An Actor’s Life: Choices – The Post

An Actor’s Life: Choices

Ian nearly chose one of the only professions in which loneliness is a virtue
October 3rd, 2015 7:00 pm| by Ian Burns
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When That Theatre’s production of ‘Marathon’ starts its one-month run later this month, I will be watching from the sidelines as director, but that wasn’t the case during my schooldays, as I once had ambitions to be part of the British Olympic track and field team.

Tartan of the track
It started when I was 15 when I discovered purely by chance that I had a gift for running. I was in the Air Training Corps at the time and ‘volunteered’ by a superior officer cadet to run the 1,500 metres at Brize Norton RAF Air Base.

I arrived at some ghastly hour on a wind-swept and drizzly Saturday morning and, as I stood at the starting line in some borrowed spikes, I distinctly remember thinking: “What’s the point of all this?”

Just under four minutes later I was first across the finishing line and so began a dream of medals and breaking records. I became the best runner at my comprehensive school, followed by the best in Luton, the county of Bedfordshire, and then Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. My status at my school was elevated beyond belief. All of a sudden I became famous.

I joined Luton Athletic Club where I started training more seriously with two of the world’s best marathon runners of the day: Messrs Barry Simmons and Ian Thompson. I grew my hair, wore a tartan hat and went to events all over the country. People knew who I was.

Taming the tiger
My time got faster. Once in Leicester, a very confident and handsome African athlete introduced himself in challenging tones at the starting line. He ignored my proffered hand and said his name was Shere Khan and that all I would see of him during the race would be his neck and heels. I said if he was that good, then good luck to him.

For the first two laps I was a bit worried as he set off like a rabbit, but I began to make up ground and knew that I would be able to catch, overtake him and win the race. I left it until the final bend and then eased passed him with the crowd in the stands chanting my name.

This is what I thought my world was going to be: improve; run; try to get into the British team; and study to be a human biology and PE teacher. Bede College Durham had accepted me regardless of my A-level results.

An actor’s life begins
But then, out of the blue, Dr Martindale, the headteacher at Luton Sixth Form College asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming an actor because of the silence in the assembly hall when he, the teachers and 1,500 students listened to me during my five-minute talks to them as chairman of the College Council every Wednesday morning.

He made me aware of this and when I addressed them over the next few months I discovered that I enjoyed the feeling of holding their attention in the palm of my hands. I applied to a few drama schools. I was accepted at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre and had to make a choice.

My dear old dad told me to follow my instincts. I tossed a coin. “Heads – drama school; tails – PE college.” It came down tails.

“Best out of three!” I said to myself, but then I knew. I sometimes wonder though what would have happened if I’d followed the other path.

Ian Burns


A resident here since 1990, Ian Burns is the artistic director at That Theatre Company and very possibly Copenhagen’s best known English language actor thanks to roles as diverse as Casanova, Shakespeare and Tony Hancock.