Revelations: Gary Wilmot - Goodbye Dad, hello showbiz

The time: 1959 The place: Lambeth, London The man: Gary Wilmot, actor

I don't remember much about my father's death because a lot of it was kept from me. I was only six, so I didn't attend the funeral, although there was a photographer there who took a bizarre wedding-style photo with all the relations lined up behind the coffin. I don't even remember being told he was dead; I suppose I detected it from the atmosphere. I do remember a friend showing me a tiny piece in the paper. I remember the headline "Southlander dies at 42". I must have known, because it wasn't a shock to me.

It was only later that I understood how it changed my life. Retrospectively, I realise it brought me into showbusiness. My father had been in the vocal group the Southlanders, best known for the song "I am a mole and I live in a hole". He was the bass voice who sang that famous line, although I only saw him as Dad.

He was a very polite and caring man - but very tough on manners and discipline. He was never late and always dressed smartly, meticulous about his clothing, with shoes brushed until they were highly polished. To this day, whenever I smell the steam of something being pressed, it reminds me of my father. He was forever putting razor-sharp creases in his trousers. The other smell that conjures him up is the spicy aroma of West Indian cooking because, like a lot of West Indian men, my dad was a fair cook. He was also a very good cuddler, a warm man. I can remember waiting for him whenever he came home from a gig, especially a summer season or a trip to Germany where they played the army camps; waiting for the gift he would always have for me. Unfortunately, he was ill for quite a long time - with a tumour on the brain. My last memory was of him in hospital and finding it quite humorous that they had shaved his head and drawn a grid on it. All these incidents are quite clear but I don't remember the day he died.

Growing up, I do remember wishing that I had a father - particularly when other fathers were taking their sons to football matches or fishing trips; that pain never gets a chance to heal, although it fades with time. My mother was very strong; she needed to be. If being left alone was not bad enough, she was not only a single parent but also brought up two boys - two black boys. My mother was white and my father was from Jamaica. So raising us in a white community was trebly hard for her. It's only now that I can begin to imagine the trauma, although I do remember her crying a lot. We didn't really have very much, and beyond the occasional part-time job we only had family allowance. Her health was such that soon all work proved a little too much for her. She finally died of heart disease.

My own children reaching the age I was when my father died made me really start thinking more about my mother and father. I did not have that father figure to teach me right from wrong. You learn so much from your parents - how a husband and wife should carry on, and how to get through the bad times and the arguments. You don't really witness rows when there's only Mum. Although she might have one with a neighbour, it's different because you're on her side every time. I've only realised that in later life.

At school I was always the life and soul of the classroom. Now, having read stories of other comedians who behaved in the same way, I realise there's always a reason behind it. Either they were from broken homes or in a minority - very fat, Chinese, or whatever. Indeed, I feel my father's early death made me a performer. Humour is a release, a way of being noticed and to stop people from saying, "You don't have a dad," or taunting me because I was the only black boy in the class.

Losing my dad, I went from a secure background to an insecure one. Just before he died my father was doing some quite good work, he was on television every couple of weeks on 6.5 Special and playing major summer seasons. If he'd earned a bit of money, we'd most certainly have moved out of the estate we were living on and I would have had a private education. I could have been an accountant or a lawyer - something more academic. My dad would certainly have encouraged me to get a trade. Instead, after leaving school I just worked at factories, warehouses and building sites.

I remember quite vividly those years, sitting on my workbench during the tea break - everybody handing round cigarettes and reading The Sun or Daily Mirror. Every day was exactly like the day before. Someone would shout "wages up" and everybody would dash to get them - that was something that spurred me on. I was about 20, and there were guys twice my age who were rushing to be front of the queue. I remember thinking, "I don't want to be doing that when I'm 40 - I want to be able to saunter over and perhaps even not have to worry about the next pay check." I couldn't understand the logic of running to get what was yours anyway.

My friends offered encouragement, telling me that I was really funny. They used to say I was better than that rubbish on the television - now they complain that I am that rubbish on the television! In fact, I got started after one of them met an agent in a pub and told him about me. Once in front of an audience, I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do for a living. I felt connected, my life had found direction again.

A pat on the back and a little bit of praise from somebody that your parents would have admired is always special. Neil Simon, the author of The Goodbye Girl, the musical which I'm currently in, came to see the show and told me, "You didn't miss very much." That was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever been said to me. I suppose that losing my father when I was very young makes the praise of older men that little bit sweeter. Everybody always says, "I wish my mum and dad were here because they would have been proud of me," and then when you do something bad it's, "Thank goodness they weren't there!" So they're always with you.

One of the other Southlanders wrote me a lovely letter saying how proud Dad would have been of me starring in a West End show and for the first time with my name in lights above the title. It's a great feelingn

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

Gary Wilmot is currently in 'The Goodbye Girl' at the Albery Theatre - Box Office: 0171-359 1730.

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