Theatre Debut: Edward Petherbridge

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The role: Barney Blue-Eyes in the school play

The year: 1946

The place: St Stephen's School, Bradford

I THINK I first wanted to be an actor at the age of seven when I saw the great - and I'm sure he was great - panto dame and comedian Norman Evans. I was mesmerised. I was sitting in the gods of Bradford Alhambra and it seemed to be the best view of the town I'd ever had.

Suddenly I was taken out of the grim, soot-ridden backstreets where I lived by the sight of this beautiful golden-lit stage. When I went home, I immediately built a cardboard proscenium arch toy theatre, which was like a talisman, a reminder of this visionary scene. For a long while I wanted to be a set designer, but the art teacher at our grammar school wouldn't let anyone from C-stream anywhere near his model set.

My first public appearance was in my last year at elementary school. I can't remember the name of the play, but I remember that my first line on the English stage was: "Good morning, Mrs Lollipop, I've brought the eggs you wanted. Six, I think you wanted." It must have got a bit of a laugh because no one ever saw six eggs at that time.

My character was called Barney Blue-Eyes. I don't have blue eyes, so it must have been talent rather than typecasting that got me the role. I remember there was a big picnic scene, featuring extras from the lower class who were supposed to be getting strawberries and cream - which, again, was a dream in those days.

On the day, they rather surprised us by issuing the strawberries and cream in the form of jelly on saucers. It was quite an event - we didn't get treats at that school. It went like a riot to the senses and I became aware that the audience was finding everything very funny. What had happened was that a stage full of children had stopped being self-conscious and trying to act, and were just being. It was a realistic coup. Something dramatic. It could have been my first acting lesson - I probably saw it in less sophisticated terms, back then.

Anyway, I must have misbehaved sometime later because I was sent to see the headmaster, which meant only one thing in those days - the cane, an instrument that was used with immense lavishness. But I didn't get punished. The head said: "It's Barney Blue-Eyes, isn't it? That was absolute perfect casting for you." It was somehow an acknowledgement that I had put my head above the parapet and glowed a little bit. He chased me back to the classroom, but I still managed to make a dignified actor's entrance.

Edward Petherbridge appears in `Krapp's Last Tape' and `Breath' at the Arts Theatre, London, WC2 (0171-836 2132) until 6 February

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