couldn't, I suspect, do better than turn up at Hank's door. Probably, you'll have sold him the deluxe version complete with colour transparencies and yearly updates before the kettle has even boiled.

That said, Hank's more likely to turn up on your doorstep than you are on his. He is a Jehovah's Witness and, yes, he does have to do a certain amount of the stuff that goes knock-knock, can you spare five minutes for Jesus? And what do people say when they open the door and find Hank Marvin, "guitar-legend", brandishing a copy of The Watchtower and talking excitedly about the millions now living who will never die? Mostly, he says, they don't click it's him. Mostly, they say, "Has anyone ever told you you look like Hank Marvin?"

Presumably, though, this only happens if they haven't already said "the bath's running" or "the baby's crying" or plain "bugger off". Yes, he accepts, a lot don't want to know. But, no, he doesn't find it dispiriting. "We believe people have to be informed about God," he says. He is duty- bound to spread the word. So spread it he will.

But where, I know you are asking yourselves, was all this duty and goodness when it came to Dean Marvin, the oldest of Hank's six children? Dean, as you doubtless recall, was found dead in a 10ft by 7ft YMCA room in north London in January. He had lived in the hostel for nearly six years. He had been signed off work because he was suffering from depression. The verdict at the inquest was that Dean had died from a rare strain of pneumonia brought on by years of hard drinking, drug abuse and neglect. He was 35. And Hank had not seen him for 16 years.

Naturally, the press had a field day with all this - neglected son of rich, famous father and all that. But were they fully in the picture? Hank, with some ferocity, insists not. "If I deserve criticism, then OK. But the things that were said were untrue. I found it all quite appalling. There was a complete lack of sensitivity and compassion. I actually had no idea how cruel people could be." His already wet eyes moisten up even further.

Dean, one of Hank's four children from his first marriage, left home at 19, by which time he was already, tragically, mixed up in drink and drugs. Hank made repeated attempts to see him. And even though he moved to Australia with his second wife and two further children a decade ago, Dean knew he could return to the family fold at any time. So what was Hank to do? Well, he could have arranged to help him financially, couldn't he? Yes, but what would have been the point? "He'd have just spent it all on drink and drugs, wouldn't he?" he says despairingly.

The grief, he says, comes in these terrible waves. One moment he's making a cup of tea and the next - whoosh - grief hits him like a punch in the stomach. Could he have done more? Should he have done more? Were there errors more grievous than forgetting to send a birthday card? And it's not just me asking these questions. Hank asks them of himself, often. And always will.

He has, of course, derived a great deal of comfort from his religion. As a Witness, he believes that, come the end of the world as we know it, Earth will be restored to perfection and all those who have died will come back to live the beautiful lives God always intended. Dean and Hank will meet again. He is sure of it. And they'll be able to recognise each other? Definitely, he insists, we will all come back as ourselves, "otherwise there wouldn't be any point. How would we recognise each other?"

Hank (and Cliff, of course) were always religious converts waiting to happen, as far as I can see. With them, it was never so much sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as the occasional stolen kiss with Una Stubbs followed by a strawberry shake at a milk bar then an early night curled up with The Reader's Digest, a periodical Hank still ranks as up there with Awake, one of the magazines of the Witness movement. "It's a very educational magazine, full of articles of geographical interest," he enthuses. He then recalls how Cliff once discovered a big cardboard box in his dressing room, and got very excited because he thought someone had sent him a television as a present. So when the box suddenly burst open, and a girl jumped out, "Cliff was very disappointed. He'd have preferred a telly."

Hank and Cliff, a born-again Christian, disagree on most things when it comes to religion - "Oh yes, we've had some very deep discussions in the past" - but they resolutely remain pals. Cliff surprised him by turning up at the Albert Hall on his last tour and performing "Move It!". And Hank is looking forward to seeing Heathcliff this week. Cliff, he reveals, "has wanted to play Heathcliff ever since he was 18. I admire him enormously for his tenacity and courage. He's had a lot of negative media coverage, I know. But I spoke to him the other night and he's thoroughly enjoying himself."

