When I was 16, I was boarding at Blair’s College seminary. It was like a borstal for Catholic boys, but I loved it. It was strict but not Dickensian. It wasn’t like a workhouse. We got up really early in the morning and we prayed, ate, learned and played. It was out in the country, beside Aberdeen. My own family life was a bit chaotic, so for me it was a stable thing.
My family lived in Dunoon [on the Cowal peninsula in the south of Argyll and Bute], which was a very safe place. I used to go climbing and cycling. But I never went swimming. I couldn’t swim. My dad was a submariner and he died in the [Second World] War, so I had a superstition about going under the water. I’m still the same.
I would tell my 16-year-old self: you won’t be the Pope, you’ll be a bohemian.
My mother became ill when I was eight and ended up in a lunatic asylum – that’s what they were called then. I was brought up by my aunties and granny. I called them the Battling Sheridans. They were always falling out with each other. They had great arguments, but they also loved each other with great passion. One night an auntie would say, “Oh, I’ll take the wee fella” after she’d had a drink. Then she’d wake up in the morning and say “What the bleep are you doing here?”
If you’re not an orphan, it is your expectation from your parents that you are loved and cared for. If you’re an orphan, you’ve got to work at it. You have to smile a bit more, you have to be a bit more friendly. I’d tell my younger self that it’s very good training to be an actor.
I think I volunteered to become a priest because I wanted to be on the stage, and they had great costumes. That was my religious calling, really. The Catholic Church wrecked my knees, so I couldn’t keep up Catholicism. I took up atheism instead – it’s not so hard on the knees. I started to turn away from Catholicism when I was 19 and I went to London. I saw, for the first time, real poverty and injustice. I started to question authority – and once you start questioning authority, you start to question what they tell you is the greatest authority. I found it all wanting.
While I was at Blair’s College, they took me to the opera. It was La bohème and I remember being very moved by it. I wept at the end. What I would tell my 16-year-old self would be that an element came off that stage and came all the way inside me. It was an idea that I didn’t realise I had received – and that was I wanted to become a bohemian. I didn’t realise that until I was 50. That shows you the power of theatre. I didn’t quite get to the Left Bank but I got to Belsize Park, and that was the English Left Bank. I hung out with painters and poets and prostitutes. So, I would tell my 16-year-old self: you won’t be the Pope, you’ll be a bohemian.
When I was 17, I decided not to be a secular [parish] priest – I decided to become a monk. So I wrote to the Dominican monks and they wrote back to say, ‘Great, come and join us’. When I left the seminary to go and join them, I got home to Dunoon and there was a letter saying – ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve made a mistake – you have to be 18 to become a monk’. I had to go to the local Dunoon grammar school. As luck would have it, it turned out to be a mixed-sex school, so I decided very quickly that rather than wear a skirt, I’d chase it instead!
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Dunoon was a quiet wee toon. There were more girls in Dunoon than boys, so we were spoiled. Then, suddenly something changed. The American nuclear submarine base came to the Holy Loch. The girls that were interviewed by the papers before the Americans arrived all said they’d have nothing to do with them. Three days after the Americans arrived, no Dunoon boy had a girlfriend. So that was good reason to leave and go to London with a broken heart.
When I went to London, I ended up working in the City. I hated every second of the five years of it. I remember during a heatwave you weren’t even allowed to take your jacket off until you got permission – even though I worked in the back office and wasn’t serving anyone. I would tell my younger self then, don’t worry, the Sixties are just around the corner.
I’d like to be able to tell my younger self that his life will really take off in the Sixties. I ‘dropped out’, as you could do in those days. It wasn’t called unemployment, it was trendy. I became a hippie. They were opening theRoundhouse theatre [in north London] and I knew the cook there. They wanted a hippie who could count to work in the box office – and I fitted the bill. While I was working there,the director Ken Campbell came in one day looking for a young actor for a mad show he was working on. Another actor working there called Brian Murphy said: “Try the guy in the box office, he’s out of his head.”
What was fascinating about my school life was that we were locked up in there – but it opened up the whole world to me. It was a real paradox. I learned about classical music, Gregorian chants. Once a month we used to have silent lunches, where someone would read to us. It was a beautiful experience. Most of those books were travel books. I’d tell my 16-year-old self, look, all those wonderful travel books you listened to while you were encased in the seminary – one day you’ll fulfil the dream of doing it all. I’ve travelled extensively, and that’s my real passion in life.
I’d also tell him one day he’ll get his own family – and not a mad one. I’m about to go by train to Moscow, then the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia, then Mongolia to China, then China to Hanoi and then on to Bangkok to welcome my first grandchild into the world.
When I was at the seminary, they said I should be an actor. But at the same time, I wanted to be a priest because I wanted to be important in people’s lives. I had this quiet ambition to be something noted and notable. Then the part of Doctor Who arrived. In some ways I think science fiction is a replacement for religion for some people. I’ve become a kind of high priest in science fiction. It is great.
As Doctors, we’re a part of a very special club. It’s very exciting [to see Jodie Whittaker become the first female Doctor] really. At first, I found it strange. I had to get my head around it. And then I thought, oh, you know – wait and see. I have talked to someone who’s on the technical side of it and she said that Jodie is great and that Doctor Who is safe in her hands. Let’s hope that’s true. I sent her a message – one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind.
Sylvester McCoy appears in A Joke tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/jokeat the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Visit for more details.
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