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‘Gissa job!’ How Bernard Hill created one of TV’s most tragic and unforgettable characters
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‘Gissa job!’ How Bernard Hill created one of TV’s most tragic and unforgettable characters

Some time in 1980, on the first sheet of a script that would eventually run to 221 pages, Alan Bleasdale typed the line: We see Yosser with his three children. He is leaning forward.

When the jobcentre clerk explains he is “afraid” he can’t do anything, the pale-faced, dark-moustached man snaps: “Afraid? Y’ll be terrified in a minute. [Leans in.] Now sort me soddin’ Giro check out before I knock y’into the disability department.”

Anyone who has watched Boys from the Blackstuff immediately hears the mellifluously menacing voice of Bernard Hill and sees the tall broad frame that was often angled forward. Bleasdale’s frequent specification that Yosser was “leaning in” warned that the unemployed road layer was about to head-butt a person, wall or church, as he indelibly did in scenes from the series.

That Hill, who died yesterday aged 79, was able to turn this dialogue and action into one of the most memorable characters in British TV history was due to his strong face and acting brain, but also the two layers of history behind Yosser.

Hill first played him in The Blackstuff, a one-off 1980 Play for Today by Bleasdale, who had met the actor through the Liverpool theatre scene. Hill played John Lennon in Willy Russell’s 1974 Beatles fantasy John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert.

Bernard Hill in The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the KingView image in fullscreen

In the Blackstuff play, Yosser is much less damaged and dangerous than in the series. Bleasdale’s exploration of what had happened to make him more extreme created a character who was unusually rich in all but material terms. Another vital decision by the writer was to give Yosser catchphrases.

One of these – “Gissa job! I can do that!” – became symbolic of the mass unemployment that made the series brutally topical. (The BBC had been reluctant initially, Bleasdale said, “to have this long series about these northern unemployed”.)

Another one-liner that has stuck in the mind comes when Yosser enters a confessional in Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral and tells the priest: “I’m desperate, Father.” In the matey way with which churches were beginning to experiment, he is told: “Call me Dan,” bringing Yosser’s response: “I’m desperate, Dan.” A visual and verbal gag – Hill’s Yosser did resemble the cartoon cowboy with the big stubbled chin – the line triggers a manic laugh that marks the start of a breakdown in which he repeatedly nuts the wire confessional grille, dislodging a crucifix.

To tenderise a character some viewers might have found alarming, Yosser was generally accompanied by the three children to whom he tried to be a good dad, against the efforts of the authorities to take them away.

They were played by three little Bleasdales, who knew their dad’s actor friend as a sort of honorary uncle, which added even more authenticity.

When I interviewed Bleasdale last year for the Guardian, he recalled: “People remember this scene where one of the kids just falls asleep on Yosser. But it was genuine. Bernard was their friend and they were so comfortable with him that, bored with filming, they just curled up next to him.”

It is a tribute to Hill’s professionalism and fast work that some important speeches had been given to him just before the day’s filming. As Boys from the Blackstuff kept running out of money, Bleasdale would rewrite exterior scenes for cheaper interiors.

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Bernard Hill in TitanicView image in fullscreen

So memorable did the character become that you meet Hugheses from that era who still carry the nickname. The cricket writer and former player Simon Hughes is among those addressed as “Yosser” by old colleagues.

A famous TV role can eclipse an actor, but Hill avoided this. Yosser is about to be played at the National Theatre by Barry Sloane in James Graham’s adaptation of Bleasdale’s series that was a hit in Liverpool and is scheduled to transfer to the West End. Hill, though, had the talent to escape from one character’s huge shadow.

His five-decade screen CV includes credits for almost every year, ranging from huge movies – Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings, in which he played Théoden – to affecting TV roles, including Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations and the Duke of Norfolk in the Hilary Mantel adaptation, Wolf Hall.

On the day of his death – almost exactly 50 years after his TV debut in Childhood, an ITV Rudyard Kipling adaptation – he was introduced as the father of Martin Freeman’s traumatised cop Chris Carson in the second season of BBC One’s The Responder.

When I interviewed Freeman for Radio Times last month, he said: “I think that’s one of my favourite bits in both series. You think: ‘Oh, that’s Bernard Hill; Bernard Hill’s in it,’ and then Chris says: ‘Hello, Dad,’ and you think: fucking hell.’” That comment touchingly catches the esteem in which Hill was held by his fellow actors – and his TV and cinema audiences.

Source: theguardian.com