My Richard Armitage: An interpretation. Background, childhood, adolescence, professional preparation, young adulthood

The preface explains what this text is — not conventional professional biography, but rather my interpretation of Richard Armitage’s biography. If you wish to read a professional biography, please consult this one at Richard Armitage Online — it is thoughtful, filled with data, cites its sources methodically, and is simply the best thing available.


Earliest picture of Richard Armitage that I’ve seen.


I. Background

[Right: Huncote village, in the distance. Source.]

Richard Armitage’s family background (partially in Leeds) is neither high cultural nor upper class — ancestors up to grandparents’ generation include cotton mill weavers and coal miners. Parents were probably born during the war years or shortly thereafter and experienced postwar rationing / shortages / aftermath in childhood, as well as growth in postwar prosperity. Father anchors the family in the middle class with his education and highly technical profession (nuclear engineering) and reads and enjoys middle-brow culture. Mother from south of England. Family settles in a village outside of Leicester, where neither parent comes from, presumably to be closer to father’s work. Armitage’s birth and childhood fall in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period of relative economic difficulty in the UK as postwar growth trails off and the expenses of the social welfare state become more onerous. Early social / political atmosphere  — public workers’ strikes, inflation — may convey need to work hard to succeed, a lesson congruent with values of middle-class parents later described by Armitage as “very conservative.” Armitage’s later comments sketch in the outlines of “conservative” as more of a worldview than a politics — frugality; waiting to buy things as a rejection of the “have it now” consumerist push on middle-class incomes typical of the period; unwillingness to call attention to themselves in public; and reserve with regard to discussion of financial or sexual matters. He will mention that he inherits stubbornness from his mother and a conviction that he’s right from his father. Parents watch the Queen’s Speech and family attends church at Christmastime. Mother works initially as homemaker; Armitage remembers value she places on healthy eating during his childhood. At the same time, the family can be broadly placed in the context of changing social circumstances. The 1970s in the UK saw a wave of middle-class families joining the UK property ladder (including the Armitages) due to changing lending rules; the 70s were also the decade of female emancipation par excellence (Margaret Thatcher becomes PM in 1979), perhaps facilitating Mrs. Armitage’s entry (return?) to the work force when Armitage is 14, to assist in financing his school fees.

II. Childhood and Adolescence

[Left: The old Brockington College building, Enderby, Leics, constructed in 1957, at the time of its demolition in 2008. Source.]

Armitage is the younger son and younger brother. He has an impressionable personality in that memories stay with him; as an adult, he will not write off childhood perceptions as juvenile. An early mishap gives rise to a lifelong nervousness around water. Parents are attentive — aware of and willing to allocate family financial and time resources to — younger son’s gifts, struggles, interests, personal development, including quite early provision of dancing classes, initially to address pigeon-toes, cello lessons and a cello (not the cheapest instrument), and gifts the adult Armitage remembers as thoughtful and the sort of thing he was likely to enjoy (roller skates that he played on for more than a year, a “Summer Nights” 45 from the Grease sound track that he replayed “endlessly”). Imaginatively mischievous (draws hair on his chest with magic marker), but not disobedient or criminal (stole chewing gum once as a child). Physically adventurous. Experiences normal childhood accidents (breaks collarbone running after ice-cream truck). Not cast in leading roles in school nativity plays, one of various data points that suggest a childhood managed by flying under the radar rather than mugging for attention or seeking to distinguish himself to teachers. A reader who self-describes later as “solitary,” with a preference for fiction / science fiction / fantasy stories. As a child and preteen, enjoys Roald Dahl, Tolkien, Dr. Who. Remembers watching plays at school, Saturday cartoons and children’s shows, as well as reading popular magazines, with pleasure; will look back to memories of silly games with his family at Christmas and notes that Vicar of Dibley is exactly the sort of piece his family would have watched. Good pupil when it comes to matters of high interest or talent; not good at mathematics; takes French; described by a fellow pupil as fun-loving, a minor mischief-maker, and smart but not “a swot.” My suspicion — smart and curious but not highly motivated in the ways that the top academic students usually are, possibly willing to work sufficiently to satisfy teachers but lacking strong desire to excel either in order to please them or in order to meet own desires, which are not very exactly formulated. Plays in youth orchestra, perhaps sowing seeds of later love of both classical and atmospheric modern and modernist music. Armitage’s parents take his preteen interests and talents very seriously, allowing son to pursue vocational / arts schooling as opposed to pushing him onto a more academic track, to which he may not have been well suited. (One suspects this decision might have been difficult for a university-educated engineer to make.) At the same time, the seeds of the autotelic personality are there in the form of still inchoate dreams. The adult Armitage describes himself as pestering his mother to support the goal of attending a stage school and his parents as supportive of his aspirations but not pushy.


Picture of Richard Armitage while at Pattison College (center image in banner) with Miss Pat.


Armitage experiences a sudden growth spurt to adult height during the summer he was 14, ending external perceptions of him as a child before, upon adult reflection, he may have been entirely ready. A mildly ambivalent rebel as a teenager — makes plans to draw attention to himself and then retreats from and/or regrets them. Aware of his own dreams and aspirations and capable of showing persistence in pursuing them, although drive is balanced by shyness / nervousness about being observed and judged negatively. One suspects, given later statements about his appearance, and vehement rejection of designations of sexual attractiveness, that he was teased, perhaps mercilessly on occasion, about his appearance and pronounced nose and ears. Auditions successfully as an early teen for Pattison College, a school that sells itself as educating disciplined and team-oriented workers for the stage. Shows sufficient talent to obtain a Local Authority scholarship for school fees, and later, a scholarship to pay for ballet lessons. While there, Armitage is heavily influenced by Miss Pat, found of the school and still an influential teacher, who enforces high standards, and who has the gift of helping students learn to set high standards for themselves. Boards during the week with the Pattisons, so closely exposed to their values. Lessons regarding work ethic, punctuality, manners, etc. from 1970s-80s political/economic atmosphere and parents reinforced by school and early professional experiences, which emphasize punctuality, cooperation, improving one’s own behavior and performances in order to please / satisfy. A lesson of particular importance in this period from Miss Pat: take every opportunity you can — a stance that must have caused a fair amount of productive tension with Armitage’s shyness. Begins to internalize own standards and habit of measuring his performances against them — enhanced by the strict discipline of the school, which forces him to excel and occasionally causes him to fidget, but on the whole reinforces his childhood tendency to fly under the radar and avoid confrontation.

