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Actor Samuel West: 'I was a rebellious 33-year-old'

In his Letter to His Younger Self, the All Creatures Great and Small actor reflects on the shy teenager he used to be and how he waited until his mid-thirties before daring to experiment and rebel.

Photo: Pal Hansen/Guardian/eyevine

Samuel West made his first appearance on a London stage in 1989. The son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales has since made a number of appearances in films including The Riot Club and On Chesil Beach.

His latest role has been as the eccentric vet Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small.

In his Letter to His Younger Self, he reflects on how his life has changed since having children and advises himself to get the inevitable rebellious phase out of the way sooner.

I was still a shy virgin when I was 16. I was very into some things I’m still into, like watching Wimbledon Football Club, and Iistening to Sparks, and I played piano and cello in the school orchestra. I was pretty left-wing in 1982. And that hasn’t changed. I was worried about nuclear war and that worry has got a bit smaller. But other stuff that I was thinking about then – the environment, deregulation of the financial markets, equality – those problems have just got bigger. So I suppose one encouraging thing I can say to my younger self is that, yes, those things you care about, they do matter.

If you met the teenage me, as well as very shy, you would probably find him quite serious, and self-conscious. He hadn’t learned, partly through acting, through the privilege of being able to play people funnier or better looking or sexier than himself, that we can all hide behind masks. And some of us do it professionally. Both my parents are actors [Timothy West and Prunella Scales], and in him you would find a 16-year-old who referred almost everything back to his parents. Because he was still considering going into the family business, and worried about whether he could ever be half as good or successful as they were.

HOWARDS END
1992. With Helena Bonham Carter in the Merchant Ivory production Howard’s End. Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I wasn’t a rebellious 16-year-old, I was a rebellious 33-year-old. Probably my biggest note to my younger self is, get the rebellion out of the way earlier. Do it when you’re young, when you can do it with some style, because you’ve got to do it some time. And if you wait till you’re in your thirties to do the sex and the drugs and the rock and roll, that can really fuck you up. I waited until I had some success and some money. Acting is a nice job when people want to talk to you – only because of seeing you on telly, let’s not pretend. You should try to handle that responsibly. But I’d also say, do try everything once, except incest and folk dancing.

I would love to give my younger self a thrill and tell him that one day he’ll be in a studio recording a Doctor Who audio drama with Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding. They played the fifth Doctor and his three assistants when I was 16. I texted my brother to tell him what I was doing and who with and he immediately texted back saying, “Have you died and gone to heaven?“

The biggest change in my life since I was 16 is having children. I spent a long time wanting children and not having the guts to settle down. So I was 48 when I became a father. Your life changes because you’re no longer the most important person in it, and I’ve loved that. But I’ve also realised you’re only ever as happy as your least happy child. And that’s really hard. Especially now, because they’re going through some shit now. In terms of giving me a second life, the world looking differently – I couldn’t quite say [raise children] earlier, because I waited until I met a wonderful person, who I love doing it with. And I had a long, long period of seeing a therapist before having children, which was very helpful. But I would say don’t put it off too long, because, you know, bits of you stop working. Bits of you break.

Samuel West, British actor and theatre director joins the Free Belarus Now protest outside Belarusian Embassy in London, UK
2010. Demonstrating outside the Belarusian Embassy in London after disputed elections. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

I didn’t see quite enough of my parents when I was young. They were busy and we always had nannies. I would get very close to these young women and then they would leave. I’d tell my younger self, try not to get into a pattern of thinking that if you fall in love with somebody they’re not going to be there in the morning. I’m not saying I fell in love with the nannies, but that was the pattern which was set up when I was learning to relate to young women. I would be close to these people and then they would go. And that was hard. As parents we’ve tried very carefully not to repeat that pattern. One of our children has had one nanny all her life and one the same since she was one year old. We’re very lucky to be able to have childcare, and it’s essential for my partner’s work when I’m away, but we’ve also tried to be around as much as possible so that pattern of very attentive but slightly uneven home life didn’t repeat itself.

I did sometimes feel the absence of my parents in my life. They were very busy, and I never blame them for that – they had to go where the work was. Personally I’ve tried to do much less that takes me away from my children, but that’s probably just a reaction. But yes, I think that lack, that absence, is something I learned more about and had to had to find peace with before I was able to settle down.

If I could have one last good conversation with anyone… my mother springs to mind because she has dementia. She and I have had a very intense and fruitful relationship through our lives, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. And certainly there were things that we needed to talk about. You always kind of imagine that there’s eventually going to be this very moving final reel with a limpid piano soundtrack in which you both say everything that needs to be said, ask everything you’ve ever wondered about. And then, when your parent gets dementia, you realise that that’s not going to happen. The things I want to ask about, I’m never going to get answers to now. But that’s OK, I’ve made my peace with that. In fact, leaving the desire to answer those questions behind has been an important thing for me to do.

LTMYS 1477
2021. Succeeding Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small. Photo: Channel 5/ViacomCBS

If I could go back and ask my mother anything it would be about the first two years of my life, because I think a lot of the things that made me who I am were in place very early. My father wrote his autobiography a few years ago and he talks about taking me to the Edinburgh Tattoo when I was five years old. Some pipe and drum number ended and he wrote “Sam clapped his little hands solemnly. I turned to him and said, ‘Did you like that?‘, and he said, ‘No, but it must have been so difficult.’” I read that and thought, that’s absolutely me now. It’s sort of sweet that a five-year-old was thinking, I didn’t like that, but they worked really hard at it so I’m going to clap. But actually, it’s a serious, slightly precocious response when I could have just said “That was great.” I was already thinking a bit too much about the performance. And I think probably, you know, that made me think I was pretty much who I am by the time I was five.

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I do actually have one specific piece of advice for myself when I was at university. I’d say, when you’re 20 years old, you will go to a house party in Jericho in Oxford and see a blonde-haired man propped up against the wall like a bracket. His name is Boris Johnson. Try to persuade him not to become prime minister – you’ll be doing us all a favour.

When I was about eight we spent a summer in digs in a mill near Chichester when my father was working there. It was a gorgeous summer. My father was there, my mum was there, my brother was there. My brother and I found a big old glass tank and filled it with water and gravel. We got a little net and caught tadpoles and sticklebacks from the stream and put them in the tank. And then somebody in the theatre company made a sign for us. I remember being enormously proud of that. We also had a little inflatable dinghy we took out into the middle of the pond – my parents were apparently not worried that we might drown. And we didn’t. The next day, two things happened. The dinghy developed a hole. And I decided to empty the tank to clean it and I dropped it and it smashed. So I would just go back to the day before that happened and just enjoy the fact that we made something really beautiful. And I’d say to myself, don’t clean out the aquarium. Just leave it as it is.

Season two of All Creatures Great And Small starts on Channel 5 in September.

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