My best teacher - Julian Fellowes

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Acting only became a serious career option for this star after a brave talk from a monk

I went to board at Gilling Castle, the prep school for Ampleforth, a Catholic public school in Yorkshire, just after my ninth birthday. I would spend much of the next eight years in that valley.

I remember thinking at the end of the first day, after we'd been given plenty of food and played some sort of game and watched a film, that although I'd rather be at home, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to pass the time. The next morning reality kicked in and suddenly I was in endless classrooms with people shouting at me to improve my handwriting.

My problem with school was that I found it boring. It wasn't that I didn't want to learn because I did. Indeed, I took my A-levels when I was 15, but I knew I was better suited to adulthood and I was impatient for my life to start.

Having said that, I do remember with affection the teachers who really made me interested in their subject and there was one, Father Dominic Milroy, who had a significant influence on my adult life.

When you're young, everybody seems about 100, but Fr Dominic must have been nearer 30 when I first met him. He was a very nice man, pleasant and attractive in a way that not all monks are, and easy to talk to. He was also in charge of the school theatre.

The theatre had been built many years before in a sort of strangulated gothic style but it was still pretty good, with ramped seating and a proper stage and I made my first appearance as Thomas Cromwell in a production of A Man for All Seasons.

My parents came up to see it and there was a wonderful moment when, as I seized Richard Rich's hand and held it over the candle to make him do my bidding, my mother overheard the man sitting in front of her say to his son: "That chap playing Cromwell's rather good," and the boy replied: "Yes. And he's just like that in real life."

I enjoyed acting, but it wasn't considered a serious career option; it was just something we did after lessons and although it was great fun, it was generally considered to be a way of getting us used to public speaking so we could address the people who would work for us in later life. That was more or less the point of it.

However, one day Fr Dominic took me for a walk and said: "I very, very seldom say this, but I think you ought to consider going into the theatre or the performing arts because I think that is the world you might find the most fulfilling." Looking back, it was incredibly brave. My father would probably have yelled at him if he'd known, but I think Fr Dominic sensed that I was strongly drawn towards showbusiness, but that as I didn't have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, there was a danger I might slide off into the City or some vast corporation.

I loved the idea of being an actor, but it still didn't seem a very realistic proposition when I went to Cambridge to read English.

More than theatre, I had become interested in film and one particular week I was obsessed by a Michael Winner film, I'll Never Forget What's `Isname, which I watched over and over again. Today, I think it a good film, although I'm not sure why I became obsessed with it, but during that week when I was going about my studies until the next showing, Fr Dominic's words came back to me. I thought: "I don't have to be one of those people whose work is separate from his interests. I can make my interest be my work," and that's when I decided to become an actor.

Fr Dominic was a successful man, if one may apply the term to a monk, and went on to become the headmaster of Ampleforth. We don't really keep in touch but it's always pleasant when we bump into each other. Thanks to my wife, Emma, he appeared on television when I was the subject of This is Your Life, which was entirely right. When you're young, it's important to have people around you who don't think you're mad to have the dreams you have.

Julian Fellowes' novel `Past Imperfect' is available in paperback. He was talking to Hilary Whitney.

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