Archers Actor Charles Collingwood Remembers Sherborne School
PUBLISHED: 00:24 20 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013
Helen Stiles discovers how, over the decades, actor Charles Collingwood has made Sherborne School in Dorset a part of The Archers' story. He also chats about his new autobiography, 'Brian and Me'.
It is a very strange sensation to interview someone you feel you know so well but have never met. In this case I've had an appointment with this charming chap at 7pm almost every evening for the last 20 years. I've loathed him, loved him, wanted to give him as piece of my mind, and give him a shoulder to cry on. He's one of the nation's most famous philanderers - I speak of Brian Aldridge, from BBC Radio 4's The Archers, played by the debonair and charming Charles Collingwood, who has just brought out his autobiography, Brian and Me.
Describing himself as 'relentlessly anecdotal', Charles has had "a wonderfully colourful and enjoyable life." His mother was warm and caring and his father, a good sportsman, was a boy at heart, and had a great sense of fun - a characteristic Charles inherited. At the age of 13 he was sent to Sherborne School, Dorset. "I was an only child and though much of my home life was absolute bliss it was nice to go off to school and have lots of chums," he recalls. "When my father dropped me off he shook my hand and said: 'Now, you don't have to do any work because I know everybody.' So I thought yippee!" he chuckles.
Charles fitted in well, being a gregarious sort of chap, good at sport and inclined to see the funnier side of life, even in the austerity of a boy's boarding school in the late fifties. "I had a wonderful housemaster, Frank King, a Cambridge cricket blue who referred to us boys as chaps and was very tolerant of me. I must have been a nightmare as I took my father's advice to heart and wasn't doing any work." Charles was always being hauled in front of his long-suffering housemaster to explain his poor scholastic performance, and invariably getting the cane.
Sherborne School was very much a part of the pretty market town. Charles' boarding house, Westcott, was a ten-minute cycle from the centre, and at that time there were six or seven boarding houses dotted round the town. The uniform he wore was much more formal than it is today - a dark-grey suit, a shirt with a white stiff collar and collar studs, and a straw boater called a 'basher', which they had to wear whenever they went out.
One thing that was forbidden was mixing with the opposite sex, but a trip to town - under the guise of shopping - offered a chance to exchange a word or two with a female. "We were all in love with this gorgeous girl who worked on the till at Boots. I've never bought so much toothpaste in my life!" says Charles with a laugh. "In those days we had accounts in all the shops. There must have been a large number of parents mystified as to why their son's account at Boots was so enormous! I believe she ended up marrying a Sherbernian, so we cracked it in the end!"
To keep their mind off such forbidden fruit the boys played huge amounts of compulsory sport, and when the pitches were unplayable the boys would be sent out on runs. "The other compulsory activity was Corps, where we played at soldiers, which I loathed," he says.
However, being Charles, he made the best of it. During Corps he explored the surrounding Dorset countryside on his bike. "I'd go off to a village called Cerne something or Milborne something, armed with a compass and a rifle, like something out of Dad's Army." (By coincidence another Sherbernian, John Le Mesurier, played Sergeant Wilson.) "I remember being stuck out in a field somewhere as a guard. I had my packed lunch and took my little radio to listen to the Test cricket and spent a rather pleasant day lying in a field listening to the cricket - all rather civilised. When, finally, I saw somebody I leapt up and fired off a few blanks and said, 'you're dead.' It turned out to be an irate master: 'Don't you shoot me Collingwood, we've been looking for you for the last two hours.' He was pretty furious with me!" he chuckles.
Charles' time at Sherborne ended a year early by mutual agreement. "As the headmaster so poignantly put it: 'O level is Charles' academic ceiling.'" However, some 50 years later, Charles is President of the Old Sherbernians, a great honour, which he is sure his parents would have been proud of especially for a boy whose early career at Sherborne showed little promise.
But his link with Sherborne didn't end there. In 1975, when Charles first started to play Brian Aldridge, one of the main writers on The Archers, William Smethurst, suggested that they gave Brian a back story. So they agreed that Brian should be an old Sherbernian and his radio stepson, Adam Macy, would follow in his footsteps. So Sherborne School ended up having frequent mentions on The Archers. However, on one occasion, things went slightly awry as Charles recalls.
"The Aldridge's had a rather lovely au-pair called Eva, and one of the village boys tried to climb up the drainpipe and get into her room at Home Farm. Jennifer was furious but Brian just laughed it off as a bit of fun, saying: 'Oh, don't be silly, we were always doing that when I was at Sherborne.'" The next day the furious headmaster of Sherborne School rang to complain to William Smethurst, saying no Sherborne boy would do such a thing. William tried to placate him. "Then he played his ace card," says Charles. "He pointed out that Sherborne was the only leading independent public school to be given free advertising on a national radio station, but he would be happy to stop, and the Headmaster back-pedalled like mad."
When Charles took on the role of Brian he was keen to inject something into the character, some hidden depths that could come out later as the character developed. "I put an underlying smokiness into Brian all those years ago, a suggestion which can be done as simply as the way he says: 'Oh, hello Shula.'" You can see the wolfish smile and hear the licking of the lips as he eyes up a potential conquest. It makes me shiver!
However, in this case, eyeing up Shula is permissable because she is played by Judy Bennett, his real-life wife of 33 years. Judy was a renowned child actress on radio, playing Kenton Archer and Elizabeth Archer as children, and Adam until his voice broke. "When Adam had his first term at Sherborne, Judy was still playing his role and I went back with her to my old house at Sherborne. I introduced Judy, my wife, to the housemaster, explaining that she started in his house last term; he was very confused!" He goes on to recall how Brian, as a cad and bounder, emerged. "It was William Smethurst who turned Brian, overnight, into a womaniser in the mid-eighties." Once unleashed, Brian knew no bounds. He suggested a skinny-dip in his pool with Betty Tucker, his cleaner; there was a dalliance with Mandy Beesborough from the local hunt and a steamy affair with Caroline Bone. But it was the pure-dynamite of the Siobhan Hathaway story that had the nation on the edge of its seats.
Back in 2001, Brian embarked on a passionate love affair with Siobhan, the local doctor's wife. Her marriage broke down, and she gave birth to Brian's longed-for son, Rauiri, in 2002. In the end, Brian choose Jennifer over Siobhan, but in 2007 a tragic twist in the tale emerged when Siobhan, who is dying of cancer, returns from Ireland to Ambridge to beg Brian and Jennifer to bring up Rauiri. "I've always said to the writers that I didn't want to make Brian a bad man, there has to be a side to him that makes him forgivable," says Charles.
Over the last few years, another hugely enjoyable role for Charles has been taking part in Just a Minute, created by the late Ian Messiter, a fellow Sherbernian. "The story goes that he was in class and the master, a chap called Parry Jones, said: 'Messiter, you're not paying attention.' He said: 'Yes I am sir.' 'Well then, come out here and speak for a minute, without hesitating, deviating or repeating, on the subject I have just been talking about.' Of course Ian lasted about three seconds because he hadn't been paying attention, but it left him with a germ of an idea for a game. I think it would be wonderful to record a show at Sherborne School, with me on the panel, of course, being as pompous as I normally am," he laughs. Sounds like a splendid idea.