THE WHOLE thing was a joke. I fell off the back of a lorry into acting. I was a speciality salesman selling drugs for a manufacturer. This had been a secure job for around seven years and it was very well paid. I was earning about pounds 100 a week which I suppose now is round about pounds 600. I had a company car and an expense account. I was very well set. I quite hated it. I remember sometimes I used to wake up feeling almost frightened about the fact I had to go out and sell. There is a lot of money, but you have got to improve it all the time.
There is something about coming from a working-class background that you tend to regard your job as something that is sometimes very unpleasant, that you have to do in order to get money to live. So it never occurred to me that I could earn my living from my hobby. I was an amateur actor until I was 38. I used to spend my holidays in Stratford-upon-Avon with an old acting friend, who was then a professional working at the RSC. One day he said to me 'Why don't you do an audition just to see what it feels like?' I said: 'No, I don't want to be an actor.' He said: 'Go on just for a laugh, I dare you.' The next day he came back from work and said: 'I've had a word with the casting director and you are to go in at three o'clock.' I thought it might be quite nice to stand on that stage where I'd watched all the plays. I could tell the blokes back at the amateur group that I did a piece for Peter Hall.
So I breezed in, did the audition and they said: 'Fine, you're smashing. When can you start?' I said: 'Look I'm going to come clean. I just did this as a dare.' I was very embarrassed. But they said: 'The offer still holds. There is always space for (as I was then) a middle-aged man with talent.'
The RSC job was going to pay me pounds 12 a week. I didn't have anyone else to worry about, but I did have the job and the car and the luxury flat . . . I decided that I wouldn't do it. Donald Burton said: 'You can stay at my place and it won't cost you much to live. It will be a gas. Give it a year. Call it a sort of adventure.' So I did.
My parents thought I was completely insane. They were terribly ashamed. During my first week I thought 'What the hell have I done?' But what gave me enormous confidence was watching Paul Scofield rehearse. He was my idol. I realised that all actors approached the job from the same sort of blank sheet where they didn't know what to do. Like I did. There was very little difference between the standard of what I'd been doing and what they were doing at the RSC. Most of the people had come straight from drama school. Suddenly in their midst was this character actor with a face that looked like it had been sat on, who talked in a gravelly voice, and looked as though he'd been around a bit.
In my first year I was understudying a leading role and on the first night the leading actor went ill. All the various directors saw me do my understudy performance. From then on I began to get very good roles. I travelled around the world. I had a wonderful time. In my early forties I was earning pounds 45 a week] Six years later I thought 'Bloody hell I've been here six years.'
I am one in a million probably. It is like putting all your money on a horse, but instead of putting a tenner on it you sell your house, your car, you get all your money out of the bank, get a loan for pounds 1,000. It comes in and you say hooray] What would happen if it didn't? I thought it was a mistake and they just wanted me to fill numbers.
Don Henderson is currently working with Toyah Wilcox on a 'Short and Curly' film for Channel 4. In June he will be working in Australia, co-starring with Ray Liotta in the film 'Penal Colony'.
THE FIREMAN: JASON HOWARD
I WENT into the Fire Service when I was 18. I thought that was it. I was going to be there until I retired. I loved it. There was a lot of routine work, but all that could be thrown just by those bells ringing on the wall.
I joined the local male choir just for the trips and the fun but I wasn't interested in opera until about 21, when I bought my mother a record of Mario Lanza. This was the catalyst. I bought all the records I could.
While I was singing in the choir and putting fires out someone suggested that I take singing lessons. I was 23 - all I wanted to do was to get my voice to a decent standard so that I could get up and give a song. Occasionally after concert dos we would have a buffet and the boys would start singing the solo numbers. I would think 'Oh God, they're going to ask me any minute', and my stomach used to turn over. I had the raw material, but there were quite a few singers in the choir who were better than me.
Mind you I have a pretty rare, deep enthusiasm for opera. Often I would stop work at six at the fire station, jump on to my motorbike and belt down to Cardiff. I used to think it must be marvellous to be up there - when the light tabs go up and the light comes up on the set. I was tiring of chorusing. I thought 'I'm going to have a go and see what happens'. I got turned down by the Guildhall point blank. Trinity said yes, so I decided to try that and got a grant from Mid-Glamorgan.
