Paul Barber speaks revealingly about Liverpool, his childhood and his 40-year acting career
In July 2011 actor Paul Barber, known for such roles as Denzil in television’s Only Fools and Horses and Horse in hit film The Full Monty, was back in his home city to receive an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.
Paul recalls the occasion now with a mixture of pride and amusement. ‘I was up on the stage and felt a bit like a schoolboy standing in front of the headmaster. But it was an emotional experience – my brothers and sisters were there – and I remember choking up halfway through. When I sat down I got a standing ovation and the Chancellor turned to me and said,
“That’s only happened here once before – for the Dalai Lama!”
The award was for his contribution to the field of performing arts over a career spanning 40 years, but in the ceremonial oration there was also an emphasis on the challenges Paul had faced on the road to show business success.
Paul has told the story of his troubled childhood and youth in a remarkable autobiography, Foster Kid. The book has plenty of his trademark wit, but it is also a candid, sometimes shocking account of his experiences within Liverpool care homes.
Paul was born in 1951 (in Crown Street, Liverpool), the youngest of five children. His father, a merchant seaman from Sierra Leone, died before he was two and the family moved to a one-room flat in Upper Canning Street. When Paul was seven his mother fell seriously ill and the children were taken into care. He only saw his mother once after that, when she visited Paul’s care home. A few weeks later he was told she was dead.
Paul’s book describes in vivid detail his early years in Toxteth. Despite the cramped conditions (most of the family shared a large double bed) it was generally a happy home, the radio on almost continuously and the children inventing many different ways to amuse themselves. Paul would sometimes roam the streets, occasionally playing by Pier Head where he would sneak on to the ferries and go back and forth across the Mersey. He has no photographs of his mother but remembers her as a beautiful woman, in his eyes ‘a cross between Rita Hayworth and Claudette Colbert.’ He would watch fascinated as she put on her make-up and got ready to go out.
When Paul entered the care home system it was an abrupt, confusing change for him. He was to spend the rest of his childhood and most of his teenage years in a succession of children’s homes and in foster care. Much of his book is a savage indictment of the treatment children in his unfortunate situation sometimes received. At his first care home beatings were common, especially from the sister known as Attila the Nun. When he was fostered, he moved from one set of ‘parents’ to another and rarely felt part of a settled family. Nevertheless, while Paul’s account of these years has an undoubted bleakness, this is offset by the high spirited camaraderie among the children themselves and the occasional act of adult kindness. Paul’s last experience of care was at the Sydney House hostel on Linnet Lane, where a Mr Culshaw took an interest in his future and offered wise advice when Paul briefly considered joining the merchant navy.
Foster Kid was published in 2007, about twenty years after he began writing about his experiences, initially without any thought of publication. He says, ‘I just needed to get all this stuff off my chest. I was on holiday, lying on the beach, and just started writing things down. Within a couple of weeks I’d filled an exercise book. Then I started to take to take it a bit more seriously, working on a typewriter and later on a computer. I kept going back to it and friends would sometimes be looking over my shoulder, giving me encouragement. Eventually I started taking it to publishers and was offered a ghostwriter at one point, but felt strongly that I wanted to tell the story in my own words.’
Interestingly, Paul’s foster brother Ben came to terms with his own experiences of the care home system in a very different way. ‘He ended up running children’s homes in Birmingham. I was always anti-system and argued with him when he said he wanted to go into social work, but he said, “I don’t want what happened to us to happen to other kids.” Now I go along with him to give talks at care homes, encouraging the kids to believe they can make something of their futures.’
After he left care Paul had a succession of jobs, dipping his toe into the entertainment business when he formed the group Soul Motion with Ben and a friend. His big break came when, aged eighteen, he auditioned for the stage musical Hair. ‘I was working in the basement at Lewis’s, stacking shelves. I’d been taken on for Christmas but I liked the job and I liked the boss there, so I applied to be made permanent. While I was waiting to hear how I’d got on I tagged along with a mate who was going to the audition. They ended up picking me – I thought it was great that you could sing and dance and get paid for it.’
More stage roles followed, along with television work such as Gangsters and the Liverpool-set comedy series The Brothers McGregor. He also appeared in his first feature film, The Long Good Friday. His long run in Only Fools and Horses began in the early Eighties. Paul says he had as much fun filming the series as we did watching it. ‘It was hilarious. I remember one episode set in Margate and it turned into a real boys’ outing. We all went down there in the coach and it was laughs all the way. I had my camera with me and have got loads of pictures that bring it all back – like Uncle Albert lying flat on his back with his top off, soaking up the sun.’
Paul now has an impressive CV, but in the early years especially roles were not always easy to come by. He has some interesting thoughts on the difficulties he believes still face black actors. ‘Maybe some writers don’t know enough about black people’s lives to write roles for them. I was immensely proud to be involved in Boys From The Blackstuff, but was slightly disappointed that Alan Igbon’s character Logo wasn’t more developed – we never got to hear his story in the way that we did with some of the other characters. At the same time you can get weary of being offered roles that have an obvious ‘black’ angle. Years ago I wrote to the Everyman saying I was interested in working for them and they wrote back saying they’d contact me when they next did A Taste of Honey.’
Paul’s a versatile actor, known on the one hand for parts such as warmhearted, affable Denzil, and on the other for roles where he plays the menacing hard man. The former persona has recently been heard to entertaining effect as the cheerfully reassuring talking boiler in Scottish Power television ads. The latter is illustrated by his role as a formidable Liverpool doorman in the 2006 film Dead Man’s Cards. ‘I like both kinds of role,’ says Paul. ‘I love gritty northern drama and they say I’m really scary when I do the tough guy parts – I’ve had camera crews say I frighten them to death. I said I’d do Dead Man’s Cards as soon as I heard Tom Bell was going to be in it.’ It was to be the legendary Liverpool actor’s last film. ‘It was such an honour to work with him. I love rogue actors and he was just a great guy. There are so many tales about him and he’d say, “I’ll tell you the true story”. He was a great professional as well, always wanting to rehearse the lines on the way to the shoot. Some of us went to New York where the film was showing at a festival and we’d just landed at the airport when our cameraman got a phone message that Tom had died. We had to announce what had happened at the festival – it was really sad. But the funeral was a lovely occasion. Tom was buried in a wicker casket.’
The film was also another opportunity for Paul to spend time in his native city. ‘I love Liverpool and love filming there. I still sometimes go round where the old children’s homes were – Woolton, Garston. There’s a place by the river, at the back of the old airport, along from Otterspool Promenade. When I lived in Liverpool I used to sit there in my car, listening to Pink Floyd, watching the sun going down over the Mersey.’
Paul’s modest about his many acting achievements. ‘It’s important to keep your feet on the ground. I just see myself as a jobbing actor and hope to do the job well. I like stretching myself though, and don’t think I’ve played the ultimate part yet.’
Off-screen, Paul is just as you’d imagine him – warm, good-humoured and relaxed, but with a clear inner strength that has served him well during what has sometimes been a difficult life. Liverpool is a city that has been blessed with more than its share of acting talent, and Paul Barber belongs alongside the best of them.
Paul Barber’s memoir Foster Kid is a Sphere paperback.