Hank Marvin can't, surely, have acquired a new fan in 30 years, but he is one of those people who goes inexorably on, and still notches up excellent record sales. His latest solo album, Hank Plays Holly, reached the top 40. Hank Marvin Plays Live, a video recording of his 1995 Birmingham Symphony Hall concert is released today. And, on Friday, he starts a 42-date nationwide tour. Yes, he'll be doing "Apache". And "Summer Holiday". And "Move It!". It's expected.

What sort of people, I ask, attend his concerts these days? "Human beings," he retorts with an enormously pleased chuckle. He does, to be sure, have a very Summer Holiday, C&A sense of humour. Hank, how do you remember your mother as a child? "I don't remember my mother as a child. She was always grown up to me." More chuckles, tee-hee, and what a laugh on tour buses they must all have.

Hank grew up in a terraced house in Newcastle with a concrete backyard, an outside toilet and a coal hole. His father, Joe, was a checker and loader with British Rail. Hank passed his 11-plus and went to the local grammar school, but he quickly got into music so his academic performance never came up to much. At 16, his father having given him a guitar for his birthday, he came to London with his equally guitar-obsessed school friend Bruce Welch, with whom he later formed The Shadows.

They were playing one day in a coffee bar in Soho when Cliff's manager, who was looking for a backing group, strolled in. "I remember being introduced to Cliff for the first time at the tailor's shop where he was being fitted with the bright pink jacket he was going to wear on stage." And then? "We all went back to his mother's council house in Cheshunt on a Green Line bus and rehearsed in his front room." As an anecdotalist, Hank can take something that should be very Versace and make it C&A, too. Later, he tells me: "On our days off, we would all go off to the cinema together with Cliff, self-consciously waiting until the lights went down before putting on his glasses, without which he couldn't see a thing." And: "Cliff had greasy hair and pimples back then, as we all did."

In the early Sixties, the Shadows and Cliff enjoyed great stardom, notching up hit after hit. In 1960, they played seven months at the London Palladium to 3,000 people every night. They had achieved 11 Top 10 entries, including five number ones, by 1963. Then came The Beatles; that should have been that - "I knew from the first time I heard them they were going to be serious competition" - but it wasn't. Sure, The Beatles ultimately forced Cliff and The Shadows to go their separate ways, but they did so with considerable success. Cliff went on to Eurovision and telly fame, while The Shadows retained their twang-a-lang loving audiences. "Cliff had enormous appeal and an enormous following, while we had meaningful hits independently with records like 'Apache'. And these things added up to longevity."

Hank became a Jehovah's Witness after the break-up of his first marriage to Billie, whom he married at 19 when she was pregnant with Dean. He was, he says, silly to get married when he did. At 19, what do you know? "Certainly, you haven't matured and aren't ready to shoulder responsibility. Although, of course, I didn't know that at the time. But I do remember seeing kids hanging round on street corners, having a good time, and thinking: How did I get locked into this situation?" They had three other children - a daughter and twin sons - whom he is still very close to, he says.

He became a Witness because he met a Witness on a tour and was impressed. "He seemed to have standards he lived by, and that appealed to me." He started reading up on both the Witness movement and the Bible, "which I found fascinating, and so exciting". His parents got interested, too, and became Witnesses just before he did. Now, his wife and children are all Witnesses.

Now, this end of the world as we know it business: he truly believes in it, does he? Yes, absolutely. And when will the end come? Soon, he says, although he can't give any precise predictions. And meanwhile? He'll probably go on touring and being as engagingly unworldly as ever.

Hank, I ask at one point, when did you first realise you had made it? Well, Hank replies, it wasn't actually until a couple of years ago when he found himself listed in a dictionary of rhyming slang. Blimey, I gasp before I can stop myself, do people say, "I had a Hank last night"? He looks at me perplexed, with those large, wet eyes blinking quizzically behind the big glasses. "No, they say: 'I'm Hank Marvin ... I'm starving.' " Then, with a mixture of alarm and puzzlement, he asks: "Why would anyone want to go for a Hank?"

Should Hank ever knock on your door, it's probably best not to mention the rhyming slang business. But if you do, please don't then go on to make inquiries about his real name, the one he was born with. Which is? Brian Rankin, as it happens.

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