Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

June 28, 2009

Nicholas on hs school days

From The Daily Mail

Nicholas Parsons, 85, has presented Radio 4's Just A Minute for 42 years. He has two grown-up children from his first marriage, and lives in Buckinghamshire with second wife, Annie, 69. He says:

Here I am in 1939, aged 15, at St Paul's in London – a school I loved. I was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and went to kindergarten at Kesteven High School for Girls, where they took little boys in the nursery classes. Then I had one term at The King's School in Grantham, before moving to London when I was eight.

Once we'd arrived in the capital, my parents – Paul, a doctor who delivered Margaret Thatcher, and Nell – sent me and my older brother, John, to a boarding prep school, Tenterden Hall in Hendon.

The place was archaic in the extreme. Most terrifying of all was matron, a sadist who wore a starched cap and cuffs. She reported us to the housemaster all the time, which meant we were caned for the slightest misdemeanour.

I was incredibly homesick. Parents weren't allowed to visit during term time, and I only survived because I could make my friends laugh. I'd mimic the masters and get caned for it, but it was worth it. Back then I was beaten for getting laughs – now I get paid for it.

We never told our parents how unhappy we were – we just put up with it, presumably because we thought they had been through the same thing and we had to suffer it in order to grow up.

I did very well in my studies – I was often top of the class – despite my dyslexia, which in those days didn't even have a name. I was very slow at learning to read and write, but I had – and still have – an excellent memory, and always remembered my lessons.

I also had a stammer, which I sorted out in later years, thanks to a very good voice trainer, who showed me how to control my breathing. In any case, I always found that, when I walked on stage, I felt so at home the stutter always faded away.

After two years, my parents at last took my brother and me away from Tenterden Hall and sent us to a day-school – Colet Court in Hammersmith, the prep school for St Paul's. I was blissfully happy and never wanted to go home at the end of the day. At 14 I passed my Common Entrance exam to St Paul's across the road, and again was very happy.

I loved rugby, cricket and boxing, and again I did well in class. I stayed at St Paul's until I was 16, when World War II broke out. I could have been evacuated with the school. My younger sister, Patricia, was evacuated with her school, and my brother already had an apprenticeship at Rolls- Royce, but my parents, who'd decided I was a non-achiever, chose not to send me away with my school.

Instead, I was sent to a ghastly establishment in north London, where I seemed to know more than the teachers. Even so, I passed the school certificate with five distinctions, which in those days was equivalent to A-levels. So, aged 16 and a bit, I was eligible to go to university.

My parents asked me what career plans I had, and my reply was the same as it had been since the age of five – I wanted to be an actor. I'd been doing amateur dramatics and school plays for years, and knew it was the only career I wanted.

My father said, 'Ridiculous!' and my mother was horrified at the thought of my joining such a ghastly profession. I'm sure she thought I'd end up as an alcoholic pervert in the gutter.

Then, because I was always making and repairing things, my uncle suggested I become an engineer. Next thing I knew I was on a train to Scotland to begin an engineering apprenticeship on Glasgow's Clydebank shipyards, with a firm called Drysdales who made pumps for ships. I found my way to my lodgings at the YMCA, went down to the docks and started work.

I thought I'd landed on another planet, not least because they seemed to be speaking a foreign language – a broad, gutteral Glaswegian. There I was, a public school boy with the accent to match, mixing with all these unusual characters. But my fellow apprentices accepted me, partly because I used to make them laugh by mimicking the foreman.

Along with my work on Clydebank, I did a sandwich course at Glasgow University for two years. I didn't really feel I was cut out to be an engineer, but when I was old enough to fight in the war and tried to join up, I was told I was doing important war work, and so should carry on with it.

Carry on I did, but because of the severe rationing, I wasn't getting enough nourishment for a teenager. I was still intent on pursuing my stage career and was entertaining the troops with little concert parties, getting up at 6 in the morning to work at Clydebank and then rushing off to perform somewhere. It all took its toll.

After my apprenticeship I volunteered for the Merchant Navy as a junior engineer, but never sailed. Instead, I suddenly collapsed and spent six months in hospital with a serious lung condition.

When I was discharged, I came back to London and set about becoming an actor. I knocked on doors, wrote letters, auditioned, understudied, and never took no for an answer. I progressed through cabaret, clubs, theatre, radio and eventually the ITV comedy series the Arthur Haynes Show, which ran for ten years in the 1960s and established me. It was hard work, but worth it.

No prizes for guessing which one Nicholas is!