Armitage is remembered with positive sentiment by schoolmates from this period whose notes to him show up here and there on the web, on social media sites and in article comment sections, years later. Mentions an early, intense, non-physical friendship with a girl, a fellow student, in this period. Appears as a dancer on stage in the background of local professional and amateur productions. Later describes his first stage role as an elf in the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, although accounts vary on dates (at 11, or after entering at Pattison College). No interest in athletic competition, but enters and wins dance competitions. Follows Michael Jackson’s career (perhaps not simply because Jackson was the international dance icon of the mid-1980s, but also because of the presence of a noted Pattison alumna in Jackson’s ambit, thus providing a dreamy boy with a concrete and potentially realizable form for his ambitions) and tries to imitate him — something he admits ruefully later, noting that he had the requisite hat and the gloves. Enjoys architectural drawing and woodwork / building things. Switches instruments from cello to flute, at which he is better but which he enjoys less. Continues interest in reading; enjoys reading and television drama with science fiction / post-apocalyptic themes. Develops a taste for Latin dance music and will later describe his best dance as the Argentine tango. By own account, first experience of sexual intercourse in a tent (sexy) at age 17 (possibly a little late — he later described himself as eager to shed the label of “virgin,” in any case) to a female classmate who announces it to their comrades the next day (embarrassing / humiliating). Leaves school with A-levels in music and English, as well as numerous dance and speech qualifications.

III. Young Adulthood and Professional Preparation

[Left: Richard Armitage in Annie Get Your Gun (1990). Source:]

Shortly after leaving school, Armitage joins a circus that plays in Budapest in order to obtain Equity card, just as eastern Europe is raising the Iron Curtain, which he notes but is not a central moment of his memories of the experience. Remembers this episode with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on mood and context of question when asked — and he will be asked often. Common theme of his multiple recountings include need for an Equity card and the perceived larkish quality of the experience as a reason for the decision. Positive takeaways including getting the credential, learning about performing to an empty house, seeing new things; negative takeaways include nervousness about unknown / feelings of isolation, unpleasant living conditions, pay, and skepticism about the artistic value of the production. (He will revisit the circus — out of curiosity — during Robin Hood filming, and recognize the part he had played in the work of a different performer). At roughly the same time (either slightly before or upon return from Hungary), Armitage does some study in England for a university course in literature or English. Subject matter includes Victorian novels — but is this also where he encounters John Fowles for the first time? While he values literature and culture, he develops most quickly as an experiential / somatic and visual rather than book learner and apparently does not complete that degree. Focuses on pursuing career in musical theater and makes a promising start despite his height, appearing in several important productions as well as working as an assistant to a noted choreographer. Later statements by Armitage that he was acceptable as a dancer and singer belie the relative speed with which he made it into the casts and onto the stages of ongoing West End productions; if he was perhaps too tall to headline, he must have worked at a very high level of competence. Shyness seems to relate primarily to new and unfamiliar situations, strangers, and does not preclude making friends — he is sufficiently social among friends in casts in which he participates to photographed candidly. Dances for fun as well as work and enjoys London club scene. At this stage, any artistic and personal ambitions remain in tension with continued shyness / quietness / reticence — which he will later deny is an indication that he is aloof from what is happening around him, a judgment that seems to pain him in retrospect. A bigger problem may be disparity between actual skills and perceived level of confidence in displaying them to others. Is initially not in a hurry to grow up and is willing to accept consequences of unknown status / precarious employment arrangements (driving father’s old car, odd jobs he does not like). At the same time, he shows a scrappy initiative, pursuing and expanding his practical experience with the nuts and bolts of television sets by appearing as an extra; Boon is one he will mention later.

[Right: Richard Armitage at the time of his appearance in Cats (1995)]

Armitage understudies several roles in Cats, his greatest achievement in musical theater. Extremely dependable, he never calls in sick. Viewing of limited rehearsal video available suggests a dance style in which Armitage is integrated in the ensemble and working effectively with others, but at the same time dreamily lost in his own experience, almost as if shutting out the audience. Experiences fundamental shift in artistic / professional focus around 1993/4 — marked by strong disappointment when understudying fails to lead to a permanent role in Cats after a decisive audition; frustration with a cheesy Sarah Brightman music video in which he dances the role of seaweed; and elation or epiphany after seeing Midsummer Night’s Dream in Stratford. Much later, Armitage cites as additional reasons for the shift wanting to work with texts and concerns that musical theater is too self-consciously performative. Begins pursuing speaking roles on stage and enters drama school at LAMDA. Strong belief evident that he must earn his way; finances own education in part with wages from Cats engagement. The wake of disappointment over Cats possibly marks the beginning point of more active and concentrated contemplation of what sort of adult he wishes to be — matters involving morals, ethics, philosophy of being and action for the person living in contemporary society. These issues are also explored narratively in authors that will become favorites of his, such as J.G. Ballard and Fowles, and which drama school education will give him the opportunity to continue to explore.

