Interview by Kate Salter for The London Magazine
I suppose you could say I was born in Paddington. My mother and father both trained at St Mary’s Hospital and that was where I was born. My dad was a surgeon and my mum was a nurse. After that I was whisked to a house in East Sheen, where we lived for about four years, but I don’t remember that place terribly well.
My dad would make up stories for me at bedtime. They always started the same way. “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago when Richmond Park was all forest there lived in a clearing in a wood a family…” He always pitched it the same way so it gave him time to think of the rest of the adventure. All these stories smelled vaguely of hospitals because he’d just come back from work.
We moved to Blackheath to what in my imagination is a Gothic mansion. It wasn’t – I went back to it last year – but it was still an impressive Edwardian house on Kidbrooke Grove with pillars with ‘In and Out’ the drive. Most importantly, at the top of the grand wooden staircase was a landing with two exits either side so it made the perfect stage and was where I put on plays.
There was an amazing copper beech tree in the garden where I had a tree house. This year I’m planting a copper beech in my garden because that symbolises my childhood. The treehouse and the camps I built behind it were an important part of my boyhood. Stig of the Dump came alive in those camps I made. Now I live on the West Sussex-Hampshire border. My parents moved there when I was about 12 and it’s been my stamping ground ever since.
My first school was in Blackheath on the Heath by the church, All Saints’. Billy Smart’s circus would come and pitch on the Heath every year and when they were in town the circus children would be at our school. It was great when they brought the elephant into the playground. I’m sure that wouldn’t be allowed these days.
I went to boarding school in Sherborne, Dorset. I remember in my first year auditioning for Julius Caesar. I’ve always been quite well covered and I was chubby. I saw one of my tutors who asked me who I’d auditioned for. “I’m really hoping to play Cassius,” I said. He looked at me and said, “You mean Cassius who has ‘a lean and hungry look?’” I think I was given about two lines as someone else.
The National Youth Theatre changed my attitude to acting. It went from being something I really enjoyed to being something I cared passionately about.
I was blessed to come from a background where access to the arts was part of our life. Thousands of children don’t have that opportunity. The NYT was the first time I had ever met a bank manager’s child from Belfast, or a miner’s son from the North East, which in my gilded cage I hadn’t really come across before. That’s why I’m passionate about the National Youth Theatre and in fact anything that introduces children to the arts.
My first job was at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. I auditioned as the understudy to Ralph Fiennes’ Lysander in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I still remember when they rang to offer me my Equity card, £100 per week, and £3 extra if I went on for Ralph. I went weak at the knees.
Filming at the Natural History Museum at night in the first Paddington film was very exciting. The other buzz was filming in Finsbury Park where there’s a Victorian reservoir, right under the park. In the second film there’s a sequence which is beautiful to watch, where the whole of the riverbank along Maida Vale looks utterly gorgeous and bewitching at night. Icons such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace all feature very strongly.
Is London still as welcoming and inclusive as Paddington says in the first film? I’m going to stay purely in the world of fantasy and say yes, that for every Mr Curry there is a Brown family. The second film is a more cautionary tale of don’t judge a book by its cover, but again, it celebrates a wonderful London.
Paddington 2 is out on 10 November