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Wednesday 5 November 2014

Fact 43. Tom Courtenay was born in Hull.

Sir Thomas Daniel Courtenay was born in Hull 25th February 1937. As thousands of others in the Hessle Road area of Hull his mother and father worked around the fishing fleets. His dad Tommy painted the trawlers when they were in dock and between trips and his mother Annie Eliza was a net braider. When young Tom got older his father couldn't understand why he didn't like a fight but along with his mother were determined that Tom would do better. It was his mother that gave him extra tuition whilst he attended West Dock Avenue Boys School. At first he didn't like it as he didn't get as much attention from the teacher as his from his Mum. How ever he was one of only two lads that passed their 11 Plus out of a year of fifty boys.

During the war his mother and younger sister Ann were evacuated to Bridlington but they hated it and were back home within a fortnight. Hessle Road was right by the docks and was an area badly bombed. Whilst houses at each end of their road were bombed they hid in the cupboard under the stairs during raids and the worst they had was all their windows were blown out. His father never got called up and they think it was a book keeping error. All in all he enjoyed the war like many young lads at the time.

Tom Courtney
Tom Courtenay aged 10.

By passing the 11 Plus Tom went to the Grammar School Kingston High that was a bus ride away. He loved it and realised that education was important to him and enjoyed his time there, especially the school plays and poetry readings where he realised that he was good at it and that people would listen. He became a Prefect and later was made Head Boy.

He went to University College London to read English but the pressure of expectation laid him low the week before his Finals. He later said that it had been a breakdown. However he said that he had selected University College as it was next door to RADA and with in seven days of his collapse he had auditioned and won a full scholarship to RADA. Here he was among what became the known as the Angry Young Men of the 'British New Wave'. This included Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Peter O'Toole and was based on a reality approach to acting with regional accents and gritty dramas that took the stage by storm. His stage debut was with the Old Vic Company in Edinburgh. His first big break was in 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' in 1962. Unfortunately his mother died a week before the film was released but she already knew he was on the way to success after leaving RADA. He won the BAFTA award for Best Newcomer. 

Tom Courtenay in the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962

He then took over the lead role of Billy Liar in the stage play of the same name from Albert Finney. He also starred in the film of the play in 1963 with Julie Christie and it was another great hit. Then came 'King and Country' with Dirk Bogarde and 'Operation Crossbow' with Sophia Loren and Trevor Howard. He was nominated for the BAFTA Best British Actor for Billy Liar anbd King and Country. He went to Hollywood to film 'King Rat' but didn't really like the experience and turned down many Hollywood roles. His next big success was in Doctor Zhivago in 1965 for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Acton Oscar.

The 1970's were a little fallow for films but he worked consistently on stage. He married his first wife Cheryl Kennedy in 1973 who was also an actress. They divorced in 1982. Courtenay had a long association with Manchester when we worked at the University Century Theatre that then became the Royal Exchange Theatre. His next big film success was in 'The Dresser' with Albert Finney in 1983. For this he won the Golden Globe Best Actor Award and was nominated for the OSCAR Best Actor and BAFTA Best British Actor Awards. In 1988 he married Isabel Crossley who he met at the Manchester Theatre where she was a stage manager. Their big regret is not having children following a miscarriage.

Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in 'The Dresser'.

  In 2000 he wrote a memoir which contained letters with his Mother and other anecdotes from his time as a young actor. He was knighted in 2001 in the Queens New Year Honours List. He also wrote and acted a one man show based on the letters and writings of another Hull Hero Philip Larkin in 2002. Tom continues to work on stage film and television and is continuing to act. His latest film is currently being made and is the film of Dad's Army in which he will play Corporal Jones, a role for which he seems ideal. This is bound to be a smash hit when it comes out.

Tom Courtenay at the opening of his Dustin Hoffman directed film 'Quartet'.

Tom Courtenay has always been a great supporter of Hull, literally, as he is the President of the Hull City AFC Official Supports Club. He received an Honorary Doctorate from Hull University in 1999.
That Hull won the bid for the Year of Culture 2017 owes a great deal of thanks to Sir Tom for narrating the promotional video for the bid. I think the whole thing is a master piece by all involved and still brings tears to my eyes and I'm sure in no small measure ensured that we were victorious in our bid. If you haven't seen it I urge you to watch. Here is the link;

Omar Sharif and Tom Courtenay at Hull City.

One day there will be a statue of Sir Tom Courtenay in Hull.

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