Enters LAMDA at twenty-five (not twenty-one, as often reported in the press) to study acting in classical theater. Education focuses on development of intuition, instinct, interpretive skill and range, but also on preparation for technical skills in different fields of performance. Armitage will remember, internalize, and mention important themes of these courses, including lessons in the spectrum of voice, moving the vocal instrument from speaking toward singing; instructions to think about what characters dream of doing when they are old; and questions about what characters might do if they suddenly found themselves in unexpected situations. Training brings out an innate interest in both story and characterization as elements of acting, and Armitage pours a particular amount of energy into developing his skills in the latter regard. Because of characterization, he enjoys the ensemble elements of acting — perhaps this preference develops out of aesthetic concerns in relationship to improving his acting, but it’s also not implausibly a hedge against shyness or nervousness. One intuits the possibility of a sort of transition in the quality and use of his shyness occurring in this period — not only a reaction to personal discomfort, but also potentially a coping skill for dealing with the constant personal and status negotiations involved in performances, so that habits like silence, hanging back, not being the first to broach a topic or grasp the initiative in personal interactions (and so on) constitute not simply an emotional reaction or a stance justifiable in ethical terms, but even more a personal style that means Armitage will not choose in professional situations to make his personality take up more than its fair share of space. While he later expresses ambivalence about the designation of “Method” actor, preferring to call himself eclectic in approach, certain later attitudes, particularly about the role of costume and the excavation of one’s own memories and experiences, point to thinking from this school as a pronounced element in his training.

Casting agents are invited to LAMDA student productions — is it here that Armitage makes his connection to United Agents, or later? Armitage is cast with good roles in several student productions, as well as incongruous ones, but also criticized strongly by at least one tutor for overacting and encouraged to expand his intellectual world by reading more difficult literature in preparation for roles (Crime and Punishment, a reading experience undertaken in service of a role in a school production of Macbeth that remains with him for a long time). Still playful in his off hours; still enjoys live music and karaoke; still enjoys spending time with friends; still working at jobs that he finds tedious or worse. Armitage states later that his longest romantic relationship to date, which he later describes as off and on, and about being open and vulnerable and exploring who he was in the drama school atmosphere, occurs in this period. Ends LAMDA with appearance as extra in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which is not the first professional event in Armitage’s career that suggests evidence of a capacity to put himself in the right place at the right time, if not always to capitalize, and a greater or more intense level of artistic ambition than his developing ethics might allow him to state openly.


Proposed edits I would make as of 6/9/13:

  • After discussion (see comments), I conclude that there’s no necessary evidence that Armitage’s father was university-educated. As a result, I retract my hypothesis about potential difficulties experienced by university educated in allowing children to pursue non-academic tracks.
  • Numerous, repeated and conflicting statements by Armitage during press blitz of November / December 2012-January 2013 complicated the timeline of his association with the book and play of The Hobbit. Based on frequency of different versions he told of this story, I am now postulating three steps — Armitage was read it aloud in primary school; read it again for himself at some point later as a pre-teen, when it grabbed his imagination, possibly in conjunction with performing in the play; and was eleven when participating in the stage play of The Hobbit in Birmingham. Assuming his humorous statement at the memorial service for Betty Pattison is correct; that is, that she owed him money for a performance, it is thus reasonable to conclude that Armitage’s connection to the Pattisons preceded his enrollment with the school by several years. Perhaps he encountered them during his dance classes  in dance / performance circles while still at elementary school or Brockington College, and was encouraged to enroll at Pattison College for further training. If so, this would answer the question of how Armitage knew enough about Pattisons to pester his mother to let him enroll there.
  • Per statement by Darren Denison in spring 2013, when he met Armitage in 1999, Armitage was represented by prestigious representation: “PFD” (Peters, Fraser & Dunlop). Richard Armitage thus almost certainly had his first agent by the time he left LAMDA. Duncan Millership was one of the agents who left PFD in 2007 to found United Agents (moving from there to Management 360 in Los Angeles in January 2010, where Armitage also listed himself as managed, and subsequently to WME in November 2011, where Armitage is currently on the roster of clients).


To Part IV-V.


All text © Servetus at me + richard armitage, 2012. Please credit when using excerpts and links. Images and video copyrights accrue to their owners.

~ by Servetus on November 17, 2012.

91 Responses to “My Richard Armitage: An interpretation. Background, childhood, adolescence, professional preparation, young adulthood”

  1. Wow, that’s great, really informative and looking forward to the next bit! Xx

  2. I really enjoyed your in depth analysis of RA’s life and career. You really give it a most personal touch even if the the writing is in a somewhat staccato form, which is not an insult by any means.

    • Yeah — I chose that intentionally, as I was trying to write this as if I were a psychologist writing a personality profile. (Also, since I prefer an active writing style, constantly having “Armitage” as the subject of the sentence would have been tedious to read …). Glad you like it. This is definitely my reading.

  3. Servetus, what a brilliant attempt at a (subjective) biography of Armitage! Not only have I enjoyed reading it, I also find it thoroughly convincing how you present your interpretation of Armitage’s character, career choices and work ethic as you base it all on the available facts and soundbites from Armitage himself. This is a most useful aggregate of the puzzle pieces that make up Mr A.
    Without ever having it put into words myself, you interpret his early life/career in much the same way as I have decided what he is like. He is, imo, a rather old school actor, who sees acting not just as a “God-given” talent but a craft that needs honing through use of acquired skills and applying personal life-experience to it. I have the impression he is very much grounded, thanks to a “normal” non-bohemian family background and his education in that vocational dramatic arts college. His natural modesty, the (rather protestant) “please don’t fuss” attitude, his constant self-doubt are the drivers of his craft, and you have beautifully, respectfully and comprehensively shown how these attributes have been instilled or caused in his formative years. I am looking forward to moving on with you to the next stage in his life and career and see what you make of his professional development and life choices.

    • Yes — it’s going to be a theme in the next piece that his public behavior is almost overdetermined between personal qualities, background, and education.

      I think the next piece will be more controversial.

  4. This coincides so closely with my perceptions of Mr. Armitage and his personality and influences. It seemed too intrusive to actually write about. But you have. I relate strongly to your perceptions; as the daughter of a middle-class Englishwoman, and of Canadian (engineer) father of “landed gentry” Irish ancestry, the influences on Mr. Armitage strike close to home.

