I didn't always want to be an actor. When I was 11 I wanted to be a mad scientist. I had converted my bedroom into a science laboratory complete with a bench, chemistry set, electronic experiments and microscope. My walls were covered with maps of the Moon, planets and the night sky. I remember, the seventies being an exciting time with the Apollo moon landings, the beginnings of computers and VCRs. To this day I still kindle a love of science and am currently completing a degree in astrophysics with the University of Lancashire.
I was educated in a private school in Harrow with the help of my Dad's earnings from Dr Who. The school's motto was 'We conquer by enthusiasm' which suited me down to the ground. Unfortunately, drama was not high on their list of extra curriculum activities. The only outlet for my hidden urge to perform was fulfilled every Christmas at the carol concert in Northolt church. I was a member of the choir and a regular reader for these occasions.
By the time I got to my sixth form college and had got involved in the drama productions there, science began to take second place and became more of a hobby. My mind was almost made up - acting felt natural and I would follow my Dad and brother into the business.
Over the summer holidays in 1971 I managed to get a job at the London Palladium as temporary back stage crew member. Tommy Cooper was top of the bill with Anita Harris and Clive Dunn. Those few weeks spent in what I think is the most wonderful of all the London theatres, filled me with a craving to step on stage and into those lights and become an actor.
Programmes for 'To See Such Fun' at the London Palladium in 1971 starring Tommy Cooper, Clive Dunn, Anita Harris, Russ Conway and The Stupids.
Having completed my A levels at the age of 19, I joined the Arts Theatre in London that at the time housed the Unicorn Children's Theatre. I was employed as an acting ASM - assistant stage manager. My weekly earnings amounted to £21 a week and subsidized meals in the theatre cafe. Productions were purely for a children's audience and believe me, they would let you know if they thought you weren’t any good. I spent two years watching, learning and playing small roles. At the same time I was working backstage in the fly gallery, on props, sound, lights or as DSM in the prompt corner. I had decided right from the start not to go to drama school after a chat with my Dad. He certainly felt it would do me more harm than good and suffocate the natural talent he told me I had. So this became my two year training under the artistic director Matylock Gibbs who encouraged me to learn the Stanislavsky method of acting. In my final year, I was given a lead role of 'Porky Gammon' in a play called 'The Dragon's Grandmother'. The voice and character I used during these performances would later help to develop the character Piers Fletcher Dervish in the sitcom 'The New Statesman.
Matyelok Gibbs - Artistic director of The Unicorn Theatre (1973–1977)and my drama teacher. Some may recocognize her as Aunt Muriel in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
(Left) Publicity shot of my character 'Porky Gammon' created for 'The Dragon's Grandmother' at the Arts Theatre. I was 20 and in my second year at the Unicorn Company. (Centre) Two publicity pictures of performances as an acting ASM in 1974. (Right) The Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street, London - the home of the children's Unicorn Theatre.
In September 1974 I answered an advertisement in the local paper for an acting ASM at Watford Palace Theatre. I was successful and spent two further years continuing my training under the artistic director Stephen Hollis. It was a repertory theatre that produced productions every three weeks. Productions included, 'Tonight at Eight Thirty' by Noel Coward, 'Hello Hollywood, Hello' and 'Happy as a Sandbag' which transfered to the West End. I was also able to play small parts and contribute to the local T.I.E. (Theatre in Education) group who used the theatre during the day.
It was during a Noel Coward production at Watford in 1976 that my future agent Todd Joseph saw me and liked my performance so much he signed me up that evening. I was astonished at the time. The part had only been a small one with very little dialogue but he must have seen something worth backing! This was a real turning point in my career. I had always loved TV studios and film sets and preferred the process of acting in front of a camera rather than an audience. Now I could pursue that dream.
TV beginnings - to be continued...