Passed/Failed: An education in the life of the actor Christopher Timothy

'The head grossly disapproved of me'


Christopher Timothy, 68, played James Herriot in the TV series 'All Creatures Great and Small', and Dr Brendan "Mac" McGuire in 'Doctors'. He is touring in Alan Ayckbourn's 'Tons of Money', at the Festival Theatre, Malvern to Saturday, and Richmond Theatre next week

My dad was the original announcer on The Goon Show. During my young years, he wasn't around much, due to the war and my parents being separated. He read law and was sent down, became a clergyman and was defrocked because of the divorce, and became a BBC announcer. I was born in Bala, North Wales, and was sent to a private tutor. I seem to remember walking to the tutor by myself at the age of four – and sometimes going into a church school on the way and being allowed to stay until someone noticed.

At the end of the war, we moved to London, and at five I went to a private school called Norland Place in Holland Park, west London. I remember not liking my times tables; I now don't know them, apart from the obvious ones like five sixes, which are, er... At eight or nine, I went to St David's School in Gloucester Road. I didn't do any acting there, but it was during this period, 1945-1950, that I decided to be an actor. I saw Annie Get Your Gun, Peter Pan and a musical with lots of cannons on stage. I also started going to the cinema, and I remember being aware of the effect a close-up had on an audience – it was in The Blue Lamp, in which Dirk Bogarde shoots Dixon of Dock Green. I thought, "I'd like to be able to create that effect".

We went back to Bala in the early Fifties, and I was a boarder at a prep school, Kingsland Grange. I remember breaking a billiard cue over the head of a prefect who was bullying my brother. I worked quite hard – you didn't have any alternative. A few years ago, I went back to present the end-of-year prizes and as I handed over the cup for English, I saw my name among the winners. I'd won it in 1953. There had been a choice of topics and I did "Magic"; I interpreted it as "the magic of showbiz", about which I knew nothing.

I wasted my four years at Priory Grammar school in Shrewsbury. The headmaster grossly disapproved of me, and I think that, somewhere along the line, he was right. I didn't behave well. I remember being caned by a prefect, and being angry that this should be allowed. I did enjoy English – I was good at it, and was disappointed to only scrape through the O-level – and acting, which I wanted to be good at. The plays were directed by the English master, Nicholas Dunne. I remember enjoying my debut in a girl's part in Ben Jonson's Eastward Ho!. Finally, I played the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet. The First Gravedigger pissed around with the text, and, as I had a ginger wig, introduced a new line: "Ginger, you're barmy."

A lot of people went to posh universities, but I left at 17 to work for three years at Frank Newton's Gentleman's Outfitters in Shrewsbury, where I gained a professional qualification in how to measure a suit. My boss said, not unkindly, "Why don't you concentrate on gent's outfitting and do amateur acting? Otherwise you'll spend the rest of your life skiving drinks off other out-of-work actors."

I spent three years at Central School of Speech and Drama in London, which I enjoyed very much. At school, Nicholas Dunne had once said to me, "We'll get you to the Old Vic if it kills us," and I did get to the Old Vic. Mine were parts of no consequence – spear-carriers and the like – but at least they were with the National Theatre, under the auspices of Laurence Olivier.

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