From bingo caller to bofur, James Nesbit has definitely had a diverse career. He shared with Reader's Digest his fondest childhood memories of growing up in rural Northern Ireland to travelling the world with UNICEF.

I remember...

Growing up in the country

My father was my headmaster in the very small and now seemingly archaic environment of a rural primary school of 30 kids. It was in Lisnamurrican, a village near Ballymena in Northern Ireland. So many of my memories are informed by that world—there were only two classrooms, and my father taught me.

It was an idyllic time—my three older sisters and I would meet up in the morning with the other kids, many of them farmers’ children, and walk to school. If the weather was good, we’d go outside to explore the fields, the flora and fauna, or play sport, or else spend days reading or swimming. It was well before Ofsted and the incredible prevalence of exams that you get nowadays.

 

Potato holidays

Once a year, when we were only about nine or ten, the school would close for two or three days because we’d all go off to gather potatoes.

My father would wake us up at half five in the morning and we’d jump on a trailer attached to the back of a tractor, with lots of other kids. Then, with our flask and sandwiches, we’d head off to the farm. A tractor would go by turning up potatoes and, by the time it got up the field and came back again, you had to have picked up the spuds and put them on a strip of land called the drill. 

The greatest potato gatherers were the old women who’d been doing it for years, who could work on very long drills.

Their strength was incredible. What was brilliant, too, were the breaks. They’d give you a call and there’d be hot, sugary tea and jam sandwiches. To this day, that still frames my impressions of my childhood—a very happy one, a free one.

James at Butlins
Little Jimmy, aged five and a half, proud winner of the junior talent competition at Butlins, Mosney (July 1970).

 

My mum stayed home until I was three

Then she went off to work for the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland. So I started school, although I was very young to be there.

I had a teacher called Mrs Foster who’d always tell stories about me coming in late. I was a great sleeper and napped in class. My mum was very popular in her workplace. She was a great storyteller— all of my acting and humour came from her.

And she never had a sip of alcohol in her life—she was funny enough without!

 

 

I grew up among girls

My mum had three sisters, my granny had sisters, I had three sisters, and my father had sisters, too! So I couldn’t help but spend a lot of time with them.

It meant that I grew up loving women, in a sense—never being uncomfortable in their company.

It probably brought its own problems as well, but it certainly stopped me developing any kind of misogyny. But, of course, I tried to escape them, too. I’d go off by myself a lot and spend hours just kicking a ball against a wall...

 

A close call

We were aware of the Troubles, but there were very few bombs anywhere near Ballymena.

One day, though, when I was about ten, my dad went to pay his tax at the local county hall. My sister and I fell asleep in our car while he was inside, and we both woke up to what I thought was an alarm, but it was actually a bell and noise from people fleeing the building.

We saw them running away but didn’t know what was going on, so we just sat in the car until the old security man came down and shouted, “Get out, get out—there’s a bomb!”

From far away, we saw Dad running towards the car, so we went to meet him and ran to shelter.

About ten minutes later, we heard a dull thud—an explosion. The bomb had been in the vehicle next to ours, so our car was destroyed by the blast, too.

 The doors were blown off and the seats ruined. But we’d picked up a dozen eggs on our way there, and they were somehow still perfectly intact inside the car.

James Nesbitt as Ivan Cooper
James as Ivan Cooper in Bloody Sunday 2002.

 

Moving house to Coleraine, Derry...

...where I attended a much larger senior school of about 1,300 boys—a big change.

Although I was overawed by the scale of it, I had a lot of confidence from having the three older sisters, a very free childhood, and also coming from a family filled with love. So I adapted quickly.

I was lucky enough to be pretty sporty and quite bright—although not very applied—and I got on with everyone.

 

The pain and pleasure of being a teenager

When I was about 14, I went on holiday to Bournemouth with my best friend Alistair and his family.

It’s a terrible age in a way because you’re so interested in girls, but you’ve got no ability with them whatsoever! It’s a year of paralysis. You have all these feelings—some of lust, but a lot of love—and the inability to express all of that is pure torture!

I remember us going to a roller disco, and leaving, having failed to get anybody to roller skate with us. As we walked back home, it was as if our worlds had collapsed. But I thoroughly enjoyed navigating my teenage years.

I loved the awkwardness, the falling in love, the courting and misbehaving with friends.

 

Calling bingo in Portrush for a couple of summers

I can still remember all the names of the numbers: Colt [45], Heinz varieties [57], Big Jim’s den [ten]… It’s such an odd thing for a 15-year-old boy to do, but I loved it.

