Actor Paul Barber launched a new national campaign in Merseyside this week to encourage people of all ages to join their local library. Without the resource facility, his own career would not have been as successful, he tells me.
Before he introduced National Year of Reading’s new campaign, the seasoned actor spoke about why he got involved.
“If it wasn’t for reading I wouldn’t have been able to become an actor or write my autobiography,” Barber says at the Central Library in Liverpool city centre.
Originally born in Ireland, he grew up in the Liverpool care system during the 1950s from the age of seven. His troubled upbringing became well documented last year, following the publishing of his autobiography Foster Kid.
On meeting Barber, he contrasts greatly to the tough and hardened person you’d expect judging him by his personal upbringing and recent film roles he’s portrayed.
Dressed in a black suit with receding hair – now almost totally white – and sporting rounded glasses, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Barber as a school professor. Nonetheless, his studious appearance suited our setting for the interview.
In his book, he delivered an honest and funny account of his colourful background and these attributes shine through when in conversation with him.
He was last seen on our television screens in The Invisibles, playing computer wiz Young Nick. The BBC drama ran for five weeks and it starred Anthony Head – the Prime Minister from Little Britain – amongst other actors of note.
“Yeah, working with Anthony, Warren Clarke and Jenny Agutter was great,” Barber says in his laid back, distinguishably deep scouse tone.
It was a role not usually associated with the 57-year-old actor, who is best known for playing Denzil in the classic comedy sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
He said: “I liked it because it’s about safe crackers, who come out of retirement and they’ve still got the touch, who were known as ‘The Invisibles’.”
Barber found solace in acting after leaving the care system and returning to Toxteth, where he felt more at home.
Following a chance audition for the musical Hair at the Liverpool Empire theatre, Barber was thrust into the entertainment industry and into an acting career expanding 30 years, landing parts in television series considered today as ‘TV classics’.
The role he played in Only Fools and Horses will forever be remembered, but he questions whether there will ever be sitcoms of this popularity again.
Barber said: “There is a lot of reality shows now and the comedy is so much different today as, say, from the seventies.”
This saturation of similar television programmes concerns Barber. He adds: “Things like Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From the Blackstuff or Play for Today – we need stuff like that again.
“At the moment, we’re just getting things like Strictly Come Dancing, Strictly Dancing On Ice, Strictly come this or Strictly come the other!”
During the 1980s Barber gained further credibility by appearing in the British gangster film The Long Good Friday, alongside British screen icons Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren.
But playing a working class male stripper in the hit film The Full Monty positioned Barber into a world-wide audience. Did he imagine the film would be a success? “When I first read the script there was a scene, the moment I read it, which jumped at me off the page and I thought, ‘this is going to be hilarious’,” Barber explains.
“It was the dole queue scene and I thought if they do it the way it is written and the way I imagined it then it would be hilarious. True to form it was done just like that. Very funny.”
The Peter Cattaneo-directed film began a trend of low budget British films making it big in Hollywood. Barber, however, has a more political view on the subject: “I will always believe Margaret Thatcher put the mockers on show business. Actors weren’t allowed to have royalties anymore and stuff like that.
“Everything became low budget and everything I get offered now I’m being told is low budget, but what it basically means is that the producer can sell your product ten times over and they make the money, not you!”
Nevertheless, his performance as a nightclub doorman in the James Marquand-directed low budget film Dead Man’s Cards in 2006 confirmed his ability at portraying menacing characters. Something Barber noted after his latest role.
He added: “Normally you get asked to do parts that don’t stretch you, but the character I played in The Invisibles did and it’s one I’m not normally associated with. I think I’ve cornered the market in muggers and pimps.”
National Year of Reading’s Library Campaign is supported by all libraries across England. For further details visit www.yearofreading.org.uk.