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Ralf Little's 'Unimportant Opinions'

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

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Actor, writer and former pupil Ralf Little, who left Bolton School in 1998, returned to his alma mater to deliver a humorous and instructive 45th Tillotson Lecture. Entitling the presentation “Reflecting on a 20 Year Career in the Arts” or “Ralf Little’s Unimportant Opinions”, he offered the audience of pupils, parents, teachers and the local community a series of life-hacks which he wished he had been told when he was a young man. Cleverly intertwining key moments in his life with 22 nuggets of advice, Ralf delivered an open and honest reflection on his findings so far. Addressing “the elephant in the room of who am I?” he explained that those aged over 40 might recall him from the tv programme The Royle Family; those under 40 years of age from tv’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps; and for anyone under 25, well tv is like a long YouTube clip!

He took the audience back to the beginning recalling how he came through Bolton School’s Infant and Junior Schools before moving up to Senior School and making his way with a local drama group in his hometown of Bury. Aged 13 he landed a role in Sloggers, a tv programme about a cricket team, much to the amusement of his classmates. This led him into life lesson number one – what people at school think about you does not matter! Ralf still felt indebted to the School’s Headmaster of the time, Mr Alan Wright, for letting him take time off to pursue his acting and at the time was determined to work hard to repay the trust that had been placed in him. He proved himself a bright and capable pupil, acquiring 4 A*s and 7 As at GCSE. This was his second piece of advice – always keep your word and then people will believe in you. Acting was still a hobby for him as he moved on to take A levels in Chemistry, Maths, Biology and Physics and he still had every intention of becoming a doctor. By his own admission, something went a bit awry at A level, spending too much time playing football and focusing on extra-curricular activities and he made a mess of his mocks, failing everything. Shortly afterwards he received his “big break” and needed to be out of School for 12 weeks to film the Royle Family. This fed into his next piece of advice – own your mistakes for you will make them! He again praised the extraordinary Head at the time who supported him, saying the School was about preparing rounded, unique individuals for the world not just academics and if acting would make you a better person then you should do it. Suddenly Ralf’s life changed from getting up at 7.00am and waiting for the Ainsworth bus at the Bull’s Head to bring him to school to getting up at 5.30am to have a black cab pick him up and take him to Granada Studios. This prompted more advice – choosing the right path is hard but never be afraid to take a risk. He also surmised that happiness is different to everyone and “is where you find it”. When opportunity arrives, grab it he told the audience but, also, have a back-up plan! Having filmed the Royle Family, the schedulers did not air it until later that year and Ralf progressed to study Medicine at the University of Manchester. Three days into his studies and the Royle Family broke and it was an instant hit which resulted in him attending 4 or 5 auditions a week, which proved costly as he travelled up and down to London on a student’s grant. Excusing himself from lessons proved awkward as he was surrounded by doctors who wanted to know what the matter was with him! Life advice from this situation was sometimes you have to be fearless but don’t string people along!

Having decided upon acting over Medicine, he left university in his first term and, still aged 18, enjoyed his stardom, collecting BAFTAs, attending premieres, getting to meet famous people and handing out awards to the likes of Coldplay. However, he did not work for a year and also came to realise that even overnight successes take a while! He looks back now and realises he was cocky and opinionated and that you are never as cool as you think you are. Ralf then offered his thoughts on the intrusion of the press and believes his phone was hacked from 1998-2010. During the time, the mythology was that the press had eyes and ears everywhere - which led you to suspect your friends, work colleagues and restaurateurs of spying on you - but the Leveson Inquiry had shattered that illusion. Lesson 13 from Ralf was that “there is smoke without fire” and that the press do make things up and this can sink into the public subconscious. However, he countered this by saying not all news is fake news and that good journalism lives if you know where to look for it. He warned boys that it can happen to them and showed everyone how to access the information on their mobile phone which tracks everywhere you have been in the past two weeks. He then balanced this by saying: “live your life and don’t worry about who is watching.”  Having reached thirty seven years of age, he now felt he could say to boys that they should be more interested in politics and the world than he was at their age. But, again, he countered this by saying “have fun”.

Ralf then charted some of his learnings from social media. Facebook he said is for parents and Twitter is for arguments but remember, wherever you post, what you say is there for life. Two years ago he recalled sending an injudicious Tweet and instantly regretted it and deleted it but it had already been re-tweeted 150 times! He told the audience that the best way to effectively delete a Tweet is before you press send. Despite the regret over the tweet he has also come to realise that you should always stay positive as things pass. His next piece of advice, as he referenced his recent Twitter spat with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, was don’t be afraid to state your convictions but choose your words carefully. He recapped how he had tweeted questioning Jeremy Hunt’s figures on mental health after his appearance on the Andrew Marr Show. He was surprised to get a response and end up in a Twitter row but said his challenge still remains on the table to have an on-air debate on Channel 4 News with Jeremy Hunt, medical professionals and fact-checkers.  If the meeting comes about he said he will be thoroughly prepared “like you would expect a Bolton School boy to be”; he also said he had inside knowledge as his younger brother is a doctor.

There then followed a candid question and answer session in which he talked about his voiceover work in Monkey Life, how he had turned down a professional football contract for a lower league team, tales from the filming of 24 Hour Party People, what the real Ricky Tomlinson is like – a very funny man and a great guy to work with as well as recollections about his favourite teachers. Asked what the naughtiest thing at school he did was he struggled to recall anything specific but said he was a general irritant who liked the sound of his own voice. He also offered a further piece of unscripted advice and that was not to irritate A-list Hollywood stars as he recalled an hilarious audition he gave in front of Tom Hanks, having insulted his beard! Asked how the school had changed in the time he had been away he said he sensed it had changed a lot and was less austere and sober and was now more supportive and warm. Summing up he told boys to trust their instincts, make your own decisions and that there are no absolutes in life and always remember that everyone else, just like you, is just making it up as they go along.

Earlier in the day, Ralf spent time with pupils discussing how to juggle academic studies with other interests, delivering a masterclass to aspiring actors on the differences between stage, tv and film acting and playing badminton with some of the School’s star players.

The Tillotson Lecture, which is open to the general public, has attracted many eminent speakers over the years including Sir Ian McKellen, Lord Coe and Sir Philip Craven and Michael Portillo MP.

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