Two years ago, I popped into the Edinburgh Playhouse to interview Michael Praed, the original star of the ITV fantasy series Robin of Sherwood. He’d long been a name on my interviewee wishlist. Someone to interview face to face – I’d previously spoke to him on the phone. The idea was to chat about his then role as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, however, talk about the strict disciplinarian soon opened the door on his troubled childhood and a tale of horrowing abuse…
Praed learns about acting the hard way
School brutality gives Robin Hood and Dynasty star the edge
AS the Hooded Man, he was the scourge of the Sheriff of Nottingham. As Dynasty’s Prince Michael of Moldavia, he became a firm favourite with soap fans – two roles that made Michael Praed a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.
The 49-year-old, can currently be found on the stage of the Edinburgh Playhouse, co-starring in The Sound of Music as Captain von Trapp.
Settled, pre-show, in his dressing room, the actor apologises again as he unwraps a fish supper.
“I’m about to commit the cardinal sin of theatre and eat fish and chips in the dressing room,” he had warned earlier, as we traversed the backstage corridors of the Greenside Place venue. Now, defying his take-away to imbue the room with a residual odour, he tucks into his meal and turns his attention to his latest role.
Captain von Trapp, a regimental man with a regimented family, is a part that takes him on “a big journey.”
“As far as his kids are concerned, he is an emotional bankrupt. He can’t bear to be around them because they remind him of his dead wife.” Praed pauses for emphasis, “Then he falls in love with a f***ing nun for God’s sake – when does that ever happen?”
Between mouthful he adds, “Add the spectre of those bastard Nazis and that he has to leave his country, oh, and then he finds redemption as he reconnects with his kids and does the noble thing – it is a big journey.”
Put like that, the good Captain is indeed a complex creation, but then, so too is Praed. Despite the colourful snapshot he has just painted of his character, he boasts a thoughtful stillness.
Tall and thin, he’s rakish, open and charming. There’s also a fragility about him, and right now he’s hungry, so we talk as he eats.
The last time we spoke, he revealed that he had never really experienced the full impact of the popularity Robin of Sherwood had brought him. He quit the top-rated series at its height to star as D’Artagnan in a musical production of The Three Musketeers in New York – the show that closed after just nine performances but not before it had convinced Aaron Spelling to cast him in Dynasty.
Today his childhood is on the agenda, years spent in the contrasting worlds of 1960s Iran and the English boarding school tradition.
Born on April 1, 1960 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Michael David Prince, to give him his full name, moved to Iran at the age of two – his father’s job as an accountant with an oil consortium took the family to Abadan.
A sadness flits across his face as he recalls a country very different to the one demonised today. “All my childhood memories are of Iran,” he says. “My life there was the definition of the quintessential glorious childhood. Even a school day was enjoyable.
“After school we would head for a nearby swimming pool, play tennis or simply play with friends. We didn’t have television but all of us had bikes and no-one thought anything of kids just saying, ‘Bye,’ to their folks and heading off on their bikes.”
Idyllic, but that freedom came to an abrupt end when he turned eight – the start of two of the most harrowing years of his life.
“My notion of what home was changed with a discussion about where I would be going to school,” he recalls. “Because there wasn’t a facility in Iran for education after the age of eight, the only solution was to go to boarding school in England. I remember my parents sat me down with various brochures and asked me to pick one.”
A preparatory school in Eastbourne – now closed – was the favoured choice. In hindsight, Praed admits that he had not ‘processed’ the consequences of attending a such a school; he was about to get a sharp lesson in the term in loco parentis – the legal definition which allows a person or organisation to take on parental responsibility.
“That whole thing about teachers being in loco parentis was a nonsense. It existed in name only,” he declares. “When my father put me into the boarding school we got the grand tour of this… well, if you think of any mental institution, that’s the kind of building it was.
