It has been two decades since the BBC’s landmark 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy made the nation swoon by emerging from a lake in a sodden white shirt.
But what became of Mr Darcy’s best friend, Mr Bingley, who spent the series good-humouredly wooing Elizabeth Bennet’s older sister, Jane? While Colin Firth went on to international movie stardom, Crispin Bonham-Carter – the actor who played Mr Bingley – took a very different path. Twenty years after his most memorable role, the man with the famous surname – actress Helena Bonham Carter is a third cousin – can be found explaining the finer points of Macbeth to a Year 8 class at a comprehensive school in north London.
He says the students at Alexandra Park School are oblivious to the fact their English and classics teacher had a lead role in one of the BBC’s best-known dramas. They’re too young to have seen the series, and Pride and Prejudice isn’t one of the books he teaches. If the pupils are aware that Mr Bonham-Carter has a past outside of teaching it’s due to a cameo role in the 2006 James Bond movie Casino Royale and an appearance in a Westlife video for Comic Relief.
As for his fellow teachers, does anyone still get giggly as he enters the staff room? “The response to me being Mr Bingley,” he says, “is to take the piss.”
Mr Bonham-Carter, 46, has been a teacher at the outstanding Ofsted-rated secondary school in Muswell Hill for the past eight years. Why did he quit acting?
“People ask me that a lot,” he says. “I’d been an actor for about 15 years. It’s really difficult to know what processes were going on in my head. I had always wanted to be a teacher, very early on in my life I always had carried this image of myself teaching.
“I loved the world of acting, I loved working with writers, but the moment of actually acting, actually standing in front of an audience, I always doubted myself.”
At the time of his epiphany he was mostly working as a theatre director and he won the Young Vic’s Jerwood Young Director award in 2001. A directorship at an out-of-London theatre was on the cards, but as a father of four children – his wife, Katie, is also a teacher – he struggled to imagine life on a regional theatre director’s modest wage.
“I lack the madness of the true artist,” he admits.
Does he miss the spotlight, the applause? Apparently not. “If you act, you’re sitting around for hours on end, waiting for what you’re going to do, then you have brief moments of intensity,” the classicist says. “I’ve always enjoyed working flat-out. I loved the immense amount of responsibility you have as a theatre director and it’s the same as a teacher – you’re carrying a lot of people’s hopes and dreams, and you can go badly wrong.”
But if acting and directing can be tough, so too is teaching. About 50,000 teachers left the profession last year, according to recently revealed statistics, a level of disenchantment that suggests life in front of the white board can be very trying indeed.
Mr Bonham-Carter says he can understand the sense of frustration, but that he is lucky to work in an outstanding school where “the staff are really supportive of each other and the kids are really great”.
“This school is the dream comprehensive,” he says. “You’ve got people from every different walk of life – there are children who arrived on the back of lorries and things, and lots of professional families – who are motivated with high expectations. For a teacher it’s a dream – you’re not having to convince people of the need to be educated the whole time.”