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Passed/Failed: An education in the life of actor Aidan McArdle

'I immersed myself in drama society'

Aidan McArdle, 39, has been appearing in Beautiful People on BBC2 and Garrow's Law, which returns to BBC1 later this year. His films include Me and Orson Wells, Duchess and Morris – a Life with Bells On. He has played the parts of Dudley Moore, Stravinsky, Einstein and Richard III.

I'm one of six children, the only one who earns money from acting, although I would contend I'm the least dramatic and theatrical of all my siblings. I used to go to Betty Anne Norton's drama class in Dublin when I was a child because my brother and sister went there.

I saw my brother Paul playing a stooge in The Dracula Spectacular and thought, "My God – that's amazing!" (When he was eight, he was in a TV biopic of Sean O'Casey but he had no interest in acting really.) At that time I would have been four and in "low babies" at St Joseph's National Catholic School.

I suspect that the curriculum was similar to that taught in the Fifties; we learnt things by rote. It was only when I was halfway through St Joseph's that corporal punishment was abolished. Yet there was a rigour in that education that I am glad I experienced.

I went to Terenure College when I was 12. It was a fee-paying school with entrance exam, uniforms, swimming-pool and gym. I enjoyed my time greatly but there seemed to be a feeling among some of the teachers that you weren't really a full member of the school unless you were on the rugby team.

The most important teacher of my school years was a wonderful woman called Helen Muloney who set up a theatre group to do an annual modern play with the younger pupils. It was through her encouragement and belief that I began to think I might do this acting lark for a living.

I did pretty well at "Inter Cert", which you took at 15, with eight or nine "honours" but I had blank spots – selective idiocy – at certain subjects. I was appalling at Latin and started bunking off the classes. At 18 I did seven or eight subjects for "Leaving Cert"; I got an A in English, three Bs and the rest Cs.

I went to University College Dublin and got a 2.2 in English and history; I actually think I did a degree in "Am I good enough to be an actor?'" as I immersed myself in the university drama society, playing everything from a women in Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine to a very, very woolly-bearded King Lear.

I remember meeting a fellow student on Portobello Bridge and getting the syllabus for one of the history papers – the day before the final exam. Not clever.

In my last year I spent my 21st birthday money on flying over to audition for drama schools in England. I had written my own piece for Rada set in a psychiatric observation unit and the adjudicator thought that this was where I belonged, so I didn't get past the first round.

I was then offered a part in The Iceman Cometh at the Abbey Theatre and a year's contract as a player. That year's experience gave me a confidence to audition for Rada again and this time I got in.

I was aware that I was very lucky. There was a magnificent ratio of teachers to pupils. We had comprehensive training in dance, singing, Alexander Technique, voice and Laban movement.

But there is an exercise I will never forget. We were all brought to the local park, told to pick a tree and then say: "I, tree, am looking at you, and you, tree, are looking at me'." I remember thinking of the trials and tribulations myself and my mother had in trying to raise sponsorship for me to go to Rada, and I wondered, "What would my mam think?"