    I’ve also wondered about the religious background. Only tentatively saying. Probably (being a non-practising anything, but still influenced by Anglicanism. Love you, Geraldine!) Conventionally C-of-E? Or some Dissident/Methodist influences? Both, probably. Do you think?

    • Yeah, I am worried this is intrusive. However, it is completely based on public statements and extrapolations from or contextualizations of public statements that Armitage made or in Armitage-related press, so I feel okay on that score. There is a bit more information about his family on the web, but not much, and in the interest of their privacy, and because I don’t think it adds a tremendous amount to the picture, I didn’t bring that to bear here. I also try to remain silent on matters for which there is absolutely no evidence in any direction.

      I’ve wondered about the religion thing, too. Re Xty: Brockington College is a C of E school; Armitage mentioned once that his family either went to church at Xmas or watched services on TV; and he read in a Christmas program at St Pauls in 2007. To me this reads like a casual or lapsed C of E background, but the evidence won’t go any further than that. If that were the case, it would make his family typical of lot of UK families that participate in the rites of passage of the church and major holidays and consider themselves Christian but aren’t devout. We also have to consider the context for these statements — in the U.S., it might be more usual for him to say something about religious upbringing or education than it would in the UK.

      Leicester itself was an early center of Methodism. However, Armitage’s parents are not from there; otoh, his father is from Leeds, which means all bets are off without further information — it’s just simply to hard to extrapolate from that combination of social circumstances to a likely religious position.

  5. A lot of the things he mentioned about his family background always resonated with me because my own is so similar, including similar values I have been brought up with. RA in his twenties as part of the musical and theatre scene is harder to grasp. It is an environment so different from how he grew up. Yet unlike with many others, there doesn’t seem to be a break up with his family, a rebellion against his background. Primary motivation, at least as given, always seem to have been the desire to act and to make progress in his craft.

    The university course in literature is new to me and I thought I knew every article?

    • A possible extrapolation that I didn’t put in here, though I thought about it — what makes you send your 14 year old son away from home to school if you’re not in the social group in the UK that regularly does that? (Then again, it’s not that far from home and it sounds like he spent weekends there.) The information we have says he bugged his mom about it; I extrapolate from my own observations about middle class families in the first generation of university education that it might have been hard to put your child on a track that didn’t lead to the university; then again they had already been doing all the financial and support work for dancing lessons, orchestra, etc., so they were clearly not opposed to these activities. I also thought it was interesting to switch schools right before O-levels; don’t know how usual or unusual a decision that would be. There could be lots of factors there and there is absolutely no evidence to support a reading that prioritizes any of them. Armitage prefers to remember it as his decision to push for it and his parents as supportive.

      Re: no break — there is only one place in all this press where Armitage mentions any negative sentiment toward his parents — when he says he was once “angry” because they were so self-restrained in public. I ended up wondering if it’s easier to defuse adolescent rebellion or the tension of the average 14-16 year old who’s working out his identity against his parents, if the people he lives with most of the time are his chosen role models and he only lives with his parents on weekends. (I’m a bit jealous of him in this regard in any case; my own personal history is really different.)

      re: university course — he says it here:

      “I had studied English for a degree” and he makes a humorous reference to a degree in his msg of August 5, 2008. I thought there was also a reference to it in an early radio interview but I have have that wrong. I wondered about this because of him having only two A-levels, which could have made admission difficult. It may have been Open University, I suppose.

      I was curious about the LAMDA course as well. I’ve lost track of the URL for his Spotlight bio, but the last time I saw it said, “1996-98,” which is not three years (which is frequently reported in early press). They do have a shortened two year course for students with previous professional experience. Two years would fit better with the details of his bio as I know it.

      One thing that you realize if you read all of this stuff in order is that the press is *constantly,* *constantly* bungling details and reporting things that simply cannot be true.

      • I interpreted the degree in English as A levels? Spotlight still says the same but who knows if that is correct. You are right that many things always get reported differently, but I wonder to which degree that is due to journalists being lazy or him being consciously or unconsciously not precise. For example it usually gets reported that he was with the circus aged 17 but on interview said clearly it was 1990, the year after the Berlin wall fell, and Budapest was just waking up. I believe that is the only version that makes sense, however in most interviews he doesn’t argue that he was 17, it may sound catchier if he was still under age and “ran away”. I also never figured out how long he stayed at Pattison’s. The offer a three years course for students over 16, if he had done that he may have left only 1990.

        • The source that I couldn’t relocate just now I have in memory as saying “read for a degree,” which for a UK-er would imply university, where you “read for” a degree. I wouldn’t call A-levels a degree, but then again I am a U.S. American and was not in the intended audience for a lot of this info originally.

          I agree that he definitely clouds information about himself in order to suit whatever story he’s telling (I ended up thinking that he modified the “Hobbit” story, which had always been related to the Pattison’s phase, for his purposes at ComicCon, which is where he says he was 11 at the time). I also think he has probably tried to clarify some information unsuccessfully — there are a few interviews where he says (paraphrasing), I didn’t run away to the circus, I was allowed to / decided to go, but the trope / generic convention there about “running away to the circus” is just simply so strong, and apparently impossible for reporters to resist, that he seems to feel he has no chance against it and has given up.

          There’s a newspaper article that has a school teacher or head saying that he came to Pattisons to do O-levels, and he could still have taken O-levels at 16. My understanding is that that would have been late. Also, with an August birthday, if he was entered into school with the usual calendar and not “held back” (not sure how common that experience would be in the UK; it was something parents were just starting to do, mostly with their sons, in the late 1970s in the U.S.) he would actually always have been one of the youngest students in his grade — he’s turning 16 after almost everyone else in his class, presumably. On the other hand, if he was “held back,” then he would have been one of the older students, which might make the timing of the whole Budapest adventure make more sense chronologically. However, Brockington College calls itself a middle school and only has three grades, so it would have been odd for him to have waited on O-levels, unless he was a worse student than his classmate recalls him being.

