30 Apr 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942 – 2014: TV’s working class hero

People who only know Bob Hoskins as the avuncular cockney from central casting only know the half of his story.

His sudden stardom in the 1970s, for me, symbolises the moment working class voices finally made it onto the mainstream stage, screen and broadcast drama.

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Hoskins left school at fifteen, dropped out, worked in a kibbutz and, according to theatre legend, got his first job because he was hanging around at the bar in the Unity Theatre – a left-wing setup in Camden – got handed a script and told “you’re next” for the audition.

In 1976 the BBC launched an adult literacy series called On the Move, in which Hoskins played a lorry driver who’s having trouble reading.

These were the days when public service TV actually meant helping people, not making fun of them, and Hoskins was a big hit with a generation of working class blokes because his natural humour allowed probably thousands of people to confront their own problems with literacy.

Read more: Made in Dagenham: a victory for women’s rights

Then he got a massive break in Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven.

The series itself was revolutionary, combining 1930s dance music with a very tough drama covering rape, murder, marital breakdown and the general hypocrisy of the upper classes.


Hoskins with Michael Caine in 1985

Hoskins played the main character, Arthur, a little guy driven to destruction by the system. In the same year he played Iago and he was well and truly off: Long Good Friday, Roger Rabbit, Mona Lisa.

Amid all this I am thinking today of Hoskins’ equally breakthrough appearance on the stage at the National Theatre (1982) as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (the character played by Frank Sinatra in the movie).

Read more: five Bob Hoskins films we know and love

Working class voices had been breaking through into the mainstream for more than a decade by the time Hoskins came along. But they were either strained through drama school (Albert Finney and Tom Courtney) or restricted to playing low-life one dimensional characters (and of course the one, ubiquitous soap, Corrie).

Suddenly, here was Hoskins, a working class bloke who could play anybody.

The years encompassing Pennies From Heaven, Long Good Friday and Guys and Dolls (1978-82) were a critical turning point in British politics and social history and you will never be able to write that history without understanding how important Hoskins’ voice was in the popular perception of what working class people could do – on the stage, on screen and – through rising literacy – in everyday life.

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