The House Where I Grew Up
David McCallum: Hampstead Garden Suburb

by Elisabeth Dunn
Daily Telegraph Weekend Magazine

Nov. 30, 1991

In the Free Church Hall at Hampstead Garden Suburb, in London, during the early part of the Second World War, a Sunday school production of the nativity is taking place. It includes a scene where a little boy describes to his grandfather the entry of Jesus into the City of Jerusalem.

In the adrenaline-charged tension of the first (and, indeed, only) night, the old man speaks his second-act lines in the first-act scene. With an aplomb beyond his years, the child ad-libs his second-act lines, guaranteeing his star status within the company. At this moment, it dawns on nine-year-old David McCallum that acting can be a lot of fun.

He grew up to become the sex symbol from UNCLE, which was also a lot of fun, to marry first Jill Ireland, which was more difficult, and second, Katherine Carpenter, with whom he has lived in New York for more than 20 years. Work--Mother Love and Trainer for television and, currently, a musical version of Lewis Carroll's The Haunting of the Snark--has brought him home to Hampstead Garden Suburb and to visit briefly the clipped-privet orderliness of Number One, Erskine Hill.

During the war, the family returned to London after a period in Scotland, where McCallum's father, a distinguished violinist who had had his own radio programme called My Violin Speaks To Me, had been the leader of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. McCallum senior joined the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the cultural counterpart of Ensa, and spent his war cheering the spirit of the workers in factory canteens.

"I went round with him," his son recalls. "We went to one factory where they made the blades for Mosquito propellers--a hush-hush world which was very exciting. Later on, my father taught Stewart Grainger so that he could mime as Paginini in The Magic Bow.

Number One Erskine Hall was--and remains--a comfortable house where, as the younger of two brothers, David lived his private life in the smallest of the three bedrooms, his ear tuned to the dropping of bombs so that he could time his flight from his own room into his parents' bed before the impact.

A thread of Calvinism linked the artistic McCallums to their Scottish roots. "It wasn't too strong, but it was there. I used to cut out lots of pictures of girls from What's On magazine and I got a few out of The Naturist, where schoolboys of the day learnt about the female anatomy. My father discovered my notebook with these pictures glued into it and gave me stern lecture on this being not a healthy thing to do. Very embarrassing."

McCallum won a scholarship to University College School in Hampstead. he discovered recently, with a slight shock, that the school houses are now named after teachers who prepared him for matriculation. His fans from UNCLE might be similarly shocked to find that Ilya Kuryakin is 58.

He was very close to his mother--'she was one of those easy-going nest-builders, a superlative cook who made everything cosy and comfortable and secure'--with whom he would do the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle while his father made the morning tea. A musician herself, she taught him to play the oboe and, on one fateful occasion, sent him down to the Free Church hall to stand in for her at a concert engagement.

"I picked three pieces of music and rehearsed them with the pianist before the concert and I put them in order: three, two, one. I played the last one first. So I rearranged it. He, of course, rearranged it too and I just ran out of the room. Years later my mother told me she felt she'd really let me down. I said she'd taught me the best lesson of my career--never appear in public unless you know precisely what you're doing."

He had never really felt happy as a musician anyway. His classes at the Royal Academy of Music left him feeling inadequate to the task. He got from music none of the charge derived from the applause which, he says, greeted his performance as the Prince in King John at the Free Church Hall. "That made me feel as though I'd come home."

He has had to learn resilience through his divorce from Jill Ireland and his initial estrangement from their children, through her recurring cancer and her death last year, which followed closely on the death of their adopted son Jason.

"I think an ordered existence in childhood is very important. You know the rules; this is what you do; this when you go to bed; these are the commandments. Then you know how to make your own rules.

"There are bits I missed out on--I never went cruising or hung out, as they say nowadays. I never went in for group teenage behaviour. But I've never outgrown my childhood. I don't feel there are stages in my life that have shaken the original foundation. I sometimes feel the entire building has been knocked down and I've built a new one and the architect of the current building is Katherine.

"The strangest thing was trying on a wig for The Haunting of The Snark, this long, dark wig: I looked in the mirror and there was my mother, staring at me. I said:"Hello, Dorothy." I had never realised.'