Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Tim Pigott-Smith, actor

'I'm sharp, not academic'
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The Independent Online

Tim Pigott-Smith, 59, appeared in the ITV series The Jewel in the Crown and The Chief and the two BBC productions of North and South. Films include The Remains of the Day and V for Vendetta, which is released in March. Stage appearances include Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse, Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre and The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey. The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Women Beware Women opens tonight at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

I didn't like my first primary school in Leicester very much. As I was going home on my tricycle one day, I said, "There's no reading, no writing and no arithmetic - it's really boring!" So I was sent to St John the Baptist Church of England Primary. It was an excellent school and the proof was that I went from there to the best grammar school in Leicester. I did a lot of singing and was in the Leicester Cathedral Choir.

Wyggeston Grammar (now Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College) is a Victorian institution with a sense of presence and a drive 150 yards long. I did everything: I was in the orchestra, the choir, and the cricket, rugby and swimming teams. In my first term I auditioned for the part of Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle - yes, a girl's part but this was a boys' school - and was miffed to get the role of the mother-in-law. It was fun to be in plays directed by Ed Rayner, my history teacher. He was quite demanding. Instead of sitting at the front like most directors during rehearsals, he would sit at the back and shout if he couldn't hear you.

Both the Attenboroughs had attended Wyggeston. Many years ago there was a wonderful series of cinema ads with the theme of "No one forgets a good teacher." This featured, among many others, David Attenborough, who paid tribute to HM Lacey - the man who taught me biology too.

I'm quite sharp but not particularly academic. I think I got seven O-levels in the end. Wyggeston streamed the cleverest to do O-levels in four years instead of five. This scheme didn't serve me well. Your response to literature is to do with maturity; if you don't respond to a book or a poem when you are 12, you might when you are 13.

When I was 16, we moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where my father was editor of the local paper. At King Edward the Sixth Grammar School, I did English, French and history A-levels, and got a B, a B and an E. In my last year, Mr Pratt, the headmaster, called me into his study and asked, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I think I'm drifting towards being an actor." He said, "Go to Bristol University and do drama."

Drama at Bristol was an academic course: you were judged on your A-levels and there were no auditions. I did a BA General degree. There were four subjects in your first year and you dropped one for Finals: I did English, French, Drama and had an abortive year of Philosophy. It was fantastic, a wonderful three years. There were good people in all my departments: Glynne Wickham, who had set up the Drama course, and in the French faculty Donald Watson, the official translator of Ionesco.

I did lots of drama. I was in The Conscious Lover. I've forgotten who it's by but it was a comedie larmoyante: a "weeping" or sentimental comedy. The Bristol Old Vic drama school saw me acting in this and offered me a place, so I didn't have to audition. I was lucky to get a 2:2; in the French department I became known as le fantôme because I was never there.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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