A few days shy of his 16th birthday, a young Ian Cullen moved from his family home in West Boldon to join the country’s most prestigious stage school.
Honing his skills at RADA opened the door of opportunity to a long career which has seen the actor, who began acting as a teenager at Washington Grammar School, enjoy countless roles over the decades.
Audiences will be able to relive perhaps his most famous role – that of PC Joe Skinner in Z Cars – when the BBC drama is released on DVD next month.
“The headteacher at Washington Grammar, at that time, Mr Mather, was very encouraging about all things artistic,” recalls the 68-year-old.
“He said if I got good GCSEs, he would support me for a major county award. At the time you only had to be 16 to start at RADA, they’ve raised that to 18 now.
“It was my 16th birthday at the beginning of term so I started just before my 16th birthday, which was too young really.”
Young he may have been, but Ian showed a real flair for his craft.
It was starring in The Mousetrap in London’s West End in the ’60s which started the ball rolling for him to become a household name.
“I was working in Mousetrap in the West End and I became friendly with an actress called Dorothy Batley. Her son-in-law came to see the play and he asked if I’d be interested in a new programme he was working on called Z Cars, I said ‘of course’ and that was it,” he said.
Though the programme began in 1962, Ian first appeared in 1969. His character was later promoted to Detective and stayed with the show for six years, until he was gunned down in the line of duty in one of TV’s biggest shocks in the mid ’70s. The show is often hailed as one of the nation’s most popular cop shows, but Ian says it was more than that.
“What really made it different was that it was original writing which made a viscous attack on council policies in Liverpool.
“They were clearing the slums at the time and creating these vertical slums with high-rise flats. It was a social experiment which was a disaster and Z Cars showed it through the eyes of the police, it was a social documentary.
“It was wonderful project to be part of. It wasn’t a police series, it was about ordinary people, some doing silly things, some needing help, with a bit of crime thrown in,” said Ian.
It was a far cry from Ian’s early acting days, appearing on stage at the YMCA Little Theatre which used to be in Fawcett Street, Sunderland.
Over the years, he’s appeared in many shows including When the Boat Comes In, Family Affairs, The Bill and Doctor Who.
But he says he has a soft spot for Joe. “Joe was a great character. He was very likeable and the audience he liked him. I’ve played a lot of detectives because of Joe, in many Agatha Christie plays. He’s one of my favourite characters.”
Ian, who has performed in eight West End stage productions, says the series – which ran until 1978, making it one of the longest-running British TV shows of all time – and its stories have stood the test of time.
“I think the whole show was popular because, as Shakespeare said, to be successful you need to hold a mirror up to nature,” he said. “People could see their own lives in the show. It was before even Coronation Street, but that has a similar sort of idea.”
This is the first time that the show has been released on DVD. Ian said: “I’m surprised that it’s taken so long to come out on DVD, but also surprised that it’s come out at all.
“Producers back then never expected shows like this to become popular again and a lot of shows were wiped. It’s been really good fun watching it again.
“The cars and clothes are different now, but I think the stories still stand today.”
• Z Cars will be available to buy on DVD on from September 2. For details, visit www.acornmediauk.com.