 

After a game of rugby one day, my dad took me aside

There was a local playhouse called the Riverside Theatre. My dad said, “Come on, we’re going down there—they’re auditioning for Oliver.”

When we arrived, the auditions were over, but we tracked the director down and I sang him Bohemian Rhapsody. I got the part of the Artful Dodger. That was a really brilliant Christmas—not only did I get to skip school to rehearse, I also remember loving the backstage nerves on opening night and the success of it.

I was hooked then, and began to consider acting as a profession. I got my Equity card [for the actors’ union] there when I was 16, because I was working backstage and the guy who was playing Jiminy Cricket in a production of Pinocchio broke his foot the night before it opened and I took over.

 

Being seen as a “Paddy” when I arrived at the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London [in 1984]

I was a Protestant who also felt very Irish, but who steered away from politics.

Northern Ireland was perceived to be this place of conflict, but I loved it and knew how beautiful it was. The “young radicals” at drama school were middle-class and very “pro” the Republican movement, and assumed that I’d be like that, too.

But, with my background, I didn’t necessarily agree, and I felt they were ill-educated. I was very much seen as an outsider—so it was a confusing time.

James Nesbitt Pied Piper
As a jaunty Pied Piper at the Riverside Theatre, 1979.

 

Getting cut back down to size

I’d spent a summer playing Jesus in a production of Godspell when I was 17, in front of an audience of 1,500 people every night.

Playing the Messiah when you’re 17 is a pretty magnificent thing to do! So I was quite cocky when I got to drama school, and it was knocked out of me because I met so many people who were so much more talented.

Also, I’d been very naïve. I remember, in the first term, being in the canteen and hearing girls from my year talking about their periods. I thought, Oh my God! This would never happen in Northern Ireland! For a country that was at the forefront of the political news agenda, we were very backward in some ways...

 

I got lucky with work

I loved acting in [BBC dramas] Jekyll and Murphy’s Law, Five Minutes of Heaven [2009 feature film], and The Hobbit [released in 2012]—my career’s been very blessed. But in terms of where I felt I was achieving something, I felt at one with Bloody Sunday [2002]. 

It was a real awakening for me. I think (and I’m not talking about myself here) that the film is a masterpiece. It included every symbol from the Troubles—the characters at the heart of it, the army, the relatives, the victims...everything was in place to find many of the reasons why this conflict happened and claimed so many lives.

James in The Hobbit
James as Bofur in The Hobbit 2012.

 

Becoming mates with Sir Alex Ferguson—a dream come true!

I grew up adoring Manchester United—I had their poster on my wall. 

When I started doing charity work with Unicef, I went to Bengal to publicise the work the club had been doing with them in funding the education of disadvantaged children. So I got to meet quite a few of the team.

Then I got to meet Alex at a charity do about twelve years ago and, slowly but surely, we became quite good friends. He’s a great listener and, if I ever want advice, Alex is always at the end of the phon—an extraordinary by-product of how my life’s turned out. He’s an incredibly wise, compassionate, funny man.

 

Oh, and I also had two daughters!

I was there for their births.They were both supposed to be born at home, but with Peggy, my eldest, it was quite traumatic.

I won't go into too much detail, but she was a real emergency. We were rushed through the streets of London to King's Hospital, where she was born by Caesarean. A wonderful woman called Maggie, who delivered Peggy, reached in and, as she pulled her out, her words were, “Look what I've found!" It was very moving. And Mary was born at home, in the bathroom—she came flying out at me, screaming and puking. 

Everybody in interviews always feels bound to say, “Yes, it was the most amazing thing in my life,” but it takes time to build that. Now, they are unquestionably the main reason I feel so blessed in life.

 

Travelling the world with Unicef

There was inevitably some criticism of my doing a lot of charity work—some people say it’s self-serving and, in a way, it is, because I’ve got so much out of it. I did the trip to India with Man United, then several more to the developing world. 

When I arrived on my first visit, I thought, Oh my God, I can’t handle this. Very quickly, though, you realise that children are the same all over the world.

They laugh and cry at the same things. But, because of an accident of birth, some of them have it incredibly hard. You soon realise it’s not about you—you’re just there as a communication channel, and you also realise how much can be done for how little. I think it’s had an impact on my children, because I’m able to relate the experience, and I hope they will pass it on, too.
Take a look at our selection of James Nesbitt's best TV and Movies

Top Image Sourced: Mary Peter's Trust

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