First, an apology; I was born and grew up in the Bahamas. I realise that saying so anywhere outside the Bahamas counts as showing off, so…sorry. It wasn’t my idea.
My mother relates that I once came home from church with Ma Pinder, my paternal grandmother, and proceeded to re-enact the sermon in fine declamatory style from halfway up our stairs. I was four. This was clearly “A Sign” which, had I been old enough to read it, might have steered me towards the relative spiritual, even financial, security afforded by a life devoted to the cloth. But no. The light of revelation was taking this four-year old in what any actor knows is, sadly, completely the opposite direction.
I grew up fired by the passionate triumph-or-disaster that was the school play. I even won a “Spoken English” contest. I joined my dad – now a literal role model, I suppose – in his local operatic group’s musicals and shows, watching and learning . I was hooked. It wasn’t long before two new ingredients splashed heavily into the churning soup of adolescence; girls and rock’n’roll. The Beatles, Hendrix, Wilson Pickett. I discerned a chemical formula at work; singing and playing the guitar seems to magically conjure the presence of girls. I went for it. Getting up on stage, performing, the sickness was clearly incurable.
I saw the great Sidney Poitier in “Lilies of the Field” and was further inspired. Here was a fellow-Bahamian from Cat Island; soon to be driving through proud, cheering crowds – me right up front - in a triumphal, homecoming motorcade. In later years, he’d walk by our house on his way to hit golf balls from the top of the hill. I dreamed that my life might emulate his – though I could have cared less about the golf.
My parents, being parents, advised the pursuit of a proper education (i.e. one that might, later, actually help to sustain life by putting food on the table) before considering any exploration of that treacherous landscape called, “Performing Arts”. And so to England. And to Reading University. And a graduate course in Chemistry. As previously stated, my parents, being parents, lit on the happy possibility of my returning to the Bahamas once I’d seen sense and taking up my rightful destiny in, yes…the family chemical business.
As soon as I got to Reading I joined the Drama Society. I was cast as Romeo in my first term. I like to think the producers must have seen something. Either way, this was it – my first acting role outside the Bahamas. By my second year I’d performed at the Edinburgh Festival and I was beginning to entertain notions of an actual career on the stage. After all…Sidney did it.
But I stuck with the Chemistry, got the degree and went home. Confused. It was 1973 (?) and it seemed like the only sensible thing to do was join a rock band. Teaching Science at the local secondary school would take care of the tiresome food-on-the-table stuff. For now. Once, my students spotted a photo of the band outside a venue and in my conflicted state I claimed it was my twin brother. I doubt Sting ever felt such unwonted pangs of denial.
I was never cut out for Science; being left to it, maybe…teaching it, no. I joined my dad’s firm. We do Bleach.
However, rescue was close at hand. Romeo again. A local amateur group, this time, but I more than up for it. Sadly, my notions of inevitable type-casting were soon disabused by the discovery that their first Romeo had dropped out and they’d heard I’d done a bit of acting in Europe. Still…every cloud, as they say.
And so began a chain of events that led to my becoming a professional actor. One of the directors of our Bahamian Romeo and Juliet production encouraged me to have a go at the LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) Gold Medal exam and that’s how I found myself, in 1978, on Gower Street, standing before the hallowed portals of RADA (London’s only a small place, after all) wondering…dreaming…what if…
It would have been churlish to have come all this way, pass the LAMDA exam, and walk right past so I didn’t. I went in and asked for an audition. If you don’t ask etcetera…
Possibly to shut me up, they found an opening on a forthcoming day of open auditions – in New York. It was a bit of a one-off experimental thing for them. Was I interested? I’d’ve gone to Mars. Fortunately, the NY air-fare was more affordable and in September ’78 in the UN Building, of all places, I ran through my newly-polished, one-classical-one-modern for RADA principal, Hugh Cruttwell. There were a very few coveted places for non-British applicants. I didn’t get one.
Devastated but determined to keep pushing, I returned to the Bahamas to prepare my application for the following year. Until then…more rock, more bleach. After a few months, bruises still sore, I found myself caught up in the distraction of a production of Julius Caesar. I was playing Mark Anthony and it seems that the speech about “a tide in the affairs of men” would soon have an extra twist. I got a letter. December 7th, 1978. The date sticks, for some reason. The envelope looked impressive, embossed, “Royal Academy of Dramatic Art” in red. Cruttwell again. Something about next year’s audition, no doubt. In Australia, probably.
Stanislavski would have been delighted that I discovered a lifelong acting resource for going from curious-to-stunned-to-ecstatic in five seconds. A miracle. They had a place for me from January. I was in. If I was interested, of course…short notice, an all that.I was twenty seven and the dream was suddenly real!