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The Christine Smith Interview: I was 54 when my mother told me I had been left me shattered; NEWS THAT DROVE NEIGHBOURS' IAN INTO YEARS OF DEPRESSION.

Byline: Christine Smith

IF HAROLD Bishop is not the world's most boring soap character, then I'd like to know who is.

He is Neighbours' answer to a sleeping giant and makes Coronation Street's Ken Barlow seem like a fascinating bloke.

But his snooze-inducing antics occasionally provide some top TV comedy moments. Not all of them intentional.

Who can forget Harold's hysterical disappearance off a cliff in 1992, only to reappear four years later claiming he had suffered "amnesia"?

The farcical plotline put "The Bishop" in the same league as Dallas' Bobby Ewing who was notoriously killed off for an entire series before returning to the screen with the infamous line: "I've just had the strangest dream..."

But does actor Ian Smith, who has played Harold for 14 fabulous years, share the opinion that his TV alter ego is something of a cure for insomnia?

And, more importantly, is he like his character?

Just for safe measure, I pack a duvet before setting off to greet the 62-year-old star who is in London for this weekend's celebrations marking the 15th anniversary of Ramsay Street.

But the moment I meet the man himself, it is clear a nap will not be high on the agenda today.

Ian is very animated. "Harold is just an annoying old fart," the actor booms after I politely skirt around the issue of his TV character's "personality".

"To be fair, he gets on my nerves sometimes!" he adds.

Ian is terribly proud of Harold. He has even stopped trying to lose weight because, he confides, a svelte Harold would not be the same.

"I want him to look stupid doing his power walking!" he explains, staring down (double chin intact) at the bright red shirt covering his chubby, teddy bear-like figure.

Ian enjoys a gag or two, unlike Harold.

HE ASSURES me: "Harold and I are total opposites in every single way. I eat meat, I drink booze, I have..."

Yes? I ask excitedly.

"I have," he continues, "been known to drop the odd naughty word!" Ooh, whatever next! So would you say you are wacky?

"Sure," he replies in a soft Australian drawl.

I'd say Ian veers more on the solid side of wacky than the outrageous. He is amenable and genuine, but terribly polite.

That said, he loves to chat.

Thankfully, he is not the droning type. One minute, he is enthusing about how he based Harold on a warehouse manager he once worked for and his late dad, Gordon. The next, he is declaring: "Gordon was my adoptive father. I found out he was not my real dad only after he had died. It was eight years ago." Ian was 54 at the time.

What? "I know," he sighs, looking very Harold, forlorn in his wire, gold-rimmed glasses.

"My mother Connie - well, adoptive mum - suddenly woke up one morning with an urgent need to tell me. I broke down when I was told and in fact, I would much rather I had not been told.

"Not at that age, 54. I was happy. My life was set. I had all my values in place.

"Then all of a sudden - bang! You find out your whole life has been a lie. She died three years later."

Why did she wait so long? "Who knows," he whispers. "I was not terribly close to either of them and it has since been explained to me that there is a bonding time for a baby. I was eight weeks old when I was handed over and so that time had gone." He pauses, seemingly reluctant to say more. Go on, Ian.

Suddenly, he needs little persuasion and it's almost as if he finds talking about his adoption comforting.

Raised by the Catholic couple in Melbourne, Ian - an only child - met his real mother Peg shortly after the news was broken to him in 1993. His real dad had already passed away.

"My biologocial mum is only 14 years older than me," he says. "Super lady! We are the best of friends now. But it was spooky when we met. For the first time in my life, I looked like someone. I always knew it had been wrong that I did not look like my adoptive parents."

Ian is pensive. "I went into a dreadful depression afterwards," he confesses. "A shocking one. It lasted three years. I am still not totally out of it now. Sometimes I go into denial about it.

"It is a very bad thing. I would like to set up an advice bureau for people who have adoptive children."

STARING straight into my eyes, he drives home his point: "People should tell kids as soon as possible if they are adopted. Kids can adapt."

