Radio Times

Andrew Duncan interview - 2nd October 2001

Andrew Duncan meets George Irving - page 2

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Medicine was one of his vague ambitions growing up, with three younger sisters, in a council flat in South Shields, where his father, George, was a surface worker at the pit. The family was Catholic and he became an altar boy. "I hesitate to compare myself to Laurence Olivier, but he said he discovered acting through ritual in the High Church of England, and I suspect my way was similar. If you find yourself at twelve years old, wearing vestments, carrying a cross in front of a May procession, it's an enormous high. Being religious, as I was, you feel you have a central role in something very important. You're one of the players rather than the audience."

At school he was fascinated by biology. "I spent my lunchtimes looking after locusts and ants in the lab. Even teachers who didn't know my name referred to me as 'the biologist', and I seemed set for some sort of scientific work until, in the middle of the sixth form, stacking supermarket shelves at weekends, a friend told me about the South Shields youth theatre - it had 54 girls and six boys. My hormones got the better of me and I went along, but I didn't spend my time chasing the girls. I wasn't particularly sexually active. I was a pious lad, a good boy who did as I was told. Someone at the theatre put Samuel Beckett's 'Endgame' into my hand and although I still don't know what it's about, it got to me on an emotional level. I knew then I wasn't going to be a scientist or even a priest, which I'd thought of.

"My parents were very scared of me becoming an actor because of the insecurity. I assumed, with the arrogance of youth, I'd be the exception, and there was something about the frisson of the times - 1966, the summer of love, life was changing. I was part of the sixties meritocracy which said that even though you're a working-class boy, the world can be yours. It took a while. One of the 'givens' of the industry is that cream does not always rise to the top. I trained with people more talented than I was, who you'll never hear of. It's not fair, so don't expect it to be. In your early years you have to be a professional dealer with rejection, which will either destroy or make you. It's therapeutic to say, 'Those fools have got it wrong again'. Good actors go under regularly and have to find other ways of living with their unrealised dreams."

He studied at night school for A-levels, supporting himself as an agent for a football pools company, then did a three-year acting course at Birmingham university. His first job required stamina rather than acting ability. He was one of six young men in an advertisement for Worthington E. "We finished the exterior shots by nine in the morning, and the rest of the day was spent inside, filming us drinking. In those days you had to use the real product and because they wanted it to look right on camera they added Alka Seltzer to make the beer froth. At one point the director said, 'Do you want to throw up and then do the shot, or do the shot and then throw up?' We worked until two the following morning and I was in bed for three days afterwards. I haven't done ads for a long time."

He met his wife, director Jan Sergeant, during a year he spent at the repertory theatre in Newcastle, where she was a director. "We recoiled at first because we saw each other as being confrontational and difficult, and then got back together. Everyone is difficult - actors more than most, because we have no set routine." next page >>

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