Bob Hoskins is in his element.
On stage, beautiful naked girls perform a 1930s revue. In the stalls, as theatre manager Vivian Van Damm, Hoskins looks on with the keen professional eye of the impresario.
No red-blooded man can balk at having to watch young women posing in the nude – even if, by recreating the glory days of London’s Windmill Theatre, it was all in a day’s work.
By co-starring in, and co-producing, the divine Mrs. Henderson Presents – in which Dame Judi Dench plays bored eccentric Laura Henderson, the innovative theatre owner who first put naked girls on the Soho stage – Hoskins was going back to his roots.
“Before girls started shimmying up and down poles and things like that it was a family show,” says Hoskins, recalling childhood visits to the Windmill.
“People used to take the whole family to see it – not only the nudes but there were comedians and all kinds of acts. There were kids running around all over the place. It was great, and it stayed with me.”
So much so that when Hoskins’ friends hit on the idea of telling the story of Mrs Henderson and her revolutionary shows, he came on board as producer. It was a journey that would find him reconsidering his past and, in no small way, basing the character of Van Damm on his late father.
“Van Damm looked exactly like my dad,” says Hoskins, referring to the ‘40s hairpiece he wears throughout the film. “I just started looking at old pictures of my dad really – and it was exactly the same haircut. My dad’s got a mane of hair. Unfortunately I take after my Mum – my mum wasn’t bald but her brothers were!”
Playing the gentlemanly Van Damm marks yet another superb character study in Hoskins’ repertoire. After making his name as East End gangster Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday 25 years ago he has played everyone and everything from Mussolini, Noriega, Khrushchev and Hoover to detectives, cops, explorers, butlers and priests.
There were more gangsters in Mona Lisa and Unleashed, Smee in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Pope John XXIII in The Good Pope.
Yet Mrs. Henderson Presents marks a genuine first in Hoskins’ career: his first full-frontal. At the age of 63, it was, to say the least, a courageous move.
It occurs as the Windmill girls, nervous at their first nude rehearsal, rebel against removing their clothes. In time-honoured fashion they declare they will strip – but only if the watching men do, too. And that includes Mr Van Damm. Hoskins laughs.
“The funny thing was the building of the theatre. It was like going into a theatre company – very much a family. People used to turn up on their days off, you know, just to be a part of what was happening on the day. I think if anybody had sneaked in and tried to take advantage they’d have been lynched. [On the day] everybody else was wandering around naked so I took ‘em off. And when I got ‘em off I suddenly thought ‘I’m the only old wrinkly here’ – all these young bodies and this old fella.
“I don’t think the tableau would work now. What was amazing was that it was completely un-erotic, just beautiful. Funnily enough like the girls, when they had stripped off and were standing there doing this, it was quite humbling. They were beautiful, but they weren’t waving their bums around and jiggling their tits. It was art, and I don’t think today that would work.”
The picture gave Hoskins his first co-starring role with Judi Dench. He describes her as “completely fearless” and “quite wild” – not bad for someone who just turned 71. Their stormy relationship forms the core of the film – in real life Van Damm regularly banned his interfering employer from the Windmill so she took to sneaking in in disguise – once as a Chinese mandarin, later in a bear costume.
“What was funny was when we got together with Judi,” recalls Hoskins. “We took her to lunch and were pitching the story. Judi never reads a script. I lent forward and I said ‘Judi you actually get to dress up as a Chinese lady and a polar bear – she said ‘Oh yes, I’m definitely doing that!’
“I don’t think Mrs. Henderson was as charming as Judi – who’s a right old cow [in the film]. In a funny way I don’t really know where it diverges.”
Hoskins is delighted with the film and the reception it has been getting. But while he has produced and directed in film and television, he has no real ambitions to do more than he does.
A few years back he said he felt he’d done well because he’s “never been found out”. After almost 40 years in the biz and an Oscar nomination for Mona Lisa under his belt, how does he feel now?
“Obviously I have been found out! I’ve never had any training or anything at all, I just gone on and done it and winged it, you know? Keep your head down, keep running and no-one will notice.”
And as he heads towards his dotage, one senses he doesn’t need to tackle major leading roles any more – he’s happy with guest spots and those terrific character parts he makes his own. So how does he pick his roles?
“It’s always been a job to me. It’s how I earn my living ‘til the next job turns up. The way I judge a script, when it turns up in the morning I give it the ‘cold bum’ test – I take it to the loo. If I suddenly think ‘God, I’ve got a cold bum’ it’s obviously a good script! Then I decide to do it.”