Bolton School Former Pupils
Ralf Little (1984-1998)
Ralf Little is an actor best known for his roles as Antony Royle in The Royle Family and Jonny Keogh in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. He returned to Bolton School to give the Tillotson Lecture 2017.
Tell us how you progressed through Bolton School.
I was a ‘career’ Bolton Schooler, as the Americans would say. Started in Beech House (infants) at 4 years old, progressed through Park Road (juniors) and all the way through to Sixth Form before leaving at 18. I do feel the experience of being in the same institution for 14 years was beneficial, some guys who started as my classmates in 1984 remained in the same class as me until the day we left, and that kind of continuity certainly provided stability through my formative years.
When you think about your school days, what do you remember?
I think it was stricter than today (at least from what little I’ve seen), but I suspect that’s because of a wider change in the world of education in the two decades since I left. The school now seems to have a less austere feel, although perhaps it only feels that way because now when I go back I don’t have to call the teachers ‘sir’. (Although I still do!)
What lessons/sports did you like, and dislike – and why?
Favourite lessons varied depending on the teacher in any given year. At times my favourite subjects were as varied as maths and art, English and chemistry. It goes to show the difference a good teacher can make – I’ll remember some of mine for the rest of my life.
What were you like at school?
A good student and generally well behaved, but I think I was sometimes a bit of a handful. Not because I was unruly or a difficult pupil, but looking back maybe I was a little precocious – a little loud. Always looking to make my classmates laugh. I was probably pretty well liked by teachers, even if they had to do an occasional eye roll!
How did you get your first acting role– and how did that impact on your schooling?
I’d been going to a local drama group on Saturday afternoons since I was 12, and a few months after starting it the woman who ran it set up an acting agency for kids. I signed up not even really knowing what it was. About 6 months later the BBC held auditions for a kids drama/comedy about a local cricket team, I went in and was amazed when I got the part. They filmed mostly over the summer but I still had to miss a few weeks at the start of my second year (age 13), and the school could very easily have made that nigh on impossible. However, the headmaster at the time, Alan Wright, firmly believed in pupils leaving school as rounded individuals and he was a supporter of the arts and of extra-curricular endeavour, and he paved the way for me to take on that role and several others throughout my school life. Without his understanding and vision, I simply would never have had an acting career.
Tell us about your two favourite teachers.
I wouldn’t say ‘favourite’ because, looking back, I could genuinely list many, but perhaps most memorable are probably Mr Shewan (English) and Mr Joseph (History).
Mel Shewan was an one in a million eccentric, terrifying to a young boy in many ways but a brilliant teacher (you never dared let your attention wander!) and passionate about art and creativity.
As happens at school, myths abounded about Mr Shewan and his eccentricities, about how he’d ‘once said this to a boy’ or ‘once done this in class’, but of course as you grow older you realise they were just myths and he was smart enough to let them have a life of their own as they gave him currency with those who believed them. In reality he was just implacable, unpredictable, and commanded respect.
Casper Joseph was a real character. Bombastic, opinionated, funny, energetic, and fair. You wouldn’t want to cross him but equally you’d be delighted if he shared a bit of banter with you.
He taught history and indeed very well. But for me, more than that, Mr Joseph was the first person outside of my family who taught me to think. Not HOW to think – that would have been outside his remit of course, but in the process of teaching us about the formation of our democracy, the beginning of the war, even the ‘bodyline controversy’ in test cricket, he did more than teach us the things that happened, and why. He made us think about parallels in the world today, made us analyse what human nature is.
I suppose I didn’t just learn history from Mr Joseph, I learned about how to watch the world and its political and sociological machinations. I still feel that’s something I do more and more every day as the world order shifts. Without Casper Joseph’s encouragement – insistence, even – that his pupils thought for themselves, I wouldn’t be in a position to make what small difference I can.
And all as a side note to the actual syllabus!
How did Bolton School and/or its teachers influence you?
I left school on a set path. I was going to medical school – indeed I started for a few weeks before changing my entire life to become an actor. Suddenly all the science I’d studied became obsolete… except of course they didn’t.
At no point since I made that decision back in 1998 have I felt under educated, under prepared for a life and career I had no idea I was going to embark on. Bolton School gave me a rounded, full education, a foundation of knowledge from which to build and the intellectual curiosity to be willing to learn more. It gave me the confidence and self-belief to tackle any situation, and the values that were instilled in me have brought me to a place today where, heading towards my 40th year, I can look back with pride.
Before of course remembering that 40 isn’t old and making sure the next 20 years are even better!
You were invited back to give The Tillotson Lecture – what was it like?
It was a nerve wracking thing to do. The Tillotson Lecture is a prestigious thing to be asked to deliver, and previous names are impressive and daunting. When I was still at school, for example, ex pupil Harry Kroto gave a lecture on how he went from Bolton School to discovering Carbon 60, winning a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and a knighthood along the way.
A few years ago another ex-pupil and knight of the realm Sir Ian McKellen gave the lecture, and talked about his experiences filming X-Men, Lord of the Rings, and being at the Oscars.
In the wake of this it was more than a little worrisome to wonder about how my anecdotes about Ricky Tomlinson picking his nose as Jim Royle would fare.
As it happened, I needn’t have worried. The new headmaster Philip Britton was extremely welcoming and it was great to see many of my old teachers. (Sobering to think I’m considerably older now that many of them were when they taught me – I still called them sir, of course).
The lads who I met were fantastic. Mature beyond their years, smart, mischievous, full of fun and a bit daft but absolutely ready to take on any challenge and work hard. I wondered if I’d have appeared so impressive at their age. I suspect not.
One of my old teachers went to great lengths to show me around and explained what had changed – structurally of course it was obvious but there have been some fascinating behind the scenes changes, policies and new ideas that have permeated the old place.
Though I have to say, the new canteen, while modern and serving great food, did make me pine for the old way we used to do it – a sit down meal service with teachers at the head of each table dishing out the meal. Maybe I’m just old school. Maybe I’m just old.
But it was lovely to see the dinner ladies again – and I remain determined to find out what moisturiser Tracy is using because in twenty years she hasn’t aged a day. She’s keeping it a secret, unfortunately.
And that I suppose is what I took away. Being there again made me realise what affection I have for those years and how lucky I was to be educated in a place with so much opportunity and vision, and indeed it was incredible to see how much has changed in the intervening time and how much is yet to happen – the vision for the future is bold and bright.
As the school evolves at pace with society’s technological and philosophical advances, it will clearly continue to prepare its students for a full and rewarding life.