          • I have wondered the same. When it comes to reconstructing his biography he is not a reliable source himself.

          • No one in the UK would confuse A Levels and a degree, also I’m sure I saw a reference somewhere recently to him having three A Levels.

            • I thought after I made the comment above, that the quote where he says he “studied for a degree” is in a U.S. newspaper — it’s possible that he could have said “read for a degree” and the reporter would have “translated” into U.S. English, where we “study for a degree.”

            • re two vs three A-levels — I only have read sources that say two, and that’s been a fairly constant datum since the beginning of his notoriety. However, I’m sure I haven’t read everything relevant. I would love to see the source.

              In the end, of course, all of these sources are / can be flawed. I end up arguing on the basis of what I think the preponderance of the evidence suggests, unless there is some convincing reason to think that a source with an anomaly statement is more authoritative than other sources.

            • Oh, and one last thought on the A-levels. Another reason that I find that datum fairly convincing is that it’s entirely consistent with the picture of him as a teenager who was focused on pursuing what he was interested in (music, English, drama / speech / dance) and sort of fuzzy / disoriented with regard to other things. He works hard and is very disciplined in terms of things he’s attracted to, but he’s never struck me as someone who works terribly hard to surmount difficulties with regard to subject matter he dislikes or where he can’t see the point.

          • O-levles are (or rather were) typically taken in the academic year that you turn 16, and there is a two academic year lead in to them. If you talk about someone going to a school to do O’levels, then I would understand that to mean going at the start of that two year period. As a general rule, parents try to avoid their children moving schools during that period of education, as it disrupts learning of the particular subject syllabus of the exam bard that school uses. Taking O-levels at this standard time and then A-levles two years later fits with the dates he gives in the Miss Pat appreciation piece (1985-1989). He couldn’t have taken O-levels much later, as summer 1987 was the last standard time they were offered (with the last re-sits the following February). In 1998 they were replaced with GCSEs. In the late 80s/early 90s, two A-levels was the standard minimum requirement for unversity entrance if you were coming straight from school (I entered university in 1991) so having two A-levels rather than three wouldn’t necessarily have made admission difficult (especially when combined with vocational performance qualifications), although may well have restricted the institutions he could apply to. I hadn’t seen the degree reference before. It wouldn’t be that unusual for someone to go on the standard path straight form school to university, decide during the first year that it’s not for them, and then drop out either during the year or at the end of it. That would fit with dates I’ve seen for his musical theatre performances, but who knows.

            • RA left school after taking A Levels (Music and English) in 1989 before his 18th birthday. He goes straight to Budapest to get performance experience to qualify for an Equity card which he needs to work in musical theatre. He returns to get work ,not to go to university. If university was ever on the agenda, the Equity card would not have been so urgent.

              A full three year course at LAMDA is probably a degree equivalent.

              • This is basically correct, but two issues remain with it, however:

                First, his Spotlight biography doesn’t say three years for LAMDA: it says 1996-1998. I can see why newspapers would all misreport this fact but I’m not sure why his CV would. LAMDA has also revised its degrees in the interval; its current 3 year program counts as a BA. So he could have a BA if he did that course, but I’m not convinced based on the data I have. Second, Jane is right in that his own description of Budapest, when he talks about walking on the streets, says it’s 1990 and not 1989. (And frankly, even though Hungary was a more open state than many of the Iron Curtain states at that point, news had been in the European papers all summer about ferment, refugees, etc., etc. in the westernmost states of the Warsaw Pact. He’d have to have been somewhat more politically clueless than he seems to have walked into that. Had he actually been in eastern Europe when the wall fell, too, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have mentioned it, as it would have been hard to miss, even for a teenager living next to the elephants.) So I don’t think he went straight from school to Budapest; there must have been some months in between there.

                • Oh, and also, I should state for the record, since I’ve been charged with academic snobbery before — I couldn’t care less whether he has a BA or any academic qualification at all. I’m just trying to put the pieces of his biography together.

              • Here’s the source for Budapest being 1990, btw. Jane originally shared this with me.


            • thanks for the explanation, E. I had read that the O-levels were discontinued; I had also wondered whether speech / drama qualifications would count in university admissions.

        • I got the impression that the funding for Pattison’s came mainly from Leicestershire County Council, probably from a scheme for gifted children. If that was the case, I can’t see them paying for more than two years in sixth form ie until the end of the year of the 18th birthday (30 August 1989). Three years in sixth form was uncommon in the 1980s although quite common these days because A levels are split into AS and A2.

          • Yes: cf. “Local Authority scholarship.”

            I’ve always had a question about this, which is why Mrs. Armitage would have gone out to work at that point. (She might have done so anyway, with her youngest son being fourteen, but it’s always stated that she started to work to help with his school fees.) Also tends to point at the “worked in nuclear engineering” as opposed to “was an engineer” datum — perhaps a less well-paid job in nuclear engineering?

            • LCC may only have paid a bare minimum of the fees and a school secretary’s salary would have gone some way to covering school uniform of which he would need a number of changes as a weekly boarder, and then another school uniform as above when he grew etc! Plus dancing shoes, and more dancing shoes, musical instruments, music books, well a never ending list. Don’t put your son on the stage, Mrs Armitage.

              • Good point about the shoes. I guess he wore out rather than outgrew his uniforms, as he was at adult height at 14, but I always forget that UK parents expect to have to buy school uniforms. That Pattison’s uniform is really — cough. I’d pay money to charity to see a picture of him as a teen dressed in that getup.

                I had wondered whether the switch to flute had something to do with the boarding question — a lot easier to transport a flute than a cello. (The two years I spent carrying a bassoon off and on school buses made me personally very jealous of the flautists and happy to retreat back to clarinet and piano.) Cello is an expensive instrument to begin with, then there’s the whole bow question, and a hard case for a cello is also really expensive.

                • Re the flute, it is more likely that Pattisons would expect him to take up a second instrument.

