1. 21 YEARS A-GROWING
I was born into a reasonably musical family. My mother had been a musical comedy actress and my father a closet saxophone player. I never heard my father play—he was reticent about his musical abilities, as he was about everything else in his life and background. Although she had given up the stage when I was born, my mother never really gave up acting. She would launch into one of her hit numbers—she had been quite successful—at the drop of a hat or the twiddle of a radio dial. Everybody loved and admired her for her extrovert personality and her fund of stories about the musical stars of yesteryear. Everybody, that is, except her embarrassed son.
My mother was from Lisburn in County Antrim and my father had been born in Glasgow. He was a man who very rarely offered praise and when he did, there was usually a reservation or two at the end of it. I was born in London in 1942 -- a sensitive boy --the only child of my father and the only son of my mother who had been married before. I spent my early years in boarding schools, being sent to my first at the age of three and a half. Nobody has ever explained this to me.
I loved music from the earliest time I can remember and my mother had a stack of old, cracked 78s that I used to play on a wind-up gramophone. They were mainly songs from long forgotten musical comedies but I wish I had them now.
Boarding school was pretty much hell for a sensitive child and I was always very tearful at the end of summer holidays, but the trauma of my early years in boarding school has left me a very self sufficient person and I’m grateful for that at least. I was a good pupil and enjoyed the sports that we played, another thing that I have maintained in my adult life.
In the summer holidays of 1950, when I was eight, I landed a small but very important part in a film called A Tale of Five Cities. I’m not sure how this happened but my sister, ten years older than I, who was also on the stage may have played a part. I fell in love with acting there and then. I mean it was so easy! As a child actor, director and stars, alike, treated me like the bee’s knees and my self-confidence was probably never higher!
The film starred Bonar Colleano and Barbara Kelly, two Canadian actors of a bygone era but probably the most lastingly famous person who was in it was Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian actress of great beauty, who was, unfortunately, filmed in Italy. Alas we never met! I last saw this film in 1956 on TV and have been trying to get a video of it ever since. I was a bit of a hit when I got back to school and my life took a turn for the better.
A crossroads was reached in 1955. The newly-formed ITV TV station wanted me to play Nokie in a children’s weekly series called Round at the Redways. Nokie was short for Pinocchio—I had Dumbo the Elephant-like ears until an operation a couple of years later. There was much consternation and soul searching between my parents, my sister and myself at this point. I was academically on track for a pretty top quality education, which would have to give way if I undertook this new career. I forget now who was on which side but my side won. The upshot was that I left my boarding school and entered the glitzy world of Stage, Screen, TV and Radio.
Well, I was good. Acting comes easily to children. I made my Stage debut in the theatre where my mother had made her farewell appearance. I ran on to the stage at the start of the play and received a volley of applause before I had opened my mouth!
I was in a number of TV plays, including one called The Magpies -- an adaptation of a Henry James story. The newspapers went into raptures about my performance in this and I landed a part, with a dramatic scene, in Room at the Top, playing opposite Laurence Harvey. He was a bit scary and we had to retake the scene two or three times. It went well eventually and he stumped off the set giving me a "Well done, Andrew". I was in a stage play at the same time, with Peter Sellers, and kept hearing how everybody had been very impressed with my performance in the film.
My mother insisted that we should go to the première in a limousine and we got out, in front of adoring crowds, at the Leicester Square Odeon. Two thirds of the way through the film, my mother leaned over and whispered "When’s your scene?". "Shhh!" I said.
My mind was in turmoil: they had cut my scene. We went out the back way and went home on the bus!
I’ve never really forgiven the production company for not telling us in advance.
I think that was the beginning of my demise as a good actor. Shortly after that some hormonal change came over me and I became more self-conscious. The transition from Child actor to Juvenile has defeated many a career, and though I felt duty bound to continue something for which I had sacrificed my top class education, acting would never be the same again.
I had been studying classical guitar since leaving boarding school, first with Julian Bream who was a friend of my sister’s husband and then with one of his ex-pupils. Julian was the first person I ever heard playing a musical instrument close up, other than the piano. I was reduced to tears.
After a couple of years wrestling with Minuets and Bourées, I realised that this was not quite the music I wanted to play, beautiful as it was, and I waited with impatience for the inspiration I knew would come.
It came when I was about 15 in the shape of Lonnie Donegan and the Skiffle boom. I was enraptured by Lonnie’s first two EP’s, Backstairs Session and Skiffle Session.
When I heard Skiffle, I gave up classical guitar, much to my father’s horror, and found that I had a formidable grounding in three chord playing! Two of my acting friends and I formed the A1 Skiffle Group. It wasn’t till the name had been beautifully painted on the front of the Tea Chest Bass that someone read it as AI Skiffle Group --Andy Irvine Skiffle Group!
It wasn’t a great success.
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