English actor Bob Hoskins, best known for his gangster-type characters in blockbusters such as The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, started his career playing a removal man in a BBC educational series.
The star was 33 when he won the role of Alf Hunt, who had literacy problems, in the long-running drama series, On the Move. Watched by 17 million viewers, the show was broadcast in the early evening slot every Sunday during 1975 and 1976.
Hoskins inspired thousands of adults to overcome their fears and learn how to read and write. George Auckland, who led the BBC’s adult education programming following the success of On the Move, recalled how there were queues outside every UK adult literacy centre on a Monday morning.
He described Hoskins as the “best educator” Britain had ever produced, judging by the number of adults he encouraged to go back into the classroom. The critics loved his realistic portrayal of Hunt, who was depicted as struggling with homework and often frustrated by his apparent lack of progress.
Mark Lawson, a journalist for The Guardian, wrote at the time that the actor gave Alf a “vulnerability and poignancy” that way surpassed the requirements of a public information series. The magazine GQ praised the “light touch” that Hoskins exhibited with “both a removal van and a personal pronoun”.
It was On the Move which led to Hoskins’ next role, playing sheet music salesman Arthur Parker, in the musical drama, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, on the BBC in 1978. He shot to fame in the cult series and then launched his movie career.
Born in October 1942 in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Hoskins left school at the age of 15, with one O-level. He took several manual jobs and coincidentally was a lorry driver himself as a young man. Little did he know that his real-life job would be a good grounding for his future acting career.
He had an interesting youth, spending six months in Israel, working on a kibbutz. Back in the UK, he got into acting by chance. He had gone to auditions for Romeo and Juliet in 1968 at Stoke-on-Trent’s Victoria Theatre just to support his friend, who was trying out for a role.
Hoskins was persuaded to audition too and won the role of a servant. This was the start of his long and illustrious career, as he was a respected stage actor before successfully auditioning for the role of Alf Hunt.
On the Move
On the Move began with the catchy title song, sung by 1970s pop band, The Dooleys. They crooned, “On the move, we’re on the move again,” over the opening credits.
The lyrics had a dual meaning, as not only was the removals van on the move, but Alf was on the move too, in terms of improving his level of education. “Life is an open book, if you open your eyes and look,” urged the narrator.
Each episode of the series featured Alf and his friend Bert, played by Donald Gee, driving round in their furniture removal van, with its familiar giant arrow painted on the side. They would stop for a coffee and chat about Alf’s lessons at adult literacy night classes.
The programme appealed to far more viewers than simply its target audience, as 17 million people watching an adult education series was virtually unheard of. The UK’s national campaign to tackle illiteracy received a welcome boost from the series.
After finishing Pennies from Heaven, Hoskins went on to have a successful Hollywood career, starring in his first blockbuster, The Long Good Friday, in 1980, alongside Helen Mirren. He played Harold Shand, a gangster striving to become a respectable businessman, whose world was shattered by a series of unexplained murders. He was nominated for a BAFTA Best Actor Award for his portrayal of the man battling unknown assassins.
His next massive hit was Mona Lisa in 1986, in which he played small-time gangster, George, who is the driver and bodyguard for high-class prostitute, Simone, for whom he starts to develop feelings.
One of the high points of his career was playing private investigator, Eddie Valiant, in the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He had to take a mime training course to prepare for the film, as the cartoon characters with whom he interacted were added to the shots later.
Hoskins won a British Evening Standard Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his epic performance.
In his later career, he continued with his television work, putting in an Emmy Award-winning performance in the drama series, The Street, in 2009, playing Paddy Gargan, a publican who stood up to a gangster.
His career on television and in the movies displayed amazing longevity, lasting for more than four decades. He died in 2014, at the age of 71.
Although he will always be remembered for his gritty gangster roles, he will also be greatly admired for helping to inspire thousands of adults to learn to read and write, thanks to his honest portrayal of removal man, Alf Hunt.
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