‘I always wanted to act – until I was given the opportunity’

The Time Of My Life: Bill Hughes, television producer on falling into and out of acting

Bill Hughes: "I was only acting the maggot with acting. I really wanted to work in television."

Bill Hughes: "I was only acting the maggot with acting. I really wanted to work in television."

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There was a special moment that happened in the summer of 1978. I was in drama school, second year of the course, and I was doing the acting performance medal exam. I was paying my way through drama school, working in a department store, and I had my coming out in Birmingham. But I had a yearning to come back to Ireland and a yearning to work in television.

The exam was a practical. You had to go into a room and perform three pieces: one from a selected list of playwrights; one piece of Shakespeare; and one piece of your own choosing. The examiner was Mavis Hoffman, she was one of the grand old dames of British theatre. I had put a lot of thought into my pieces and rehearsed a lot.

I had this transformative moment where I went into the characters, I became the three that I was doing. At the end, she sat me down and said: “Do you know who I am?”, I said I did. She said: “Do you know what I do?”, and I said “not really”. She said, “I run the Nottingham Playhouse”. And the Nottingham Playhouse has been the formation ground for a lot of successful British actors.

I always thought if somebody ever said something like that to me, I’d be done, I’d be an actor

She said: “I think you should leave your job and come and live in the theatre at Nottingham and become a full-time actor. It won’t pay you for a while, and you’ll do the medial jobs in the theatre for bit parts, but that way you’ll get your Equity Card.” This had always been a dream of mine. I always thought if somebody ever said something like that to me, I’d be done, I’d be an actor.

The following day Bill Hughes phoned her and said, “I won’t be taking your offer.”

But that moment woke me up, and made me realise that I was only acting the maggot with acting. I really wanted to work in television. That moment happened as I was sitting on the chair looking at her. I scored full marks in the exam and she said she’d give me a month to make a decision, holding the position of assistant stage manager open, with a bedsit off the theatre to live in. I did think about it.

The following day I rang her and said “I won’t be taking your offer”. I was going to find a way to move back to Ireland and work in television. Having always wanted to act, and having always wanted to be part of that life, when it was suddenly offered to me in the most real way, I realised in that moment that it was not what I wanted. My whole life until then had led me to that moment, but the minute the offer was made, I recoiled, and realised, that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted something else.

I was never going to be a dashing young leading man, but I could be a terrific curmudgeon

As I get older, I think I could be a good actor. I know enough now to play parts that are age-appropriate. I was never going to be a dashing young leading man, but I could be a terrific curmudgeon, easily. I have my certificate signed by Mavis in my study.

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