It happened when I was 19 and in the very best of health. I mean, I was fit and happy. I was just beginning to get some acting work, and the following week I was going to start a BBC Play For Today, as they were called then. But I still spent more time out of work than in, and when I wasn't acting I was working in a wine shop as a cellar boy.

One Saturday afternoon, my brother Philip rang up and said: 'Let's go and see Chelsea play,' because it was a London derby against Fulham, a very important match. And I remember it being a fantastic game, which we won 2-1.

At the end of the game I had a really sore throat, and I felt a sort of lump the size of a grape to the left of my Adam's apple which I'd never felt before, and I thought, 'I wonder if that's giving me the sore throat?'

Anyway, the sore throat went the next day, but the lump got bigger. During that week I got quite anxious about it, because any lump there is a bit odd. Finally, my brother said: 'I think you should go to your doctor.' So I went to my GP, and he said: 'What are you doing on Thursday?'

I said: 'I start this play . . .'

'You don't start anything,' he said. 'You're to go to hospital on Thursday.'

And so I went to the hospital and they took some X-rays, which showed there was a growth wrapped around my thyroid gland and also my vocal cords. Then a surgeon came to see me and explained what he was going to do.

The surgeon was a dapper man. He was wearing a beautifully cut pinstripe suit with a stiff, white detachable collar, and he had immaculate hair. I found him terrifying.

He was going to cut out the lump, he said, and added: 'If it is malignant, we'll have to cut out everything around it, and if it is in your vocal cords, they'll have to go' - which gave me a bit of a shock.

My parents came to see me that night, and said: 'It'll be nothing, sure to be fine.' But apparently they were very upset, because they'd been told the statistical truth: that it probably would be malignant.

I was pretty much convinced that it wouldn't be cancer . . . but a little tiny window remains, a bit of doubt, and if you think about it hard, you go into a vortex of worry.

That night I thought, 'God, if it is malignant, how long do I get?' I asked the nurses about this, and they said: 'Oh, don't be ridiculous, you'll be fine.' But I could tell in their eyes they thought I was for it.

I can remember getting up the following morning and putting on the operating robe. I remember the pre-operation injection, which is one of the nicest feelings anyone can ever have - if only one could have those on a regular basis - and the next thing I remember was waking up.

It had been an eight-hour operation, which is longer than a coronary operation. Apparently the whole throat is cut open, and they take the growth down to the lab, which does a test on it - and it came back benign, otherwise I wouldn't be here, I don't suppose.

My mother and father and girlfriend were all in tears when I woke up, and I thought: 'This is it, I've got cancer.' But they were crying with happiness, rather sweetly. Philip was pleased, too. I think it would have been a drag to lose a brother at that stage.

The surgeon came to see me a couple of days afterwards, in another immaculate dark blue pinstripe suit. 'I've taken a bit of your thyroid gland out,' he said, 'but it's been a total success, you'll be right as rain.'

One of the worst things about being in hospital was that I was supposed to be best man at my best friend's wedding, and I couldn't go. But on the day they got married, they came to see me and jumped into my bed, which made me laugh and cheered me up.

Eventually I was allowed home, and that afternoon I went shopping at Harrods and fainted in the Food Hall. I remember just keeling over and then waking up in some office with people saying, 'Are you all right?' and me saying, 'I've just had a terrible operation.'

I felt lousy for six whole months, the only time I've ever felt bad in my life. And I never did Play For Today, the part was taken by Anthony Andrews.

People still ask: 'What on earth is that scar around your neck?' Especially in the summer, because when I get a tan it just stays white. I always say: 'Oh, I was in a duelling contest and the guy just slit my throat.' And when they go: 'Jesus]' I say: 'Actually, it was an operation that nearly killed me.'

So it's been quite a good story to dine out on.

(Photograph omitted)

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