It is an image which he has wrapped around him, like a cloak: posh, haughty, rather distant. But, as he plays the irreverent Jack Worthing in another glossy adaptation—the new film of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest—it is an impression he is ready to shatter.
“It is constantly being reported that I went to Winchester,” he said. “But I went to a comprehensive in Winchester. And I seem to have been on the record far too often vaguely condemning the place.
“But as I was always educated in the state sector, I am a big supporter of it. I had some great teachers. When they are working in class sizes of 30 or more it is never easy.”
Mr Firth, 41, whose 1984 film debut as an upper-crust Tommy Judd in Another Country seemed to set something of a pattern, attended the all-boys comprehensive, Montgomery of Alamein. He had arrived after his own parents, history teacher David, and mother, Shirley, who lectured on comparative literature for the Open University, moved the family around with a variety of jobs. They travelled from Chelmsford, Essex, to Winchester, Hampshire, then St Louis in the United States, before returning to Winchester.
“I was not crazy about being at an all-boys school, but I had an English teacher who was an inspiration. She was called Angela Kirby and it was no coincidence that I got an A in that subject after seemingly doing very little work.
“I think that if you respond to a teacher, miracles can happen. Stanley Payne was my English literature teacher, who got me through English lit a year early, after one year under his tuition.
“Norman Peate was my music teacher—and an excellent one—and there was Arthur Newton. All these names— brilliant. You never forget a good teacher. We don’t appreciate them enough at the time.”
The actor, whose film career highlights have included reprising his Mr Darcy role for the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, playing the decent Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient, an Arsenal football fanatic in Fever Pitch and dastardly Lord Wessex in the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, now has two sons of his own.
His eldest son William, 11, from a five-year relationship with American actress Meg Tilly, lives with his mother in the US. His youngest, Luca, aged 18 months, lives with him and Italian wife, Livia, 31, in London. So what education doe he play for Luca?
“I believe in state education,” he said. “It is that first thing that lapsed socialists do—send their kids to the best and most expensive school, no matter what.
“Education must flourish under state spending. I love to see the social mix that it provides for everybody. I do not think it is right that extremely middle-class parts of London have some of the worst schools, because everyone pays to send their kids off somewhere else.
“If everyone sent their kids to the local school, then you would get a representative mix. And the presence of those parents would help the general profile of the school.:
However, he does admit he may have to consider leaving London for the sake of his principles.
Mr Firth confesses that drama was not his strong point at school. “I did not catch fire there, for some reason,” he said. “But I did amateur dramatics locally and fell in love with the whole thing.”
Former head is
Colin Firth may be the school’s most famous alumnus, but he is not a typical Montgomery of Alamein old boy, according to his former headteacher.
Denis Beacham, who was head of the school between 1967 and 1984. prided himself on running a tight ship. In a school named after a dashing war hero, his boys were expected to be men, both on and off the rugger pitch.
“I said to them: ‘don’t whinge, don’t moan, don’t tell me you’re tired. I’m tired too,” said the 80-year-old former head. There are, Mr Beacham adds, many boys he remembers vividly. But Colin Firth is not among them. “He was a somewhat quiet, withdrawn boy, academically moderate. By and large, he passed through school without any colour at all. He made no impact on the school.”
Instead, Firth took refuge among kindly members of the staff. Angela Kirby, in particular, Mr Beacham says, thought the best of every pupil, while Arthur Newton was “a dear old English Fuddy-duddy. He was a wonderful chap.”
Ultimately, though, Mr Beacham believes that Firth would have been happier at a co-ed school. The type of boy who flourished at Monty would be unlikely to turn to acting in later life.
“One chap is a full commander of the navy now—he is commanding a nuclear submarine. I was told by his admiral, ‘your lad has done damn well’.
“We have produced doctors, lawyers, barristers. But it’s Colin firth, Colin Firth, all the time, just because he’s an actor.”