                  • I’m sure they would have (as would have any responsible musical educator at that point — it wouldn’t have been just Pattisons) but I really would like to avoid, interpretively, working on the basis of either / or situation. (Either he did it for practical reasons OR because it was a requirement.) Doing that causes us to disregard things that Armitage *has actually said*, and the first rule of a solid historical interpretation is that you try to figure out a context in which statements by your source actually make sense.

                    For instance, Armitage describes himself in an interview at least once as having “switched” from cello to flute, but not liking flute as well. He also has remarked more than once that he’s tried to “go back to” cello but that the result has not been pleasant, and also that his cello performance wouldn’t be appropriate as a fundraiser. So the details of what he actually says add layers to the explanation that it was a school requirement, which I don’t find doubtful in the lease.

                    That’s really the technique I’m using here — it’s not that I discount practical or technical motivations as causal, but I’m also trying to tease out textual implications of things our sources literally say. That’s a really central technique for writing this kind of biography. If you don’t use it, you can’t say very much.

                  • And there’s also another issue I haven’t raised, which are the comparative gender implications of musical instrument choices. They tend to be strongly gendered in primary and secondary settings, perhaps less so now than in the 70s, of course.

                    • Much more than the choice of instrument, dancing is certainly not the choice one would expect from a teenage boy. Acting and music perhaps.

                    • putting my response to this point below so as not to create one of those awful thin posts.

  6. Lovely essay about RA! In general, I think that it is wonderful when parents encourage their children to pursue their talents, gifts, and desires. My dad was an electrical engineer–also a vociferous reader. So I can relate to RA’s experiences with his father. Though one question sticks in my mind. I can rewire a plug, can RA? Ha!

  7. Ooh! The “preface” hyperlink in your first sentence seems to be broken.

  8. […] To Parts I-III. […]

  9. This was a superb and informative biography which was great fun to read. Must have forgotten a whole lot as there seemed to be quite some brand-new material for me. I tend to believe you every word in this text as it all makes perfectly sense and the pieces of puzzle go well together (so many small details!!). The Richard you described becomes so much clearer now in my perception (of course heavily influenced by your perspective 😉 ) What I really love in this chronicle is, that his parents obviously supported him strongly in his early attempts into the fine arts and enabled him a profound artistically education. That’s something I missed so much in my upbringing. Or maybe in my teenage years I just hadn’t been that clear about my desired tendencies like Richard apparently had been. Even back then RA seemed already fairly determined with an end in mind. His mother’s inherited stubbornness and his father’s conviction to be right have laid the groundwork for a lot of staying power. Jeez, I have to go back and read that story again….

    • Thanks! — although you should keep in mind that it is the job of rhetoric to convince. If you find yourself especially convinced by something, you should ask yourself why.

      What I find myself thinking is that they enabled these things for him despite, as he has noted several times, the fact that his family background is not an “arty” one. That shows an exceptional level of willingness to let go of control. Impressive.

      I urge you, if you have time, to reread the articles on the fansites. I had read a lot of them initially almost three years ago, and I picked up details this time I hadn’t noticed the first time.

  10. Do we have specific evidence for Armitage Snr having a degree? I had always read him as a bright grammar school boy who gets a job in the expanding nuclear industry in the early ’60s. The growth in places at the concrete unis of the 1960s would have probably come a few years too late for him to take advantage of.

    • No, we don’t, and this is something I wondered about. Armitage always says, “my father worked in nuclear engineering” and not “my father is a nuclear engineer.” The answer to this question depends a lot on what job exactly his father held; in any case his father was interested enough to take the family to visit nuclear plants during family holidays (forgot to put that detail in above.)

      I chewed over this matter for a long time, and this is why I ended up writing it that way:

      –I have a father who squeaked through a high school diploma because of self-discipline problems, but ended up working at a fairly high level in computers without a degree, when that was still easily possible. (Education in the Army during the Vietnam War.) Most people in IT worked without formal qualifications in those days, and that might be possible in the chaotic technical atmosphere of the 1950s, 60s, 70s. (That is pretty much the entire reason I grew up in the middle class; I would have been a farmer’s daughter otherwise.) On the other hand, it seems to me that nuclear engineering is a slightly different kettle of fish. I also taught for two years on a campus where nuclear engineering was a major degree focus, and in that time I never met a nuclear *engineer* who didn’t have a university degree. I don’t know tons about UK higher education, but I wondered if there would some sort of technical qualification that wouldn’t be a BA/BS or qualify as a “degree” but would still involved advanced studies (there would have been in Germany). In other words, nuclear engineering is such a sensitive and technical field (also often requiring security checks, etc.) that it seemed to me it almost had to imply *some* higher education, even if not the traditional university degree course.

      –One might conclude without too much trouble, that even if he weren’t university educated, someone in a position like that would seek the benefits of university education for his children. People who are challenging the boundaries of social categories against the cultural inertia that militates in favor of not doing so often seek to pass that drive and those aspirations on to their children.

      One thing about your remark that’s really helpful is that it points out that socially, the Armitage family might have been more amenable to an “early” professional start for their son than families more firmly anchored in the middle class for a longer period of time. If you have coal miners and weavers in your family, it wouldn’t seem odd that you might want to start to find work at fifteen (as opposed to going on for two more years of secondary studies and then seeking a university place and only starting your adulthood after you were 21). It casts a bit better light on possible answers to the question of why you’d allow your fourteen-year-old son to live away from home.

    • As a separate issue — another matter your remark really clearly points out is the potential pitfall of a social history approach. We go round about this all the time, because particularly in my field we’re often writing about people who became notorious / famous / important later in their lives, and there is little to no paper trail about them earlier (and they didn’t give interviews). So in order to say anything about those folks, we have to go to social factors and cultural context — but it’s a tricky strategy, especially for landmark individuals, who creep out of the mists of history precisely *because* they separated themselves from the general anonymity in which most people have lived their lives for all of human history.

