My First Job: Actor and Horrible Historian Terry Deary worked as a butcher's boy

'The meat that fell on the floor was minced'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 12 October 2006 00:00 BST

"It was a very dangerous environment: knives, boiling water," says Terry Deary. "These days an inspector of hygiene would probably have a heart attack at my Dad's shop, with its dirty floor, cracks in the wooden counter and meat wrapped in newspaper."

Deary is happiest as an actor, currently in the BBC2 Friday morning series Henry's Wives. He diversified into writing in order to create a play suitable for the cast of his theatre group and is now famed for his "Horrible Histories", a subversive, child's-eye take on the past. His stage adaptations of The Terrible Tudors and The Vile Victorians are on tour (now at The Lowry, Salford). But in terms of work, he cut his teeth - and possibly his fingers - at his father's butcher's premises, where from the early Fifties onwards he spent every Saturday between the ages of five and 18.

"Every scrap of meat would be scraped from the bone. I never eat sausages to this day without thinking of what we used to put in them. If the meat fell on the floor, we would pick it up and put it in the mincer - with the sawdust on it." Terry had to arrange groups of three "links" or sausages that weighed exactly a quarter of a pound. Costing sixpence, this would feed a family of three.

"The thing I particularly enjoyed was carrying a whole sheep on my shoulder and putting it in the freezer; I felt like Superman. That was dangerous too: it was a source of fascination to me that you could die pretty quickly if you were locked in. There was an exit button inside it but you couldn't see it, as the light went out when the door was closed."

By the time young Terry was eight, he was making deliveries to the nearby streets in the poverty-stricken Hendon area of Sunderland: "It was a shipyard area and so was bombed in the war. Some of the houses had no external doors. In the summer, the children ran around with no trousers. I still remember clearly the smell of the houses: dead cats and vinegar."

As the town expanded, "William Deary Master Butcher & Ship's Chandler" (as it was known, though Terry has no memory of ever supplying a ship) invested in a bicycle so that Terry could deliver to the new estates. "I was so privileged to be surrounded by poverty: it makes you realise what you have and I don't take anything for granted. I am grateful that I can make a good living from what I enjoy. It has also given me a deep suspicion of the rich and privileged."

Acting in the Henry "off with their heads" VIII series can't have helped dispel that suspicion much.

'Flight of the Fire Thief' by Terry Deary is just out (Kingfisher, £7.99)

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