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The godfather of British drama: Timothy West

Timothy West with Tom Morris and Emma Stenning from Bristol Old Vic

The Italian Girl (Bristol Old Vic 1967) Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Timothy West in the Theatre Collection, with the programme from the first ever National Student Drama award held in the Victoria Rooms

14 July 2017

Timothy West, often referred to as the godfather of British drama, has played more than 250 characters on stage and screen, from our previous Chancellor Winston Churchill to Stan in EastEnders, and today [21 July] he will be presented with an honorary degree. We spoke to him about the pivotal moments of his life and how Bristol came to shape the person he is today.

I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School, but I got a little bit bored. It was a boys-only school and the headmaster and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. I thought there were better ways to carry on my education so I just stopped going. Instead, I would jump onto my bicycle, pedalled up to Leigh Woods or down to the docks and imagine myself as the famous people who passed through Bristol. I was Cabot and Brunel, off having adventures.

We came to an ‘agreement’ with the headmaster and I left Bristol Grammar School. It’s funny because my friend Julian Glover was also ‘expelled’ from Bristol grammar school. I wasn’t really conscious of him when I was at school, but years and years and years later, I saw him in a pub when he was doing a John Osborne play and I recognised him. I went up to him and said: ‘Glover? Lower 2B?’ And he said: ‘Yes! Wasn’t it awful?!’ And we’ve been friends ever since.

My childhood in Bristol was a mix. In some ways, it wasn’t a very happy time. My father was the leading man in the Little Theatre at the Colston hall and he was there for a long, long time on weekly rep, doing about 45 plays a year. I’d watch him all the time, and all of our friends were in the theatre. We were a sort of family. But when war broke out, they wanted some people to stay in Bristol as police and firemen because of the bombings. So my father had to stop acting to become a war-time policeman. It was a difficult time in so many ways.

When the war ended, we moved out of Bristol to London to help further my father’s career in radio broadcasting. I was rather sorry to leave Bristol. But when I did go to London I had a brilliant English master who I owe an awful lot to. He was a small, little bald man with glasses, who always insisted that he should play the female lead. He was an amazing Cleopatra. For a long time, I wondered why, but he knew that if you had two boys playing Romeo and Juliet, the giggles would have completely disrupted the scene.

He managed to get us all engaged with Shakespeare. He said to us: ‘Look, you’re never going to understand any of this unless you get up and do it. So, clear all the desks to the side of the room. And you’ll be Brutus and you’ll be Cassius.’ He always insisted on distance, to really yell it at each other, because the force you need, the physical force you need, is the licence that’s required for that kind of language. It’s a heightened language that can’t be muttered. I say it to my students even now.

My father and mother were both actors and didn’t encourage me to go into acting. They both would rather I had done something else. It’s not a very secure life, even today. So I went on to do a literature degree at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) but the results weren’t particularly… encouraging. This was mainly because I spent an awful lot of time running the drama society and helping the magazine instead.

When I was a student, I came back to Bristol to take part in the first ever National Student Drama award set up by the Sunday Times and held in the Victoria rooms. I directed the play, and we won it. After the performance, I went to the loo and standing beside me was the famous judge and theatre critic Harold Hobson, and he said, ‘Are you Timothy West?’ I nodded and he said, ‘That was very good. Have you ever thought of doing it professionally?’ I paused for about five seconds and then went, ‘Yes! Yes.’ (Though of course I hadn’t.) And then on the train ride home I thought – yes, okay. That’s really, the moment I made my decision to go into acting.

I did other jobs for a while to pay the bills. I worked as an office furniture salesman (but I didn’t sell much). Then I was a recording engineer for EMI as a quality control engineer and that was a nice job. But acting was in my blood, and I still was afraid to take the final plunge. I was a member of so many amateur societies, rehearsing every night, that in the end my boss at EMI said, ‘Look, I think maybe you ought to consider being paid for the job to which you’re clearly devoting most of your energy… and thought… and wakefulness.’ I got the message. He did me a great favour in giving me the final push, in ushering me to take the risk.

Bristol has been a huge part of my life. I’ve been back time and time again to do plays at the Bristol Old Vic and to see close friends – some of which I made when I was five years old. There’s something about Bristol; it’s a place that stays in your memory for a long time.

Further information

Timothy West CBE spent his formative years in Bristol before going on to forge a career as an actor. He has also done seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Chichester Festival and the Birmingham Rep.

His performances at the Bristol Old Vic include Henry IV Parts I and II, The Master Builder, Uncle Vanya and King Lear. He also served on the theatre’s Board of Trustees for six years and has a long-standing relationship with the University of Bristol's Theatre Collection, which contains photos and artefacts from his acting career.

Currently President of the Society for Theatre Research and of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Timothy will be awarded with an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University.