      There are just tons and tons of things we don’t know — and at any moment a detail could surface that would make this whole edifice crumble. That’s why I am emphasizing both that I based this series on sources I’ve read, and also that it’s a very personal profile. The conclusion of this series treats my observations about Armitage’s biography as I understand it and what it has come to mean to me — but it’s probably pretty obvious already that I see myself as sharing some important moments with him in terms of childhood situation.

  11. I really loved this and looking forward to the next part.

  12. I really enjoyed your little essay on Richard. Hope to read more soon!

  13. @Pam, based on experience, my perception is that it was not always necessary to have a degree, to practice in a professional field in England – perhaps not as a scientist/engineer per se, but as a qualified technical professional. One of my longest-term English friends qualified as a librarian (after a degree) via library management courses, and taking the professional exams. She recently retired as a long-time senior librarian with the British Library. Am I wrong to think that the old polytechnic college system provided a very practical (and professional) education to a great extent?

    • I think you have hit the nail on the head here, Fitzg. Apprenticeship and further study perhaps at a poly could be a route into the nuclear industry not as a nuclear physicist but as a mechanical engineer. It may even shed light on that other intriguiging question. Why Leicester? Equidistant between Leeds and Wallingford? Near the M1? Centre of England, so not impossible to travel to any nuclear power station on the coast? Probably yes to all these but maybe Leicester Poly offered the right course.

      Leicester Poly became De Montfort University in the 1990’s which still offers engineering courses. My son is a third year Mechatronics student at De Montfort at the moment. It might just be a clue.

      Interestingly on the working class background and the preparation for work aspects, I can imagine older Armitage relatives being of the ‘I’ve never had a days unemployment in my life’ school which might give some insight into RA’s obsession with working.

      Also from something I read on Friends Reunited years ago, I got the impression that Chris went to grammar school but not on to university which would support this theory.

      • Interesting. I wondered why Leicester, too, and was only willing to go as far as “for work.”

      • I meant to say: one doesn’t tend to read them as “gap year” kind of family. (I find this sympathetic — while I understand the purpose of the activity, and I think it improves the maturity level of entering students, if I had taken a year between high school and college my parents would have flipped out.)

    • That is what my own father did in post war Germany, who is from a similar background and grew up around the same time as RA’s father probably did. Higher education wasn’t an option, so like most kids he left school at 14 to start an apprenticeship. He was clever, but not well suited for hard physical work, and managed to became an engineer via a polytechnical college.

  14. @Jane and Pam, Apprenticeship AND mentoring is something laid by the side of short-term profit, and Harvard MBAs. I became a librarian, too, via mentoring and instructing in the basics. (Actually, it was a good match) after a uni degree in history and English Lit. No opportunity to take a a degree in library science. Just building on experience. Son skipped uni in favour of several years’ practical community college (like the English polys) I rather did hope he’d be a docter/lawyer/engineer, securely settled etc. He went his way. I suppose I went mine, too.

    I think Armitage has gone his way from the start, ensured he has been self-sufficient, earned a living, and that is important. Dreams are wonderful, but keeping them while supporting oneself is too.

    • Let’s face it, a lot of the force behind professional credentialling comes form having to protect labor markets that are seen as fragile by putting up walls to entry. This something that has really frustrated me as an adult — I have an extensive professional training, but to do almost anything else that interests me I’d have to get a different one. I don’t object to learning; I object to the time and expense.

  15. […] are links to Preface (explains what this series is) and Part I (covering Richard Armitage’s family background, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and […]

  16. I have enjoyed your Bio of Richard. I have yet to really read much into his Bios before this one. Looking forward to read more.

    • Thanks very much! Keep in mind, then, that this is my reading of his biography. Check out the Richard Armitage Online bio for “the facts.”

  17. Re: point about dancing Jane raises above, fwiw, this is my take on it.

    He starts dancing at four (rationale, stated in only source I am aware of, which comes relatively late, is that mother enrolls him to help correct pigeon toes). Assuming that’s true as simply as it is stated is IMO a big assumption; the whole “it was random / accidental / had nothing to do with my desires” fits with the general Armitage pattern of self-narration. (I can think of at least two other reasons to enroll a four-year-old boy in dance classes that would make total sense and raise no eyebrows, so it’s interesting in that the detail he gives about it is so specific). I’m not saying his statement is false, just saying that the pattern of explanation he’s choosing is very suggestive and tends to say something about him.

    However, if it is true that he started at four, and that’s the datum that I think is most solid in this statement — and he has the average memories of a human — that means it’s unlikely that he has very many personal memories that precede dancing. (Again, resorting to the personal — I have wondered if dancing for him is like praying for me. As ambivalent as I sometimes feel, it’s highly developed in me, it often gives me great joy / pleasure, and it’s something I can’t imagine my life without in that my life has always had it.) This is not to say he doesn’t like dancing — obviously he sticks with it in a setting where no one would have made him continue, so he must enjoy it — but simply that it was also practically laid in his cradle, whatever the reason(s) for that. I also think there’s an observable pattern in his life in some ways of sticking with something until it becomes untenable for whatever reason — whether that’s dancing, classical theater, mousy brown hair. I read him as more of a reactor than someone who proactively or aggressively seeks change.

    I also think he is really reticent about expressing disappointment of any kind — almost as if it would be arrogant to say, I really wanted X and I didn’t get it / wasn’t good enough. It’s sort of hard to imagine the Richard Armitage we can see saying something like, I loved to dance as a child and bugged my mom to get into a stage school and then pursued a career in dance, the art form I liked most, and it didn’t work out. Saying something like that would involve both more openly expressed desire than is typical for him, and also the potential for embarrassment (I dreamt of dancing professionally but I wasn’t good enough to headline). I actually don’t think that’s what’s going on here — I’m more of the opinion that despite his ambition, he didn’t think very actively about what specific arts career he wanted but tended to go with what presented itself and fit with his skills at any given point. Which means he has a lot of skills.

