`It puts your own life in perspective'

How did Neil Morrissey, an actor best known as a TV lad, come to be helping children in peril?
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The Independent Culture
For a moment Neil Morrissey might almost be Tony, the breathless, touchingly naive character he played in the BBC sitcom Men Behaving Badly. He is recalling a trip to Africa in the bar of a chic north-London eatery. It has been more than a year since Morrissey's trip to war-torn southern Sudan with the aid organisation War Child, but his Boy's Own enthusiasm for the logistics and dare devilry involved in international relief has not diminished.

He stands up, arms outstretched, to demonstrate how the huge Hercules cargo plane, in which he was a passenger, suddenly shot up as it dropped 16 tonnes of emergency food from 400ft to the starving Sudanese. Apparently, in this delicate manoeuvre, the aircraft and everyone on board experiences an immediate and dramatic loss of gravity. "Suddenly you are just floating in the back," says Morrissey, as delighted as the sitcom's Tony was after he finally managed to bed Debs.

Celebrities and charity appeals. It's hardly a new phenomenon. Most often they jet into the war zone, cuddle a few starving babies during an emotional TV plea for money and, mission accomplished, they jet off for the nearest five-star hotel. But as patron of War Child, Morrissey is a different sort of celebrity supporter. He stays over. He rolls up his sleeves. He gets his hands dirty. "Basically he mucks in," says Johnie McGlade, War Child's emergency relief co-ordinator and a close friend of the actor. In Sudan, last year, and Kosovo, this year, Morrissey spent a week on the ground, away from the cameras, seeing conditions for himself. And he lived every minute to the full.

It was his friendship with Irishman McGlade that led to Morrissey becoming a War Child patron. Actors may have a reputation for self-absorption but in the pub it seems that Morrissey was always more interested in McGlade's work than the angst of being an a-c-t-o-r.

Morrissey, the comic actor, clearly has a bit of the aid worker in him while McGlade, the relief worker, is a born comedian. Reminiscing together, they reel off a store of Kosovo stories, including their near-fatal car crash after an unfortunate encounter with an inept local driver.

On another occasion, Morrissey recalls sitting bolt upright in his tent in the dark after a sudden burst of gunfire. "No problem," he says, imitating the thick Albanian accent of a swaggering local security guard, who added, with perverse delight, when he saw Morrissey's alarm: "It is only a fox. How do you say in English? You great big homosexual."

In the flesh, Morrissey, who is 37, looks thin, gangly and older than the fresh-faced, carefree Tony. And it quickly transpires that behind the laughs the actor is more serious and infinitely more intelligent than his on-screen persona might suggest. Certainly, there seems to be more to his support for War Child than laddish frontier excitement.

His own childhood gave him an enduring insight into the vulnerability of children. He is philosophical about his early years - "from the inside it didn't seem that bad" - but they must have scarred him. He was a 10- year-old tearaway when he and his brother Stephen, then 12, finally found themselves in court after stealing pounds 25 from the local Women's Institute in Stoke-on-Trent. The authorities considered their home life erratic and his young parents (an Irish couple who had moved to England) unfit to cope with the boys and their two brothers.

Today, the family would undoubtedly receive more support to keep it together. But, back then, young Neil and Stephen were simply removed from their home. They spent the rest of their childhood in children's homes. It was a grim, unstable existence. The boys were moved every few months, and were despised and bullied by those schoolmates with parents... just because they were "kid's home kids".

Morrissey became "a vicious little fighter" in order to survive. He remembers the humiliation of wearing hand-me-downs to schools where other kids sported the trendiest of gear. But what he recalls most vividly are the ignored emotional needs - the absolute absence of hugs and praise.

What is remarkable is that he not only survived the deprivation but triumphed over it. The academic performance of children in care is often low but Morrissey - "always top stream at school" - passed nine O-levels. He would have done A-levels too, except that his acting talent had already been spotted and he was offered a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

His brother, like many other children raised in care, fared less well. An inquest last year heard how Stephen, who had a history of drink and drug abuse, was discovered lying dead on a mattress in a tower block flat. Morrissey says he developed schizophrenia a year after a bad car accident. But research on children raised in care suggests that difficulties in adulthood often have their roots in unhappy or disruptive early years.

Childhoods do not come any more disrupted than those of the youngsters who War Child seeks to reach. Morrissey says he has always wanted to "make a difference" and meeting McGlade convinced him that he could. "You feel these things are out of reach but they aren't, you know."

His War Child field trips have also been a revelation. "I was expecting those TV images of absolute squalor, deprivation and misery," he says. But while he has seen tragedy, "even at their lowest ebb people can be full of laughter and joy".

Far from being passive, eager recipients of international hand-outs, he says that even the starving have pride to overcome before help can be accepted. The "victims" depicted on TV, he says, are ordinary people "with as much wisdom and intelligence" as you or me.

While he has seen emaciated women walk huge distances to reach feeding centres, only to see their children die on the way, he has also seen dying children saved by just two days of high nutritional feeding. The resilience of people in the Third World is humbling. "It puts your life in perspective," he says. "You ask yourself, so Jeffrey Archer slept with a woman... so what?" That Morrissey has a son of his own - Sam, 12 - gives his work an extra edge. He is forever comparing Sam's life with those of the other 12-year-olds he sees in terrible circumstances.

Morrissey - one of an impressive list of celebrity War Child patrons which includes Brian Eno, David Bowie and Luciano Pavarotti - praises the organisation's slim-line, non-bureaucratic operation and its success in keeping running costs low by seeking on-the-ground partners wherever it goes. For him, War Child's mobile bakery, set up earlier this year for Kosovar refugees, is a case in point. Even the locals thought the charity was insane to ship in 14 huge ovens and attempt to set up a bakery on a muddy field in Albania. But within weeks they were producing 30,000 loafs a day for hungry refugees. And, when the Kosovars moved back to their devastated homeland, the bakery went with them to make sure that they ate until they were back on their feet.

"War Child is a cool funky outfit run by very hands-on people," explains Morrissey with far more focus than Tony could ever muster, even in pursuit of the delightful Debs. "And you can see the benefit of efforts almost immediately."