Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Oliver Chris, actor

'I never threw chairs but was always lippy'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I've never been a model student. Even now I write in block capitals, as if I'm a six-year-old or have a neurological disease. I think I was a better child than I am an adult and I don't have any bad memories of St James's, a C of E primary school in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

My introduction to performing started when I was about eight. We moved and had a housewarming party with two entertainers, who had acts as butlers and SAS men: I was totally knocked for six. Then I was involved in a show they put on at the Trinity Arts Centre. At school I played Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; because I couldn't sing, the headmaster came on to sing my part. I became more interested in acting in the local youth centre than anything else, and this kept me out of trouble.

I got through my 11-plus. If you didn't pass, you went to another school where people got stabbed. I never really got on at Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys. I was never in big trouble but always in little trouble. I never threw chairs at a teacher but was always very lippy. I was constantly getting detention.

In the first term of my fourth year I went with my parents to a wedding reception at Michael Hall near East Grinstead, a Steiner school that we'd never heard of. We started talking to people there about the Steiner philosophy, which is more about learning for the sake of learning than exams. Driving home, my mum and dad said: "How would you feel about going there?" I left Tunbridge Wells halfway through the Christmas term.

I loved Michael Hall. People learnt when they were ready to learn. About a term into the GCSE course at Michael Hall, they had not done any practical science; within three months, they were totally up to speed with everything I'd done in four years.

I was endlessly in detention and was still an obstinate little bugger but I really enjoyed the work. I only did seven GCSEs (I was doing 11 at Tunbridge Wells) and got an A, two Bs and four Cs. My family was supportive but not pushy; I wanted to go to drama school and had a massive, screaming row but eventually they persuaded me to do my A-levels. Six months before the exams, I received an unconditional offer at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I still went to the lessons and did well at the modules I enjoyed but I walked out of one of the English exams because the question on Conrad looked a bit difficult. I got two Cs and an E.

Drama schools are brilliant. They give you three years to practice what you've been devoted to all your life. After my third-year play, in which I had to stand around with a glass of sherry and look tall, I got my agent and my first show, the pilot of The Office.

I did have a wonderful time but my usual stuff got in the way. I could be difficult, which led to a run-in with some of the faculty and although I have fond memories, it was a shame that it had to end on a sour note.

Five years later, I've just completed an evening class at Birkbeck, and been accepted for a degree course in history, politics and philosophy. I'll probably be a bloody-minded student.