“After the tour, my father left. An hour or so passed and all the other kids started to come in. I asked the house master if I could see my dad and he said, ‘I’m afraid not, he’s gone.’ Then I remember asking him, ‘When can I see him?’ And he said, ‘Christmas.’
“Now to an eight-year-old, that’s like saying a year. At that point I realised, ‘I could be in a world of s**t here’.”
He was. For the next two years Praed was subject to random beatings and punishments. “My preparatory school was a vicious regime, peppered with a few very questionable people,” he says, matter of factly.
“If, for example, a definition of a sadist is an individual who likes to inflict pain on others, then I am pretty sure that we had one of those. Add to the mix, the insidious thing of a male teacher who seemingly likes to hurt little boys, and it all gets a bit complex.”
The sadist, he describes as “a tall bastard with a widow’s peak” and “metal segs in his shoes so that you could hear him coming a mile away.
“He would beat people regularly. When you get beaten it hurts like a motherf***er. You get beaten so badly that your a**e bleeds and your underwear sticks to it. It was horrible.
“Now, as a child, your default position when you are in pain is to go to your mother or father. You learn to do that. So it is completely absurd that the person who has just beaten you is the person you are supposed to go to for comfort. That’s where the whole in loco parentis thing falls down.
“And the thing is, if you are beaten, for whatever the reason, justifiable or not, it doesn’t resolve the basic issue – your being a child. As a child you are going to f*** up, to push the boundaries. Those are the virtues of being that age. You are learning. Having the rules so rigorously enforced leaves you with no come back.”
Another favourite punishment meted out to pupils would find them standing in freezing corridors for hours on end.
“Sometimes they would forget about you,” he laughs, ironically. “They’d come back from the pub, p*****, at one o’clock in the morning and ask, ‘What are you doing out here?’ ”
He thinks for a moment: “I once read that torture isn’t actually about pain, it’s about humiliation. If you humiliate someone often enough, you can break their spirit.
“I am struggling to find a genuine reason for any of my beatings. Instead, I have a memory of being a boy whose back was broken. I was hurt physically, brutalised by some of those bastards. Sometimes justifiably in their eyes, but other times absolutely not – they simply got the wrong guy.
“That forces you to make a choice: Do I pine for someone who isn’t there to ease my burden or do I find that within myself? The only way I could do that was by, at a very tender age, divorcing myself emotionally from my folks – there was no point in writing letters because it was not their fault.
“It actually took me two years before I learned not to pine for my mother’s skirts. Then I was fine. I’d still get beaten, but I had reconciled in my mind that I knew how to deal with it. You become very self-sufficient.”
Finishing his fish and chips Praed gets up and washes his hands. Drying them, he reflects, “The aim of that regime was to teach a healthy respect for authority… I think it was an unhealthy respect.
“One of the things I taught my own kids is that you have a moral obligation to question. Not in an arrogant way, but if you do disagree with an adult, plead your case. If the adult has any brains they will listen to you. They may or may not agree, but you mustn’t bite your tongue. That simply wasn’t an option for me.”
His early schooling wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, and Praed smiles as he admits that he “loved doing school plays, almost instantly.”
His experiences also made him “incredibly resilient to circumstance,” a boon for any actor. Which brings us back to Captain von Trapp – regimental, strict and grieving.
“The comparison isn’t lost on me. Perhaps that’s why the army attracts so many ex-public school boys – there is a comfort in order.
“I haven’t consciously drawn on my experiences, that’s not how I work, but we are all victims of our history and I absolutely must bring to him the rigidity that I have emotionally. Yes, I must recall that loneliness of the soul somewhere.”
So what would he say if he met any of those teachers today. Calmly, he considers, “We are all also victims of contemporary taste. In those days, beating kids was the norm. If I bumped into one of them now and if the circumstances were correct, I’d be intrigued as an adult to ask some of those f***ers if they have learnt anything over the years.
“The sadist,” he adds, “is dead.”
Originally published in the Edinburgh Evening News 05 Feb 2010