Several stages on the way to success

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Along with my two elder brothers, and my older sister, I failed my 11-plus. So, we all went to the secondary modern school just across the road from our home in Walkden, between Manchester and Bolton.

Walkden County Secondary was pretty small by today's standards, with about 350 boys. It was a nicely designed, pre-war building, and there was a carbon-copy girls' school alongside. We went co-ed in my third year.

It was deemed slightly rough, though nobody ever swore in class, or anything like that. One of my best friends, though he lived even closer than we did, was sent to a newer school about two miles away because his mum thought Walkden was not refined enough.

Manufacturing industry was still dominant in the area when I was at the school, from 1966 to 1971. On the whole, Walkden's role had been to produce skilled labourers. There was a lot of woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing, and a lot of the boys went into apprenticeships. Albert Finney's workmates in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning were the kind of people who came out of Walkden. My father had worked as a mechanical fitter down Moseley Common pit. But I had no intention of doing any kind of skilled labour; I wanted to be an actor from a very early age.

My earliest theatrical experience had been watching my brother, Alan, in a Walkden production of Androcles and the Lion, and also in something called One for the Pot, in which he played the mother and was really rather good, having borrowed a fox fur from my grandmother. I remember being absolutely riveted by the world of the stage. At Walkden I was moderately successful in productions directed by a great English teacher called Rod Ashworth, who was a big influence on me.

Mr Ashworth joined us from another school, which, I think, was in Bolton. Anybody who came from four miles away was instantly regarded as quite exotic. He was very impassioned as a teacher, quite bullish physically, and he had quite a "bursting" personality. He could get worked up in an instant if someone misbehaved, but then calm down just as quickly.

With him, as with all of the teachers, it was real chalk and talk stuff. We most definitely were not sitting around in a carpeted meeting area, "discussing literature". When Mr Ashworth did The Second Shepherds' Pageant, from the Wakefield Mystery cycle, I was Mak the sheep stealer. In my final year, we did The Royal Astrologer by Willis Hall. I had a big comedy part in that which involved talking to the audience at the start. It was a bit Frankie Howerd: "Oh, you'll never guess what's happening in our kingdom!" On the basis of that performance, Mr Ashworth showed me a letter the school had received from the Manchester Youth Theatre and said: "I think you should audition." He coached me in my audition piece, which was Shylock's "If you prick us . . ." speech - a part I was clearly never destined to play - and I got in. He was very much behind me as an embryonic actor. One or two of his other pupils also went on to become actors, so he spawned a little ripple of dramatic activity. He was very well-liked.

I tried hard at every subject and always handed my essays in on time. The run-up to CSEs was a very happy time. I had my sights set on doing A-levels at grammar school and did well enough to get into the sixth form at Farnworth Grammar, which my mother had attended in the Twenties. It was very old, with railings and stairs everywhere, though the sixth form was in this little semi-detached house alongside.

I was studying with people who had got all their O-levels and I gradually realised they weren't in fact any cleverer than me: we'd just been through different sausage machines. I did English, art and history.

There were some real dinosaurs among the staff but my wonderful English teacher, Patricia Lingard, was not one of them. She and the other English teachers were very conscientious about taking us to productions of the set plays, so we saw two versions of Death of a Salesman, as well as the Peter Brook film of King Lear in Manchester. She came to see me play Pandarus in the MYT Troilus and Cressida in 1971, the first of my three seasons with them.

The third influential English teacher was Geoffrey Sykes, who ran the MYT in the summer holidays, and still sort of does. I can see a little bit of him in Eric Slatt, the deputy headmaster I'm playing in the school sitcom, Chalk.

Mr Sykes was very charismatic and irascible. He would yell, "What the hell are you doing?" and swear a lot in rehearsals. He paid you the respect of actually being rude to you.

Later, I went to do a course studying drama at Bristol University and then followed that with a spell at RADA. But my education never stopped - it continued with directors like Max Stafford-Clark, who can make you look at a play in a particular way. I have great admiration for those who teach through respect and patience, and don't shout at people. I might have been all right as a teacher, but I do have a bit of a temper, so maybe I would have ended up being quite Eric Slatt-ish.

David Bamber, actor, played Mr Collins in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Last week he appeared on BBC2 in My Night with Reg playing his Olivier award-winning stage role as Guy. Chalk continues on Thursday evenings at 9.30pm on BBC1

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