Primary colours: I was born on Stratford Broadway, within the sound of Bow Bells. Godwin Road Elementary School was quite near, and on my first day I insisted that my mother walk behind me, not with me.
Secondary characteristics: West Ham Secondary School was further away, and I went there by tram. This remarkable school, which formed my life, was very much ahead of its time. If four or five people in the sixth form wanted to learn a language, they would get a teacher in. Everybody was very keen to learn. We had a remarkable PT teacher, Sergeant Pritchard, an absolute stickler for good behaviour and good manners, like giving up your seat to a lady on the tram.
Further education: When I was 14, the school was evacuated to Cornwall, and I didn't come back to London until I was 16. I had five or six really horrible billets. On one billet, I came back from school to find the police waiting for me; the woman had lodged a complaint that I had made a sexual overture to her. The first billet I had, I was put into a dog kennel. Then I was billeted with the Rev Canon Gotto and his wife in Porthleven, a fishing village.
They were remarkable people. They gave me a grounding I wouldn't have had otherwise. My parents were wonderful, too; my father was a commercial traveller, pounding the streets of London to sell filing cabinets. I had never had any books, apart from the Beano annual at Christmas, but there was a library in the vicarage. And for the first time I had my own bedroom, with a view of the sea down a valley. I remained in touch until they died. When they retired they lived in very straitened circumstances. I guess I was responsible for burying Mrs Gotto. The Canon rang me up to say that she was blind and had been put into an institution and was dying. I got a train down there and found her in a geriatric ward like a madhouse. I got her home to him by the sheer force of plonking down money, and she died three days later in his arms.
School's out: My economics teacher thought I would make a wonderful accountant but, at the age of 14, I played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and the drama critic of the Helston paper said that I was the finest 14-year-old Shylock of my generation! This went to my head. I sent copies of this notice to everyone in the Radio Times, including Sir Malcolm Sargent. Lionel Gamlin, who was a senior BBC producer, wrote back. He said that it was such an extraordinary letter he would have to meet me. He gave me my first professional job, as question-master on the Junior Brains Trust. I was paid two guineas per show. He advised me to try for Rada, and at 16 I got a Leverhulme Scholarship there.
Drama training: In those days there were very few young men at Rada, only 13 of us and 200 girls; June Whitfield was in my class. I only did two or three terms, then went into rep, as it was very easy to get a job; there were very few juveniles around. There was a feeling of impermanence; at my age, you expected to go into the war. I was called up at 17 years and five months. What you did learn at Rada was how to speak Shakespeare properly. I had a pure cockney accent; it was ironed out, but I can still revert to it. If you were a cockney actor, you couldn't play leading men but would be carrying a spear.Reuse content