The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Mirfield actor never forgot his roots

IF THERE is one characteristic above all I admire in people, particularly those who have become famous, it is that they never forget their upbringing, no matter how humble.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 12th August 2020, 7:27 am
Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

One such person is Sir Patrick Stewart, one of the greatest actors this country has produced, who always speaks with great affection of his home town – Mirfield.

He has been in the news recently after celebrating his 80th birthday and once again he has been telling the world of his upbringing in Mirfield and his early working life in Dewsbury.

Sir Patrick, internationally famous for his role as Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, says he will always be grateful to the community in which he grew up.

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Back home: This picture was taken over 20 years ago when Patrick Stewart was making one of his many visits to the area. He is pictured at his old school, Mirfield Secondary Modern, now renamed Mirfield Free Grammar, to help raise funds for a new performing arts centre at the school.

It provided him, he says, with the ideal springboard for a life on the stage – an environment in which it was OK to be an actor.

In an interview with the Reporter some years ago, he said nobody thought you were weird or peculiar if you stood up and sang, recited, acted or played an instrument. It was quite normal.

Patrick grew up surrounded by amateur dramatics and watching his mother taking part in productions at Old Bank Methodist Church.

All the schools and chapels had their own drama groups and Patrick worked with most of them at one time or another.

His first venture on stage was the Mirfield Pageant, held at the Community of the Resurrection when he was just nine years old.

Encouraged by his headmaster at Mirfield Secondary Modern School, Cecil Dormand, Patrick’s love of acting grew and he felt the years he spent at this school were exactly what he needed.

He said he was not an academic and had struggled, something he was unhappy about, but there were other areas open to him which may not have existed had he gone to grammar school.

Patrick’s father was an active trade unionist and his mother a weaver in a local mill. When Patrick left school at 15, he landed a job as a junior reporter on the Dewsbury Reporter covering the Mirfield district.

Some 20 years ago when he returned to Mirfield to help raise money for a performing arts centre at his old school, now Mirfield Free Grammar, he was interviewed by a colleague of mine, Rachel Plachinski, about his early years working at the Reporter .

He told her: “I covered all the churches and chapels and the working men’s clubs, and when someone died I went and talked to the bereaved.

“For a 15-year-old this was a growing experience.

“It often meant looking at the body as well. I would knock on the door and the husband or wife would talk to me about the dead person. Always at some point, the question would come: ‘Would you like to look at him?’ Once I saw three corpses in one day.”

While working at the Reporter he was also rehearsing every evening with local drama groups, always pretending to be somewhere else.

He said: “I spent so much time getting people at the office to deputise for me or cover for me. It eventually led to a showdown with the editor, Henry Wilson.

“His ultimatum was; ‘You either devote yourself to being a professional newspaper reporter or you get off this newspaper’.

“I went upstairs, packed my typewriter and left. I went home and told my parents that I’d left to become an actor. My father said: “Well, in the meantime you’ve got to get a job.”

Patrick got one at Hudson’s Furniture Store in the Kingsway Arcade in Dewsbury as a salesman.

He said afterwards he was a much better furniture salesman than he ever was a journalist.

But Patrick was not to be selling furniture long, for at the age of 18, after just one audition and interview, he won a county major scholarship from the West Riding Education Authority and was accepted at Bristol Old Victoria School.

“That was unprecedented,” recalled Patrick. “They only used to give them to students with the very highest qualifications and I had zero. I never took any exams.”

At the age of 26, Patrick joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently the National, and was regularly employed there.

While touring America with the RSC at the age of 50, he was ‘discovered’ by one of the original producers of the immensely popular American TV science fiction series Star Trek: The Second Generation.

He went on to complete seven years as Captain Jean-Luc Picard before leaving in 1994. Sir Patrick has appeared in many film roles and TV series but he was always particularly proud of Star Trek

Throughout his distinguished career, Sir Patrick never forgot his friends in Mirfield and Dewsbury, especially his old teacher Cecil Dormand.

It was Cecil, who had first encouraged him to act out Shakespeare’s works in the classroom, and in 1952 he got him into a special West Riding of Yorkshire Council Drama Course at Calder High School. It was much later in his career that Patrick discovered that it was Mr Dormand who had paid for the courses.

“I never realised my parents could not have covered the expenses. I have only just understood where that money came from.”

A wonderful gesture from a good man giving a young man from Mirfield a chance in a lifetime.