Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Tom Conti, actor

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The Independent Online

Tom Conti, 65, won Olivier and Tony awards for 'Whose Life is it Anyway?'. He starred in the BBC2 adaptation of 'The Glittering Prizes', and plays the same character in its sequel, 'Fame & Fortune', which starts on BBC Radio 4 on 27 October

Thank God Hamilton Park wasn't run by an order of monks. The small, private Catholic boys school in Glasgow was heavily Papist, with never-ending rosary-swinging, which I never took to – and I didn't much fancy a cruel "lay brother" who taught French with a "Lochgelly" tawse, a leather strap with thongs used for hitting small children.

But it was an interesting school in a nice building, and was run by nice people in small classes. (This is a passion of mine: if there were classes of 10 for children in high-density, low-hope areas, you would see enormous changes by the time they were 16.)

I enjoyed everything but maths. I loved science. Once I became successful as an actor, I got a letter from Miss Weeple, the English mistress, saying that she wasn't surprised because of the way I read Shakespeare as a little boy. Games? No: the mud! Also sir, I can't risk my hands as I play the piano...

In Scotland, we took our Highers and Lowers (needed for university entrance) at the same time – when we were 16. On the first day of the exams, I decided, in a moment of insanity, or as some silly rebellion, not to take them. My parents were absolutely shattered.

I had piano lessons from the age of four, until one day I was told I couldn't go back to the teacher because she had suddenly gone to America. When my mother thought I was old enough to take in the information – I was about 35 – she told me that this woman, who gave lessons for a pittance and played the organ at the local church, was "taking in" men at night. They were local worthies and there was a witch-hunt when this got out – and she was the one who had to leave town.

I went to another teacher who had long fingernails that clattered on the keys, and I took against her – and lessons. But I still liked to play and, with an eye on being a professional musician, intended to go to music college, so I went along to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, where I noticed a brass plate with an arrow pointing to the College of Dramatic Art. I followed the arrow to an office where a nice lady explained all about the place – and it sounded wildly exciting. They had a couple of places left for late entrants, so I returned the following week for an audition with two speeches from their list (from Uncle Vanya and The Caine Mutiny). The boss of the college said, "While you were doing the speeches, my colleagues and I looked at each other and nodded, so we'd like you to start at 10 o'clock tomorrow."

The course was terrific, and every day was exciting. I liked all my classmates. You had to spend two afternoons a week at Glasgow University on literature courses. A certain quota had to turn up, so we took it in turns and the rest of us went to the Cosmo, a cinema that showed foreign movies, which I thought was probably more use than Aristotle on poetics. I ended up with what I wanted: a contract at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre.

We did six plays a year – we worked hard. One of the lecturers, who taught us stagecraft, came from a theatrical family. His grandfather, John Finlayson, was once in a melodrama in which he had a death scene. He impressed the audience so much that the manager would come on stage to announce, "Mr Finlayson will now die again", and the scene would be repeated.



Tom Conti is a contributor to 'The Book of Regrets', published next week in aid of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery

'Romantic Comedy' is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor from 1 October (tour details www.tomconti.co.uk)

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