PASSED/FAILED: Sheridan Morley

Sheridan Morley: Interview by Jonathan Sale
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The Independent Online
Sheridan Morley, 54, is the drama critic of The Spectator and International Herald Tribune. He presents Radio 2's The Arts Programme on Friday evening, and Theatre Land on LWT. His latest biographies are Dirk Bogarde: Rank Outsider and Gene Kelly: A Celebration. His show, Noel and Gertie, opens in July at The Mill at Sonning, Berkshire, and then in London.

Overture and beginners? My father [the actor Robert Morley] went round the world with Edward, My Son, which he had written, and took us to New York, where I started at the Town School in Manhattan. I learnt almost nothing. My only friend here was Johnny Lahr, now drama critic of The New Yorker, whose father was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

In at the deep end? Then we went to Australia, where I kept being sent to very butch schools, including Cranbrook in Sydney. You had to swim across Sydney Harbour, which I was worried about, because of the sharks. They let me do the narrow bit and gave me a diploma for it. Then I was in a Melbourne school for a term. I have a diploma in boxing, too.

Nuclear alert? When we came back to England I was nine - and totally uneducated. My father, who had been at Wellington and hated it (he was the wrong shape for a military school) disapproved of formal education. He put an ad in The Times: "Actor with terrible memories of schooldays looks for school with standards of a three-star hotel." The replies included one from a wonderfully eccentric man named Harry Tuyn, a Dutch pacifist who ran a mixed prep school in what is now the nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk.

Franglais? Harry only really liked English and French. At 13 we got O- levels in those subjects - but nothing else - and then A-levels at 14. There had been 40 of us, but by now all the other parents had withdrawn their children and there were only four. Then Harry said, "I'm going to start a girls' finishing school in Switzerland. You'd better come too." I taught Shakespeare and French to his pupils.

Universite Challenge? When I was 16, Harry said, "You'd better go to university." I wanted to go to Oxford but I'd got only two O- and two A-Levels. Harry suggested a crash course in French interpreting at Geneva University, meant for people going to the UN. I received a diploma, wonderfully embossed and stamped with sealing-wax.

Latin lover? I arrived on the doorstep of Merton College and asked to see the admissions tutor, who found the gold-leaf diploma rather impressive but said, "The trouble is, you really need Latin." I got Latin O-level from a 12-week crash course at an Earls Court crammer and then took the Merton entrance in English. This was to see if I was good enough to read French!

Acting up? In my three years I did 35 shows - producing, directing or acting - at the Oxford Playhouse and in college gardens. I did a production of Private Lives and wrote to Noel Coward; later, my first book was his biography.

Final call? After Finals, I was summoned for a Viva. I thought that I was up for a first but I had done so appallingly that they were trying to give me a chance of a third; fourths were mainly for aristocratic loonies.

Hawaii One-O? After Oxford, I saw from an ad in The Times that the University of Hawaii was looking for someone to run the student theatre. I applied, and the air ticket came by return of post. There can't have been many applications. Bette Midler was a 17-year-old student there, but I failed to spot that she was a winner.

Award ceremony? The only award I ever got was BP Arts Journalist of the Year in 1990. They gave me a decanter which we noticed, after six months, contained a small envelope at the bottom I fished it out with a paper clip and - bugger me - in it was a cheque for a tax-free pounds 1,000. I'd only written to thank them for the decanter