Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Ian Smith, actor in 'Neighbours'

'I was pretty poor priest material'
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The Independent Online

Ian Smith, 68, plays Harold Bishop in Neighbours, and is the longest-serving member of the Australian soap opera's cast. He was script editor and associate producer of Prisoner: Cell Block H. He plays Baron Hardup in Cinderella, which opens tomorrow at the Grand Opera House, York

My mother was a staunch Catholic and, unfortunately, I was put into a Catholic school. At St Mary's in Williamstown, a suburb of Melbourne, all they wanted was to bring you up to be a priest and I was pretty poor priest material. My early days at school were rather miserable. Those nuns never could teach me, poor loves. I was a daydreamer. Still am.

The neighbourhood where I was brought up wasn't the best. The early days of Ian Smith were very similar to the early days of Harold Bishop. Being beside the sea, it has gone very upmarket but it was then a shipyard and industrial district when you said you came from Williamstown, people would wrinkle their noses. I was always running home to escape from fights.

I loved the subjects in which I could contribute creatively, as opposed to those that were set in concrete. I was only good at composition and writing, and lost interest in everything else they were trying to teach me. I was an absolute dud.

At about 11, I went to the Christian Brothers School in Yarraville, three railway stations from Williamstown. I was miserable there, too. Apart from two chaps, I didn't have any friends. I was useless at sport; I was terrified of Australian Rules football, which is more physical than English football.

There was nothing creative whatsoever at that school. The only pretence at anything artistic was the choir, which led me to the local Gilbert and Sullivan society, where I met people who got me into amateur dramatics, so in a strange sort of way, I've got the Catholic Church to thank for my acting career. One of the Christian Brothers I think he was a history teacher nurtured my singing voice. He was the only one who did anything for me. When I started working in the professional theatre, he was one of the first people I sent tickets to.

It was quite the Dark Ages as far as Australian education is concerned, an archaic and haphazard system. (Now the schools rate with the world's best.) When I was 14, my father said that I was to go to another school, but my mother said, "It's not a Catholic school!".

I left and went into the rag trade. It wasn't exactly fashion; I was a gofer in the biggest clothing warehouse in Melbourne. My mother thought she had done her parental duty, but I had no ambition to get on in that business. I knew what I wanted to do: escape into the theatre. For me, it was seeing, at around the age of 12, films with Dirk Bogarde and James Mason that did it; they were great pin-ups.

As there were no drama schools at the time, I was in amateur productions, but as soon as I turned 18, I went for an audition at the Australian National Theatre.

When I was in productions that had overseas stars, I would stand in the wings and watch them. I asked these actors, who were mostly English, if they would take me on as a student, and two of them did. (It's a funny old world since then I've had English actors asking me if I would take them in a class.)

At school, I was clearly the best in the class at writing. After a stint in musical and straight theatre, and a few TV series, I became script editor of Prisoner: Cell Block H, and when it came to a close, Reg Watson, who created it, asked if I would like a part in Neighbours. I asked if I could write for it, too. My part as Madge's friend was supposed to be a five-week job and here we are, 21 years later.