Passed/Failed: An education in the life of the 'Last of the Summer Wine' actor Peter Sallis

'I really wanted to be a reporter'
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The Independent Online

Peter Sallis, 87, has played Clegg in BBC1's 'Last of the Summer Wine', which began in 1973 and is the world's longest-running sitcom. He is the voice of Wallace in 'The Curse of the Were-Rabbit', 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' and other Wallace & Gromit films. His autobiography, 'Fading into the Limelight' came out in 2006. 'An Audience with Peter Sallis' will be at the Customs House, South Shields on 19 February

Through all of my schooldays, there was never any bullying, although there were certain characters who might lean on you. It didn't last long, but I remember standing in the playground of Hazelwood Primary on my first day and feeling quite nervous. I think when you're frightened, you do remember it all your life. It was in Palmers Green, and one of the places you pass on the way there from central London is Holloway prison, where I actually did a play when I was at Rada. The stage was between the audience and the exit, and I was worried that I would be trampled if there was a mass breakout.

My father paid four guineas a term for me to go to Minchenden, a co-ed secondary school in a fine Queen Anne building. Miss Pitt, an attractive young lady who taught English, encouraged us to speak in public, so we had to go on stage and address the class and teachers for five minutes. I was never in a school play, but my great friend Reg Davis and I used to put on plays for our parents. We used to tour: Reg's house, then my house. When one gripping drama came to an end with Reg drinking a tumbler of amber fluid and saying, "You'll never catch me alive!", our lovely maid had to leave for the bathroom before she wet herself with hysterical laughter!

I took my Matriculation [the GCSE equivalent] and got a couple of distinctions. I had no thought of being an actor– I wanted to be a reporter. The school had a "Sixth Commerce Form", and I had the opportunity of learning shorthand and typing, but I simply couldn't cope with all those little squiggles, and we only had one typewriter between us. But I just liked being at school, and stayed on for a further term, or possibly a year. There were all these lovely girls; couldn't I just marry one of them and settle down behind the bike sheds? But the headmaster said, "Peter, you don't seem to be doing anything. I'm afraid you've got to leave."

My acting started in the RAF, with a man who had been a professional actor; we formed a sort of repertory company that put on plays every two or three months. At some stage, somebody put the idea of going to Rada into my head, and I auditioned and got a scholarship. If I hadn't gone to Rada, I wouldn't have got very far in the profession, if only because of my cockney suburban accent, which one of the teachers straightened out. (You can't really play Hamlet with a cockney accent; I'm sure it's been done, but it distracts from what the author is trying to say.)

Also, at Rada you get seen by agents and managements. I got a bronze medal for my performance at my graduation show. For the movement classes, you were supposed to wear shorts but, because of clothes rationing, all I'd got was underpants. My mother cut up and sewed together two shirts. Head on, I was perfectly safe, but round the side, the curtains parted and nearly all was revealed.

I wasn't well up on homosexuality, but one day the principal sent for three of us and told us in the strictest confidence that a condom had been discovered in the men's lavatory, given to the police and, after chemical analysis, was found to have been used not just by a male but also on a male. "If this became public, it would be the ruin of Rada. If you know anyone you even suspect of being a homosexual, say the name and that person will be dismissed."

We left his room and looked at each other: no chance.

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