There wasn't a lot the Fire Service could say. I have always been proud to say I am a fireman, and I will always be proud to say that I was a fireman. My father just said: 'You must be bloody crazy.' I was giving up a very secure job with one of the best pension systems. All to go away and study for four years to be a singer, knowing that 90 per cent of the people that did that failed. My mother was encouraging.
I had saved no money at all, not a penny. I was right homesick for the first term. I lost almost a stone in weight. I worked in the London Coliseum as an usher and in the summers I did everything from chopping trees to driving a dustbin van. After three years at Trinity I transferred to the Royal College of Music and started to work with Scottish Opera. What I had was what my mother used to write to me about. She'd write: 'Don't forget the four d's' It sounds corny, but with these four d's, desire, drive, determination and dedication together, you can achieve a lot.
Jason Howard is singing the title role in 'Eugene Onegin' with the Welsh National Opera from 27 May until mid-July. From mid-September to October he will be singing the part of Marcello in 'La Boheme' with the ENO.
THE PIZZA MAN: JACK DEE
I WAS always miserable - even at school. I was once told to stand in the corner until I cheered up because the teacher got fed-up looking at my face. My original plan was to go to university, but I didn't have the qualifications, so I went to live in France for six months to learn French and came back fairly well inaugurated in the ways of alcoholism. I didn't do any studying out there, I just went drinking, and skiing at the weekends.
I applied for a six-month placement as an assistant trainee manager in Grunts, a Covent Garden pizza restaurant, and really enjoyed myself. After two months I was made assistant manager. My future looked very good. I thought that I was going to change the world. It was the first thing I was successful at and a real eye-opener. I kept the drinking going - yeah, secretly and openly.
I was always being told, 'You ought to go on the stage, you're really funny.' I can remember once going to a party and someone said to me, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I'm a restaurant manager.' He said, 'Your talents are wasted,' and I thought, 'What an insult.' He was basically saying, 'That's a crap job.' The remark lodged in my mind. Slowly I was starting to think about where my life was going. It is a bit like being on the wrong train and you don't know where to get off.
If you are going to be a successful restaurateur you really have to work in kitchens as well. So I got this job at the Ritz. I was unstable. I was mad because I had stopped drinking. I used to wander along to St James' Church in Piccadilly in my break and usually fall asleep in the pews. A very inspired priest there gave me counselling. I was lonely and lost.
I went back to being restaurant manager at Grunts and one day we were sitting around a table having a meeting, discussing a new pizza topping. In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'This is my life, talking about pizza topping.' A couple of close friends - a lawyer and a student at film school - were doing things I could see in 10 years' time would be interesting, whereas I couldn't see that pizzas would be.
I just decided this wasn't for me. I could do acting. I had always intended to go to the Comedy Store. I went home and put together five minutes for the open spot the next week. It wasn't very funny but it did get a laugh and it felt like the missing link had been clicked into place. I went home on my motor- bike that night and I was screaming the whole way. I'd found something that I wanted to do. It felt right.
I started to get open spots. I was enjoying being a comedian but it seemed so impossible that I was going to give up. I had coffee with a friend who said - 'Why don't you just honour the last few gigs? Then, if you still feel like it, give up.' So I did and I didn't give a damn how they went. I went on stage with the same routine - 'Hi, great to be here,' and it got a laugh. 'I went out with Fatima Whitbread, she chucked me' - because it was completely dry and without any feeling, it was getting laughs. Then things started happening. The gigs were coming in.
I uncovered a talent which had been there the whole time. You have got to have guts and a devil-may-care attitude - that life is far too short and you are far too insignificant for it to matter that much if you do fall on your face, so give it a try. Never tell yourself you are not ready for something. Just take it - have a go at everything. I certainly think what I do now is a result of having ballsed up everything else I did.
Jack Dee is currently writing new material for his September tour. There will be a repeat of the first 'Jack Dee Show' on Channel 4 in July.
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