Roger Allam: “The arts have become elitist”

Award-winning Roger Allam on his 'brutal and scary' school days, joining a feminist theatre company - and why London is a dying city

When I turned 16 I was just becoming aware of politics and the wider world. There were all the disturbances in Europe in 1968 and marches against the Vietnam War, then in 1969 the Troubles in Ireland. It suddenly seemed like the world was quite a dangerous place. My father was a vicar so we moved around. I am a London mongrel, really.

I was happy at home but miserable going away to school. I went to a strange school that was like Eton for paupers – a charity boarding school called Christ Hospital. You couldn’t go if your parents earned a certain amount. My father was from quite a poor background, and my parents were education-obsessed, aspirational in the sense of education being the way to improve and get on. When the opportunity came to go to this school, it meant missing my last year of primary school – and I was no way bright enough to catch up. So I arrived at this school quite stupid, academically, and miserable because mine was a warm, loving family. School felt brutal and scary.

Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday in Endeavour

At 16 I discovered the theatre during the holidays. I was encouraged to go to the Old Vic to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because I was studying Hamlet at school. This was when it was the National Theatre, run by Laurence Olivier. In those days you could queue on the day and sit on padded benches in the gallery for 15p, which was the price of my tube fare. That would be £3 today.

By discovering the theatre, I not only started unlocking the mysteries of the city and what was on offer but also discovered that is where I wanted to be. I loved it as a live experience. And because it was so cheap, I could go pretty frequently. Subsidy back then was a commitment to keeping seat prices down, it wasn’t a corporation buying advertising. The arts have become more elitist. The involvement of corporations and wealthy individuals means that more of it is theirs and less of it is ours. I am so glad, looking back, that I lived through our brief social democratic blip and that those things were available to me as a boy.

I’d tell my younger self to work harder on himself. Drink less. Don’t take up smoking. He wouldn’t have listened.

You could get in free to folk clubs if you played a couple of songs. My musical heroes were Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Playing songs at folk clubs just seemed a totally ordinary thing to be doing at 16. I also remember seeing Billy Connolly and the Humblebums during that period.

I have warm feelings towards my younger self but wish I’d been more conscious. I feel as though I just wandered around and things happened to me. The things I could do, like sing, play instruments and later on, act, I took for granted. I wish I’d honed them more. I’d tell my younger self to work harder on himself. Drink less. Don’t take up smoking. He wouldn’t have listened. And on his love life? Just go for it more.

When I was 16, my heroes were Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield. That is who I wanted to be like. They were very different people – Olivier wanted fame and success, while Scofield rejected the more public side of acting. It is easy to say I haven’t succeeded in either of those regards. My career now wouldn’t match up with my fantasy from then because my fantasy was completely unreal. How impressed would my younger self be about my career? He would think I’d done ok.

The Thick of It

I’d tell my younger self to get more politically active. I was starting to be politically active at 16, and certainly became so when I joined a feminist theatre company – Monstrous Regiment – after university. I’d seen quite a lot of political theatre – Belt and Braces, 7:84, Red Ladder. Monstrous Regiment had a core group of women about 10 years older than me who were frustrated with the lack of opportunities for women in theatre. Our rehearsal room was a squat in Camden. I was with them for two-and-a-half years. Our second show was by Caryl Churchill, so we were part of an exciting group. We could go to the Arts Council to get funding for a tour. They say punk rock survived because they could sign on between gigs. We were the same. I’m still a political animal now. But it’s hard to know how to engage with politics and become active. I find the way politics has gone depressing.

I was very pleased with doing Falstaff at the Globe because I didn’t really know how to do it. It both used everything I could possibly bring to it and then demanded more. So that was a rewarding thing to do. And it was very nice to get an Olivier Award.

I was recognised much more after The Thick of It. But it doesn’t impede my ability to travel on public transport. If people do come up to me, they say something nice. It is a lovely thing to happen – it is either The Thick of It, Endeavour (pictured below), Cabin Pressure or a children’s programme called Sarah and Duck.

There are a number of people I can ask for advice about anything. Simon Callow is one, Ian McKellen, who I’ve worked with a few times, is another. But most of all, I ask my wife Rebecca Saire.

My advice to my younger self would be that difficult times do pass. You have to remember that they are not necessarily going to be forever. If you live in a reasonable country, have a roof over your head and have enough to eat, generally speaking things have the possibility to get better.

Young people can’t afford to live in London. It’s become a place where housing is all about investment.

Parenthood happened much later to me than my parents. I was 46. It is the most astounding thing. You might have children in your wider family but when you don’t have children you don’t understand what it is like. I was sometimes quite critical of my parents for sending me away to school but I know they meant it for the best. They thought it was giving me an opportunity, and it did. But when I look at my sons, it has really not made me want to send them away.

I have always lived in London. I am a Londoner. But the city will start to die because of what is happening with property. Young people can’t afford to live here. It’s become a place where housing is all about investment. The monetisation of everything means it seems to be ceasing to function as a city in which people of all incomes can easily live alongside each other. When I was born in the East End, I’d go to sleep to the sound of the tugs on the docks. There were thousands of dockers, and working-class people could live in London. It feels depressing to me as a place now. Everything’s about money. It is very, very corrupt.

Series three of Endeavour airs 8pm, Sundays, on ITV