    Also, if we read the Armitage family as concerned about work / future issues for their kids at an age that’s slightly early for the more solid middle class — making sure they are equipped to earn a living (this is a story I know from my own family) — and looking at their skills realistically, what’s teenage Armitage’s best thing? He’s a bit shy, not a self-promoter, not likely to be the super-academic, given the technical proficiency required for a career in cello performance he’s possibly behind schedule and so it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to go that route, but boy, that kid can dance.

    What I would say about both flute and dancing — it’s clear he can’t have been saddled by worries about what is perceived as masculine, at least not enough to keep him from pursuing these activities. It probably helped that as he turns into adolescence, he goes to a school where everyone is interested in those things, so he’s not likely to be hassled by the kind of kid who thinks everything artsy is effeminate. It’s like he got to go to a school where everyone was in the theater / music / arts crowd. (Servetus is also envious there).

    • Yes, I remember that quote about starting at a very young age to correct pigeon toes. So he may well have been set on that path for mundane reasons and stuck with it because he enjoyed it and was good at it. When I think if young Richard dancing I always think of Billy Elliot. It certainly makes an amount of sense. You have to start with ballet like dancing at a young age to become good enough to do it professionally and Pattison’s probably wouldn’t have accepted him without previous skills.

      • Re: getting into Pattison’s — currently they have an audition day where they ask you to prepare some short moves, so I assume that would have been similar in the past.

        I think, if he’d wanted to pursue the cello, Pattison’s wouldn’t have been the route to go. With kids who seriously want to pursue proficiency in musical instruments, you usually seek out the best private teacher you can, or a school with great private string instruction, which Pattison’s does not seem to be. And it seems unlikely from things he has said that he was actively interested in drama before he attended Pattison’s and was required to confront speech / elocution.

        • No. Pattison’s is a school that prepares for a career in musical theatre or if that doesn’t work, as a dance teacher. IIRC it used to be called Pattison’s dance academy.

          • RAO gives it as “Pattison’s Dancing Academy”. Sounds cool. I wonder if he has a diploma that says that on it 🙂

            • I don’t think he left without without that. He doesn’t seem to be the type to leave school without getting a diploma and run away with the circus instead.

              • no, I can’t imagine he would either, I meant it would be neat to have a diploma that said *that*. My HS diploma says “[name of place] High School”

                • Not sure diplomas are really a British thing in the sense of a graduation certificates.

                  • you don’t get a piece of paper that states you completed the course of studies?

                    • I have O and A level certificates issued by the examining body, the University of London but nothing from Ricards Lodge High School. I think that is still the case over here. Examining bodies are independent of schools.

                    • So what do people do who don’t finish school? Is there some kind of record that they took classes or something? Not a diploma, necessarily — a transcript or something?

                    • No, it is all down to nationally recognised qualifications. However, these days there are such a plethora of them that I wouldn’t have to be an employer discerning the value of some them.

  18. […] are links to Preface (explains the series); Part I (Richard Armitage’s family background, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and early […]

  19. […] available is this one at Richard Armitage Online. Previously: Preface (explains the series); Part I (Richard Armitage’s family background, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and early […]

  20. […] I didn’t go back to my writing very carefully — but I wrote more this year than ever, which, considering what an awful year it was emotionally, makes me feel like I stood up to a lot of the challenges that were testing me and even if I didn’t win, I held my ground. Significantly, I wrote more that I was proud of for various reasons, especially my series on Mr. Thornton and the things I wrote about desire. And I finally started blogging an interpretive Richard Armitage biography. […]

  21. Today I added three proposed revisions to my original version of Armitage’s biography as postulated here, detailed separately from the original text at its conclusion.

  22. Your interpretive biography was quite interesting. As I finished reading the above commentaries, I couldn’t help but wonder if the phenomenal popularity of the musical Grease in the late 70’s/early 80’s might not have influenced his interest in dance and the pursuit of an “artsy” career in musical theater?

    • I think that’s entirely possible. He’d have been taking dance lessons for a couple of years already by the time he heard that music (if his account of starting lessons at age 4 is accurate) but I certainly remember how popular it was at the time it came out (I was a child, too) and how much kids in the US were interested in it. The soundtrack was practically on constant replay at our house. So it certainly might have been a contributing factor.

    • Oh, and: thanks for the comment and welcome!

  23. RRelate a lot to the kind of middle class but highly moral upbringing, academia and literary background, also merciless teasing and flying under the radar. Definitely creates a mix of humility and goundedness you see in Richard.

  24. […] is Richard Armitage for me, for you? One of the most obscure parts of Armitage’s life is his childhood, and fans I know whom I’ve talked to have spent a fair amount of time speculating and […]

  25. […] the topic. Inter alia, some texts are confessional; some informative; some analytical; some biographical; some persuasive; some poetic; some fantastical; some erotic; some satirical; some programmatic. […]

  26. […] the context around them gets larger and more diffuse. There are a few things I might change about my biography of him, given new data, but not many. I have always been reading and watching to find the divergent data […]

  27. […] based on what we know, where exactly the young Richard Armitage stood on the line between being a reluctant dancer or an eager one; dance lessons at four for pigeon-toes, a bunch of kids in the same street who participated, a move […]

  28. […] provision that I have undertaken with increasingly mixed feelings). All of the posts — the biographical ones, the psychological ones, the analytical ones, the fanciful ones, the joking ones, the sexy ones, […]

  29. Reblogged this on Better a witty fool.

  30. […] Pattison’s College in Coventry at the age of 14 as a weekly boarder, and left at 17 (we have spilled a lot of words over this and we think that that means spring of 1989, because he would have turned 18 that fall). In 1987 […]

  31. […] topic always intrigues me. (If you’re interested in what I made of it four years ago, click here; I’d revise some of that now in light of information that has emerged since then, and […]

  32. […] the entertainment press is a lie, either. The trick lies in discerning the useful information. I started to try to do this with Armitage a while back, and I’d still like to […]

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