THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT: RAY BROOKS INTERVIEW
Ray Brooks is no longer a faceless actor with one of the most instantly recognisable voices on British television. These days he even gets stopped in the street! And it’s all down to an endearingly roguish character named Robbie Box.
Two successful seasons of the popular BBC series ‘The Big Deal’ have assured that Ray Brooks has at last become the household face that he deserves. But in-the-street recognition has been a long time coming for an actor who, twenty years ago, was watching his first starring movie win the Best Picture award at the Cannes Film Festival
Riding on the crest of the British film boom of the 1960s, Ray Brooks found himself starring with Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham in ‘The Knack… And How To Get It’, Dick Lester’s imaginative film version of the Ann Jellicoe play. Sandwiched neatly between Lester’s two hugely successful large-screen Beatle endeavours, ‘The Knack’ was a witty and visually stunning portrayal of London on the verge of the Swinging Sixties.
Ray Brooks remembers the time affectionately. “It was a phenomenal time,” he recalls. “In the Sixties there were films being made everywhere. You couldn’t turn a corner in London without a film being made. It seemed like that there were lots of opportunities.”
Ray Brooks followed up his success in ‘The Knack’ by starring opposite Carol White in the critically acclaimed BBC film ‘Cathy Come Home’. And then, to a large extent, he seemed to disappear from our screens, never quite able to capitalise on these early successes. “I think I was naive,” suggests Brooks. “I thought that they would come to me. I was asked to go to a lot of places, lots of film festivals, people were offering me work but the films that they were offering me very often didn’t materialise because they couldn’t get the money.
“The point was that there were so many films being made but there were also so many people coming up. I mean David Hemmings, who I was in ‘Some People’ with, was going along for a small part in a Walt Disney film in London. I was going along as well, because ‘The Knack’ hadn’t come out then. Every young actor in London was going along for this part and I came out of this interview where the reception was full of actors – I went to the pub across the street and there was David Hemmings. He couldn’t even get an interview for this film and two months later he got the lead in ‘Blow Up’, so it was a kind of tumbling situation.”
Ray Brooks, like many of his contemporaries in the Sixties, came from a working class background with “no theatre connections at all”. He puts his entrance into the acting profession down to some kind of haphazard fate. “My mother thought I should take elocution lessons. My mother was a bus conductress in Brighton and she thought one of the ways of getting on in the world was to speak well, so she sent me to drama school in the evenings when I was eight. Later I used to do lots of amateur shows.”
Having a girlfriend that went to RADA was the thing that finally made him think “I could be an actor”. Giving up his office job he wrote off to a great many repertory companies, eventually landing a part in Treasure Island – Nottingham style.
“And that was my first job,” he smiles.
The early Sixties saw Ray appearing in a number of minor films: ‘HMS Defiant’ in 1960 (“My first film of any size, I had a couple of lines”); Billy Fury’s ‘Play It Cool’; and in 1962 a starring role in ‘Some People’. Next came ‘The Knack’, in which he played Tolen, an enigmatic character with a taste for sharp suits, fast ‘birds’ and Thelonius Monk records. Ray Brooks was superbly restrained as Tolen, an understated performance opposite Michael Crawford’s delightfully edgy Colin, the frustrated teacher who determines that Tolen will teach him the knack of picking up birds.
The critical and financial success of the film can be attributed to a combination of its four engaging performances (Brooks, Crawford, Tushingham and Donal Donnelly) and the imaginative adaptation by both scriptwriter and director. “‘The Knack’ was an Ann Jellicoe play which was done at the Royal Court,” explains Ray, “but it didn’t look anything like a film, there was nothing in it to be made into a film. But it was a very, very successful film. It only cost £125,000 to make. Well, in those days if you could make £6 or £7 million on a film like that it was phenomenal.”
