Henry Winkler on filming Hank Zipzer

Henry Winkler and Nicholas James Nick James (right) plays Hank, who is based on a young Henry Winkler (l)

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Fresh from his unexpected vox pop on BBC News last month, Henry Winkler will appear on our screens again for a new CBBC show based on his best-selling Hank Zipzer books.

To the amusement of viewers before Christmas, the American actor was interviewed by James Landale asking shoppers about potential expansion at Heathrow. The political correspondent later admitted he hadn't initially recognised him before turning into "a gabbling, star-struck idiot".

But as the Fonz - Winkler's alter ego from US sitcom Happy Days - might say, heyyy, it's cool.

For those over 30, the actor will be always linked with that too-cool-for-school persona - and he says he doesn't mind that. But among the younger generation, he's better known for revisiting his own school life in the Hank Zipzer books, which have sold four million copies worldwide.

Start Quote

I want children and parents to watch it together and laugh ”

End Quote Henry Winkler

Written with Lin Oliver, the stories revolve around a resourceful boy who has a knack of getting into trouble. They're inspired by Winkler's experience of growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia and, other than his children, he ranks the books as his proudest achievement.

They have now been adapted as a comedy drama by CBBC, set in England instead of New York, with Winkler playing a contemporary version of his own music teacher and mentor Mr Rock.

Too American?

After filming the series in Yorkshire last November, he told Ariel the stories' progress from page to screen was like the tale of The Little Engine That Could, where a small train successfully perseveres over a seemingly impassable mountain.

"I could not, for the life of me, sell this show in America and I tried - I went to every large and small possibility, and Penguin the publisher, our mother ship for Hank Zipzer in America, didn't even want to publish it in England because they thought it was too American," he explains.

Henry Winkler Henry Winkler as a schoolboy and as the Fonz

"I have no idea why, honestly. So that was the reality I was faced with, and you learn in our particular business that if you want to play, you follow the rules, and then you make up your own rules."

But while doing panto in 2007, he had a chance meeting with former BBC worker Nicky Cox, now editor at children's magazine First News, which set off a chain of events that pulled in various publishers and producers. It culminated in dinner with TV executives in Manchester and bumping into BBC North boss Peter Salmon at a social club in Hollywood.

"Holy mackerel, I mean really, you talk about something meant to be," says Winkler, who, despite a high-profile career of more than 40 years, still sounds amazed that his stories will be on TV.

Along with the rest of the cast, he then tangoed into Halifax where the production filmed at a Catholic school.

Newcomer Nick James stars as Hank, dubbed the world's greatest underachiever, while Felicity Montagu, who played Alan Partridge's put-upon PA Lynn, wields a sword in the classroom as fearsome teacher Miss Adolf.

"Felicity and I immediately started talking about how we should do an adult series together, where she is totally by the book and I can't read it. It's a fantasy we have," Winkler adds.

Comedy first

The actor was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 31, three years after he shot to fame as the Fonz. It came after struggles at school, where he was told he was academically in the bottom 3% in the US.

Unaware of his dyslexia, his parents called him lazy and stupid, and Winkler reveals that, on one occasion, he couldn't dial the right numbers to make an emergency call. "I had to dial it five times because I couldn't get the numbers straight in my brain - they were in front of me but they never made it from my mind to my fingertips."

Hank Zipzer: production details

Nick James as Hank Zipzer
  • CBBC commissioned 13-part series from Walker Productions and Canadian firm DHX Media
  • Produced by Kindle Entertainment
  • Executive producers: Anne Brogan (Kindle Entertainment), Helen McAleer (Walker Productions), Sue Nott (CBBC), Steven DeNure (DHX Media) and Hugo Heppell (Screen Yorkshire)
  • Additional funding from Screen Yorkshire's content fund, which recently supported Death Comes to Pemberley, Peaky Blinders and The Great Train Robbery, resulting in the region being dubbed Yollywood

However, a positive attitude and the real Mr Rock spurred Winkler through his education and career. He even won a place at the prestigious Yale University where he studied drama.

His experience, along with school visits to promote awareness of dyslexia, has led to strong views on education in the US and UK.

"The current education system is 150 years old in both countries, it's a little archaic. We celebrate the top 10% of the class - kids who are going to be doctors, lawyers, chemist, engineers - fantastic - but what about the kid who is great at plastering, plumbing, dancing or art?"

He's sympathetic towards teachers that face overcrowded classes with students of various standards, describing their task as "Herculean".

But while Hank Zipzer reflects difficulties growing up, Winkler says it's a comedy first.

Referring to writing with his co-author Lin Oliver, he says: "What I do know is if we didn't make each other laugh, it didn't go in the book. So they are comedies that happen to be about a kid, who is me, who happens to have dyslexia."

He adds: "I want children and parents to watch it together and laugh because the adults are funny and there's stuff that's not just for kids."

Mr Rock is Winkler's first acting role in a British show, and he's open to more parts on this side of the Atlantic. He's a fan of Broadchurch and Luther on BBC America, and Downton Abbey, adding: "Let me just say, you guys know how to do drama."

He hopes the US will eventually show Hank Zipzer but maintains that, if there's a lesson he's learnt from his career, it's "one step at a time".

"I am so thrilled that it's going on air in the first place - and then we'll see what happens."

Maybe it'll be thumbs-ups all round.

  • Hank Zipzer debuts on iPlayer, Tuesday 21 January, 5pm; CBBC, Tuesday 28 January, 5pm

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