It was through taking part in the medical corps’ amateur dramatics at Christmas that Tom discovered a tiny talent to make people laugh, and after demob a librarian helped him apply to drama schools. The first one he visited, Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Sidcup, impressed him by its idyllic country house atmosphere, so he looked no further. He embarked on the college’s traditional courses of breathing, movement and group exercises, but they didn’t suit his individual talent so eventually he dropped out. However, two encounters at Rose Bruford had fundamental effects on the rest of his life. The first was meeting Laurie Taylor (later a Professor of Sociology at York and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4), and the second was meeting and marrying a fellow student.
In 1961 Tom married Anna Wheatcroft whose family was famous for rose growing. They lived in Nottingham and as Tom had found no acting work by then, he worked in the family’s rose nurseries and in the potteries. In 1961 their first son, Daniel was born followed in 1964 by their second son, Piers. By then, the marriage was breaking down and two years later he and Anna separated. Tom went to London to pursue his interest in acting.
First professional roles
Tom’s first acting job was as the bear – in full bear costume – in The Winter’s Tale at the Cambridge Theatre, the Edinburgh Festival and Venice. Then came a number of different parts in repertory theatres in the north of England. In Scarborough he was in The Strongbox, Hay Fever, Arden of Faversham and Boat in the Backyard. In York, Tom played a businessman in Hindle Wakes, a popular northern comedy by William Stanley Houghton, and appeared in Stop It Nurse, an Irish comedy by Sam Cree.
Whilst in York, Tom renewed his friendship with Laurie Taylor who by this time had got tired of acting, achieved a doctorate and become Professor of Sociology at York University. It was Laurie who booked a pub during the York Festival where he and Tom staged a revue they wrote called Late Night Lowther in which Tom played a dog called Clint to Laurie Taylor’s Bill Sikes-type trainer.
The revue was seen by someone from the National Theatre who invited him to audition with Laurence Olivier…