He smiles. Life, he booms, must go on.

His life revolves around Neighbours and his wife of 32 years, Gail. He was a naughty boy when he met Gail. He says: "I was engaged to someone else at the time."

Ian! You scoundrel!

"You dog, sir," he banters back. Mmm... I am not so sure I am on the same jokey wavelength as Ian but, hey, the duvet is still in my bag. "It was my fiancee's birthday and we had a drinks party," he says.

"It was there I saw Gail. I turned to our friend and said: 'I have just met the future Mrs Smith.'

"She laughed at me and every anniversary she sends us a card, saying: 'I am still laughing'."

They have no children but are obsessed with tabbies. The couple dote on their three cats.

"Not instead of children," he butts in. "We soon found out what caused children!" Right...

"Seriously," he continues. "Very fortunately, neither of us had the natural urge to have children. We like kids as long as people take them home after we have finished playing.

The only time I did want a child lasted only a split second. Literally.

"It was when my adoptive mother broke down and cried: 'Ian, you are adopted.' The first thing that tore through my brain was: 'Oh God, I wish I had a kid.' It was the same for Gail.

"But we have no regrets. Many people have children just so their kids can look after them in their old age."

Ian leads a relatively quiet lifestyle with Gail, who works for a banker.

"Gail and I are different," he says, "but one thing we do agree on is that I have to do my own thing in the mornings.

"I can be a grumpy old man - but loveable, too! I can also go out raging." I am not quite certain what Ian's idea of a rage is but further probing is suspended temporarily by a schoolgirl hovering next to our table.

"Are you Harold?" she asks excitedly. He nods and duly gives her his autograph.

"I will never be able to get used to this," he says. "I am not being humble. I admit I have an ego just like everyone else in this business, but all this is strange."

An actor since the age of 20, he has starred in countless TV shows including eight years in Prisoner: Cell Block H.

But it's his role as bumbling Harold that has turned him into a global soap name.

Ninety per cent of his fan mail is sent from the UK. Crank letters, he adds, have stopped.

"I have had them in the past," he admits. "They were dangerous, straight-out threats.

"But the police were advised and we cleared the decks."

I wonder if he received any letters on the back of his laughable return to Neighbours following his four-year break.

He left under a cloud after producers felt Harold had simply run out of steam. But a new management had different thoughts and Harold returned. "The storyline did bring a smile," he says of the ridiculous amnesia plot in 1996.

"Just a smile?" I persist, roaring with laughter that it must go down as one of the most farcical plots in soap history.

"Two weeks in, everyone had forgotten how Harold came back anyway," Ian retorts.

He is proud of Neighbours' other equally unbelievable storylines, now watched by 62million viewers worldwide.

THE actor also says he will always have a soft spot for Kylie Minogue, who played his step-daughter Charlene back in the Eighties and who's gone on to pop glory here in Britain.

So does Ian plan to carry on playing Harold forever?

Shaking his head, he says he wants to retire "sometime in the future" and hopes to spend some of his hard-earned cash.

"Sometimes I go mad," he adds. "Buying a car when I do not need one. But why not? I am an atheist so I don't believe I am going to go anywhere afterwards."

His only regret is that the is growing old rapidly. "You," he says pointedly at me "will discover this, too.

"You have the same eyes and brain and feel like you are 25 - but bugger it, you are getting old. And the alternative does not bear thinking about!"

"Death," he shudders.

I leave him contemplating this thought as he sets off to sign more autographs for adoring fans obsessed by the antics of boring Harold Bishop.

Still, at least I did not feel any urge to curl up under my duvet today.

NEIGHBOURS is screened at 1.45pm and 5.35pm on BBC1 every weekday.


FUN: Ian's a lot jollier than Harold; Pic: JOHN FERGUSON; SHOW-STOPPER: Harold; CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: A younger Ian in Prisoner: Cell Block H; BISHOP'S MOVE: Early days in Neighbours with Kylie, right
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 27, 2001
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