PASSED/FAILED: Harry Secombe

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The Independent Online
Sir Harry Secombe, 75, began his career in the variety halls and graduated to the Goon Show. He first starred in Pickwick in 1963, which was revived in 1993 for a four-year run. He presents Songs of Praise on BBC1. His books include Twice Brightly, a showbiz novel which is being developed as a TV series.

Infant Goon? I was brought up on a council estate in Swansea. When I was four, my mother took me to look round St Thomas's, where my brother went. I liked it so much - they were playing with sand, which appealed to me - that I went back next day. I remember once falling down and hurting my knee on the hard asphalt playground just by the headmistress's window. She bandaged me and gave me a biscuit with an iced butterfly. I kept falling down near her window after that, but it never happened again.

Scarlet O'Harry? We were voracious readers. My brother read Decline and Fall when he was ten. My mother didn't allow us to read at table, so I was always reading the sauce bottle. I had scarlet fever when I was seven. My grandfather brought me the Waverley novels, with very small print, to read in hospital. When I came out, I kept getting thumped because I couldn't see the blackboard. I can still remember the first day I got my steel-rimmed spectacles, that wonderful feeling of being able to see things clearly.

Secondary Goon? Then I sat the scholarship for Dynevor School. My brother was already there; as a prefect he used to leave the back door open for me when I was late. My sister won a state scholarship to the girls' secondary school; she married a headmaster, after a suitable interval.

Top of the Bill? I was very good at English and the teacher, Mr Corfield, used to get me to read my essays out in front of the class. He used to write to me after I had left. When I had been on at the Palladium, I went to see him with all the trappings of success: big car... Crombie overcoat... hat... shoes. He asked, "Harry, what went wrong?" He thought I was going to be a great writer.

Eating Humble Pythagoras? I was completely useless at maths and in the Lower Fifth end-of-term exam my housemaster held up my paper between his finger and thumb as if there was something nasty in it. "Stand up, Secombe," he said. "You are making history here: no marks at all." In geometry I wrote down that I only knew Pythagoras' Theorem but the paper was about much more obscure topics. I had a nodding acquaintance with long division.

Goon Away? I got School Certificate in English, Art, French, German and English. I left school at 15.

Sound of Music? Stand-up comics used to sign off with a song and I used to sing at the end of the act. When I was doing [the radio show] Educating Archie, a talent scout from HMV sent me off to a maestro with whom I trained my voice for 12 years. I received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wales, Swansea, a few years ago. I was told this is the highest order they can offer but when I walked up to get it from Prince Charles, who is the Chancellor, he went hysterical. In my gown and mortarboard, I looked like a Toby Jug waddling up. A Goon in a gown.