I've been to Hull and back

'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' made him the Billy Elliot of his day. But 40 years on, Tom Courtenay's working-class roots still haunt him
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The Independent Online

Interviewing Tom Courtenay feels a bit like carrying a brimming glass of water over an obstacle course - we've barely begun talking before his eyes begin to glitter at the corners, the result of what I take to be an innocuous bit of small talk about Hull, the town where he grew up and from which he eventually escaped into stardom. For an interviewer who likes a bit of lachrymose splashing I suppose this would be a marvellously promising start, but I'm not entirely sure that I want to spill him, particularly in the ersatz Edwardian grandeur of the Langham Hotel's tearoom.

Interviewing Tom Courtenay feels a bit like carrying a brimming glass of water over an obstacle course - we've barely begun talking before his eyes begin to glitter at the corners, the result of what I take to be an innocuous bit of small talk about Hull, the town where he grew up and from which he eventually escaped into stardom. For an interviewer who likes a bit of lachrymose splashing I suppose this would be a marvellously promising start, but I'm not entirely sure that I want to spill him, particularly in the ersatz Edwardian grandeur of the Langham Hotel's tearoom.

And this means that the conversation ahead will be delicate, since it's going to cover ground which could be expected to jostle a tear from the most watertight of interviewees. Courtenay, 63, has just published a memoir, which is hardly unusual for an actor of his standing. But what lifts Dear Tom well above the usual run of thespian recollections is that it is also a posthumous collaboration with his mother Annie, the author of the letters which fill the second half of the book, and which provide a deeply touching counterpoint of unfulfilled promise to his firework ascent into celebrity in the early Sixties.

In the event, we get through without any awkward overflows, although it is a close thing at times. This is perhaps appropriate, though, because Dear Tom is a book which knows how to control its feelings without ever suppressing them. It's also possible that Courtenay has done all his crying in private; he admits to having been hit hard when he first dug out his mother's letters to re-read them some 20 years ago. An attempt to make them into a book then (he skirts round the word "publish", as if it is too formal a term) failed for lack of a framework. But after a recent visit to his Uncle Pat, Courtenay was inspired to try again - feeling his way towards his mother's writings by way of a personal memoir of his childhood at the rough end of Hull, and his journey towards success as an actor.

The collaboration between mother and son started early: "We wrote things together," Courtenay recalls. "School compositions at primary school, essays at grammar school... which delighted me as much as it delighted her at that time... it was as though my education was hers too..." Courtenay was a celebrity at home long before he was one anywhere else, the bright boy at primary school and eventually head boy at the grammar school to which his 11-plus success gave him access. "I was what Ann [his sister] called the star on the Christmas tree," he says - a family ornament who was intended by both his mother and father for better things than the local fish dock, where his father worked painting the trawlers.

This far, it is a story of almost novelistic familiarity; a sensitive boy nurtured by a loving mother and - a little more warily and conventionally - by his father, too. But when Courtenay left home it became clear that his mother's ambitions would not simply be satisfied by proxy success.

"She wanted me to be a writer," he says, and he acknowledges that this was a way of expressing a private longing, one that at the time would have had no hope of fulfilment except in letters. "At the beginning, before I had someone to help me, I wondered how much of her literary aspiration should be included. But then I realised that's part of the story... She said 'I'm no coward' but sometimes she withdrew from it and said, 'I must scrub the kitchen floor or the scullery floor, I mustn't indulge this side of myself because it's silly'."

The letters are courageous in their self-exposure and ambition, but not straightaway: "It took her two years before she opened up," Courtenay says. "[S]he always had this way of putting it... 'I've been writing stories since I was at school but couldn't write one line that Woman's Own would want to publish, but press on...'." The pressing on paid off - in poems that owe nothing to anyone in their odd, assertive quirkiness and in letters that occasionally float free into private reveries. In one beautiful letter, a passing Sikh (then still something of a novelty in Hull, by the sound of it) prompts a fantasy of relocation, in which the heat of the fire and the sound of children playing in the street transport the writer to another continent altogether.

Courtenay knew at the time that there was something special about the letters - he recalls pointing out lines to student friends, a surprising boldness for a grammar-school boy a little out of his depth among the southerners. But he was also an ordinary enough son to feel awkward at their urgency. In one letter, his mother refers to what sounds like a rebuke for her writing style: "I said I felt sorry for her," he explains, "and what I felt sorry for was this intense longing to express herself... I wasn't keen on the poems, they embarrassed me. I had been doing English Lit, you see, and I knew they wouldn't have stood up alongside the Shakespeare sonnets... I was young and didn't know any better."

His mother reacted to that blunt reply with a starfish tenderness, recoiling from a rough touch. But she always groped out again for something beyond the drably domestic. She begins one letter: "I wasn't going to write but it gets the better of me," and the cliché is beautifully apt in its cocktail of compulsion and improvement. The desire to write didn't just overmaster her, it got at that part of her that was better and set it down on the page. Courtenay seems freshly moved that others can feel about the letters what is for him filial instinct. "It's becoming clearer by the minute that they are extraordinary," he says at one point, as though a little surprised by the reaction of the book's early readers.

He is sure, too, that she would have approved of the publication. "She would have been thrilled," he says. "At one point she writes a letter to the Sanitary Inspector and Ann typed it out for her and she says, 'It looked very nice typed out'. Well, imagine how she would feel to see the book. I mean, she actually refers to the possibility of there being a book... there's a sort of impish humour to it... she says: 'Would you call my letters an anthology?'"

His mother lived long enough to witness the odd paradox of Courtenay's success - a working-class boy who rose high above his expectations by playing working-class boys who hadn't. It wasn't a route his champions would either have predicted or approved of.

His English teacher, he recalls, liked him more as Mr Knightley than in contemporary roles and Courtenay himself had no ambition to become identified with his roots: "I didn't want to live, or have a career on being either Northern or working class... When I was at school I listened to Children's Hour and I aspired to speak like that... and also I didn't know all these working-class parts were coming along."

In fact, his first big success was in Chekhov on stage, but it was his identification with a new kind of realistic cinema that really made his name, playing a borstal boy in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and reprising the title role of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar when it was subsequently filmed. He acted out the latter for his mother, by then too ill with cancer to attend the London production, sharing a comedy of provincial aspiration which occasionally touched close to home (though Courtenay is loyally quick to point out that both his mother and father were "much more subtle and sophisticated" than Billy's).

Annie died in 1962. Courtenay says he can't hear her voice any more, though he can still conjure up her eyes and characteristic looks. But Dear Tom allows her to speak through the medium of her son's memories: "When I wrote a bit that made me laugh out loud," he says, "I just wondered if she was just jogging my elbow a bit... I suppose I'm an agnostic but I don't like people who definitely don't believe... I like my uncertainty... I insist on it... I can't say that I know that she does exist in any way but I do say that, if anybody does, she would."

His book is partly an act of reparation, for what he sees as sins of omission during her dying, but if Annie Courtenay is anywhere, I think she'd probably agree he's done her proud. It might have come late, but she's a woman of letters at last.

'Dear Tom' is published by Doubleday, priced £16.99

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