You may recognise him as the dentist from the classic ABC television series Mother and Son, but Henri Szeps has many other strings to his bow, being no stranger to both television and theatre. But where Henri’s talent truly shines is in is one-man shows – the latest of which, Wish I’d Said That, he’ll be presenting at the Manning Entertainment Centre this month …
What’s Wish I’d Said That actually about?
I’ve written two previous one-man shows which were autobiographical – about my life. This show is not. It’s about a bloke called Joe Bleakley, who’s a failed actor. He ends up in the Foggadieu Retirement Village, and he decides to entertain the inmates with wonderful features of characters from stage and screen, from roles he’s never played. He wishes he’d said these wonderful words at some stage or another.
Through the course of this performance, we discover other things he wishes he’d said – he has an estranged relationship with his daughter, so he wishes he could’ve said certain things to her. He’s also cheesed off with things the government hasn’t said at various times and should have! Basically, it’s a guy looking back over his life, who comes to see the miracle of having been born at all and having a life – it’s extraordinary!
The character Joe, as you mentioned, was not autobiographical, but how much do you actually relate to him?
It’s fantastic, because the character is not related to my career at all, as I’ve managed to become quite well known. But it is amazing that when you’re NOT talking about yourself, you can put in stuff that you’d never really say about yourself – and in that aspect, it comes very close!
It’s really intriguing that I can say things in this show that I would never have dared to say in a show that was about me – like my other shows, I’m Not a Dentist and Why Kids?
I wrote the first one, because I thought it might interest people to find out about that bloke who played the dentist in Mother and Son, and tell the story of the actor and how I came to be playing that role. And after doing that for about 4 years on and off, I thought there’s another half to my life, which is my wife, my children and my home, so I wrote Why Kids?
So now, I wanted to do something quite different, which is why I wrote about this guy who’s always wanted to perform these great pieces of literature – and never has. There a lot of gags in the show, a few songs … I think it’s an insight into getting older, the frustrations and the love.
So where did the idea come from to write this story?
I suppose the real genesis here – and I don’t know why I’m talking to you like this … maybe I should be paying you as my shrink! There are real roles that I haven’t played, and I do actually mention them in the show – and that got me thinking. I open with King Lear and scare the audience!
To give the readers a bit of background here, where did the whole desire to act begin with you?
When I was 5 years old I was in Switzerland. I was fostered as a child – I was born in a refugee camp during WWII. My foster family took me in when I was 11 months old. There were a lot of babies falling ill and dying in the refugee camp, and there were networks throughout Switzerland, formed by the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, of families prepared to take in these children. My mother had me fostered to this wonderful Lutheran Swiss family – who probably saved my life.
When I was 3, the war was over and my mother was living back in Paris, which is where she’d lived before the war, and she took me back. She had developed an inner ear infection in the refugee camp which would never clear up, and she had to keep going back to the hospital for operations. When I was 4½, she had to go back into hospital, and she sent me back to the Swiss family.
That time around, I remember when I was around 5, there were 3 neighbours’ kids sitting on a wooden fence facing me as I stood in the road, in a beautiful little Swiss village under the Alps. I was doing caricatures of some of the oldies around the place – and the kids were hanging on to this fence with tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks. I remember thinking that I really liked this – being the centre of attention and giving this pleasure.
Then I decided to do a take-off of my foster brother, who was 20 years my senior – and I thought I was doing it rather well! And suddenly – the kids stopped laughing. I turned around – and of course, he was standing right behind me. I copped a terrible hiding! He must have recognised himself! And it was that ability that I gradually developed and leaned on more and more. I’ve always been able to tell a gag and get a good laugh.
In primary school I did a lot of acting, and even then I felt the connection with the audience and wanted to do it for a living.
But I actually ended up doing Electrical Engineering at Sydney Uni, because I wanted to reassure myself and my parents that I wasn’t going to starve to death! While at uni, I was doing stand up around the clubs. One thing led to another, and then I did some stuff for the Ensemble Theatre, which was the turning point.
Many people would know you from Mother and Son, as it was such an iconic show. You must have so many wonderful memories from that time working with Garry McDonald and Ruth Cracknell …
I think it was absolutely life changing for all of us in many ways – me, Garry and Ruth.
Garry was already incredibly famous because of the character Norman Gunston, but he wasn’t regarded then as the incredibly fine actor he is. It was Mother and Son that gave him the bridge over into fine acting. For Ruth, it certainly did make her famous; she was well known in theatre, but not well known by the general public. And it was certainly life changing for me, because I’d been knocking around for a long time doing tele and theatre, but never being invited into people’s homes of an evening, and that’s what Mother and Son did for all three of us.
When I first approached the show, I saw a really black comedy, and I thought it was really clever. I thought we’d probably do 7 episodes, and we’d never hear about it again. But somehow, the show touched something in Australians … that compassion, or even that ambivalence we have when we need to help somebody. Dementia is a tricky thing; it’s difficult.
The show brought this issue into people’s homes and allowed them to look at it, suffer with it, laugh at it and laugh with it. I think what I liked about the show above all, was that it didn’t poke fun of any other groups of people.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
Photo: Natalie Boog.