Dick Lester was possibly the most innovative of his batch of British directors, producing a style early in the Sixties that would be mimicked by others throughout the decade. “He was extraordinary to work with. He’d just done ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, so The Beatles were always around. He’s a very visual man. They reckon that you could take any frame from ‘Help’, ‘The Knack’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and you could put it on the cover of Time/Life. Everything was so beautifully shot – he’s got a great visual sense. I don’t think that he’s a good actor’s director, he’s not very good helping you play a part for instance.”
In 1966 Ray Brooks starred with Carol White in the controversial BBC film about an unmarried mother, ‘Cathy Come Home’. “It’s still one of the most famous plays that the BBC has ever done,” he says with a certain amount of pride. And again he found himself working with a director whose style was not exactly mainstream. “It was mostly improvised. The script, if you could call it a script, was just pages and pages of stuff – you’d turn over a page and it would say ‘Cathy And Reg Walking In A Park’ and then it would be blank. Ken Loach would take us to a park and say ‘Well, what do you want to talk about?’.”
Walking a thin line between drama and documentary is not to everyone’s taste, what did Brooks think of working within that genre?
He is thoughtful: “I don’t think you’d get away with it now.”
Something about the black and white realism of the Sixties perhaps?
“Certainly If ‘Cathy Come Home’ was colour it wouldn’t have had the impact. Colour glamorises everything. It makes everything look good.”
The Sixties also saw Ray Brooks in a brief flirtation with a musical career. “I did a play that Adam Faith turned down. I did that with John Barry, called ‘Girl On A Roof’. I was offered a recording contract after but they wanted 50 per cent of everything I earned so l turned it down. I did a record after that. It was written by the guy who wrote Adam Faith’s songs, but it wasn’t released in this country.”
At the tail-end of the Sixties, when his acting career seemed to go into a rapid decline, the responsibility of being a happily married family man (he has been married for 26 years and has three children, aged 20, 15 and 12) forced him to explore various sidelines. One of them was a continuation of his musical career
“In desperation, because things were so bad, I wrote songs and I did an album in an attempt to get money. A lot of singer/songwriter albums were coming out. I had written these songs and a friend of a friend heard them and said that he could get me a deal on them. I did this album and a few singles afterward – all kind of introverted, a lot of guitar-based stuff. Never sold anything. I think there’s only two copies left in the country,” he jokes, “and I’ve got both of them.”
Through the Seventies Brooks largely made his living from his distinctive voice, but not by singing. “I had tried to get into voice-overs but couldn’t. Then someone asked me out of the blue to do a voice-over and that started the ball rolling.”
For many years he has been a ‘professional voice’, used in adverts to sell all manner of of products. When you watch him speak it is hard to relate the dry vocal tones to the face before you. The first time I saw him act he was playing the lead in a Tom Stoppard play at the National Theatre. I became immediately enthralled by his voice. It was like hearing an old friend speak but I found it impossible to place the face. It wasn’t until I closed my eyes I realised that what I was hearing was in fact a memory from my childhood. Ray Brooks was the voice for the sharpest-dressing cartoon character of them all – I still can hardly believe that all these years later I am actually standing talking to Mr Ben himself.
Perhaps I shall always think of Ray Brooks as a strange amalgam of his two black suited roles, Tolen and Mr Ben, but to millions of new fans he has become Robbie Box, the loveable out-of-luck cockney card player. Is he happy finally being a well-recognised figure again?
“I think I’m better at it now,” he says. “This is like a rebirth.”
Well deserved recognition surely, but it’s been a long time coming.
“Yes, but I think the only time that I ever really wanted to be famous was when I was very young and I thought then I could go to parties and I wouldn’t have to make any effort because people would want to talk to me. I never courted fame and I must say that the only reason now that I want to have any success is because I want some assurance for the future. I don’t want long gaps in-between working like I’ve had. Fortunately I’ve had the voiceovers – if I hadn’t had the voice-overs I probably would have to have given up.”
Ray Brooks is friendly, unassuming and a generally nice chap. I suggest that you perhaps have to be a bit cut throat to succeed in his business. “I think you’ve got to be quite pushy. I think you’ve got to be good at your job. But I think above all you’ve got to be a nice person – I know it sounds a bit silly but I really think you’ve got to be a nice person. I’ve met people in the 30 years I’ve been doing it that have been very hard and that weren’t liked by a lot of people. And I must say that during that time those people have disappeared. And I don’t think you can be nice falsely, I think you’ve genuinely got to be a nice person otherwise it won’t work. The only way you can judge if people like you is when they talk to you and I’ve found with ‘The Big Deal’ people like me. I’m talking about on the streets of London, or when I go home to Brighton or when I go touring around Manchester, York or where ever. People come up to me in the street and they feel they know me and they want to talk to me. And it gives me the greatest pleasure in the world to talk to them. If they want to find out what it’s like I’ll tell them, because I know myself.
“I mean that’s what I’m like with footballers, I’m like a fan of that. If people want to talk about television and find out what it’s like playing the part, I’ll talk about it because I know it gives them pleasure.”
Twenty-six years of ups and downs is a long time in a high pressure business, but the high-points deliver a satisfaction unachievable elsewhere. I enquire which career high point has given Ray the most satisfaction?
“I think ‘Cathy Come Home’ gave me enormous satisfaction…aand ‘The Knack’. I suppose I’m only talking about the successful things. Stoppard’s ‘On The Razzle’, ‘A Nightingale Sang’, I did an Alan Ayckbourn play with Richard Briers which I loved.”
And ‘The Big Deal’?
“It’s certainly in my top four or five because I’ve had a great deal of pleasure out of it. They’re a marvellous cast, a wonderful group of people. We’re like a family and we have a great pleasure in each other’s company. It’s like a party really.”
He seems to have an unbounded love for his profession and a great many happy memories to boot. This affection he sums up best in something he calls his ‘Laurel And Hardy Fantasy’, involving a strange collision of onscreen and offscreen realities. When you watch a film you believe in the reality of the image you are being sold. But you also know that at some point the director has stopped the action and filmed reality has been put on pause. What would happen, he suggests, if the film was left rolling and something magic on the celluloid enabled it to capture the proceedings on the other side of the camera.
“When you watch a film you know the director said cut at one point,” he says.“When Laurel and Hardy stopped doing their thing and said ‘Well, we’ve got another hour, do you want to play cards or do you want a drink’, they walk behind the camera. And behind the camera of the film you’ve just seen was a life going on, a social life, things happening. And when I see films that I did, and this is one of the nice things about the Sixties films because at the time you didn’t know they were going to be so revered now, every time I see them I can remember what went on around them. It’s like old photographs – they bring back memories because I was there. And not only was I on the screen but I actually walked off that screen and I remember the rooms, I remember in the house where we filmed ‘The Knack’, sitting up stairs playing cards and John Lennon walked in. He was very famous and he sat down and I said hello and he said ‘Oh, hello’. I said ‘Do you want to play cards?’ and he said ‘No, no’. And that’s all I ever said to him! I can remember where the room was, I can remember where the house is. It’s all memory, I mean it’s not important to anybody else but it sort of fills out those days for you, it makes them very rich.”
What ever happens with his career from this point at least Ray Brooks has the satisfaction of knowing that the parts he played in a couple of low budget films 20 years ago have earned him a place in film history. Open any cinema textbook and turn to the chapter marked The British Film Boom Of The Sixties – somewhere there you will find his name and invariably a photo, there for posterity.
“Someone said to me the other day: ‘You’ve really cracked it now, you’re in Trivial Pursuits.’ It says, ‘what famous television programme starred Ray Brooks and Carol White?’ So it’s in Trivial Pursuits now. That’s really a mark of fame isn’t it?”
The ultimate tribute!
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007