'In the Nick of Time' Publication Date - 30 June 2016
From the moment he exploded onto our screens in 1985 as 'Nasty' Nick Cotton, uttering the infamous phrase 'Alright, Ma?' John Altman changed the face of TV villains for good. As one of the show's original cast members, he is much admired for his role as the leather-jacket-wearing, chainsmoking son of Dot Cotton in the long-running BBC soap, EastEnders, a role that spanned thirty years. Since appearing in the very first episode, he has been at the heart of the show, his character central to many famous storylines, to the extent that he was also given his own spin-off episode, The Return of Nick Cotton, in 2000. But there is far more to John's story than Nick Cotton. This searingly honest autobiography traces the colourful childhood of a desperately shy and art-loving boy growing up in a loving household where he was encouraged to follow his dreams. But there was always something pulling him to test the boundaries - as a teenager he managed to get himself arrested for drug possession on the way back from a gap year in India, and the experimentation didn't stop there.Yet for all the tales of acting in film, theatre and television, and the people he has known and worked with, there was once a darker side to John's story. For it was the descent into alcoholism that was to test him the most. It cost him his marriage and almost his sanity, even while his own battle with his demons allowed him to shape Nick Cotton into one of the most memorable soap characters of our times. Now, for the first time, John tells it as it is, in his own inspiring words: the highs and the desperate lows and how, finally, he conquered his addiction for good.
Extract from Chapter One
I have often said, ‘If it wasn’t for Adolf Hitler, I probably wouldn’t be here.’
On 2 October 1944, 25-year-old Jack Whittington was flying a Spitfire south of Wuestwezel in Belgium. It was his second mission in two days and although he had now become an instructor – having survived so far in World War II – he stood in for someone who couldn’t make the operation.
Tragically while strafing German railway lines he was shot down and left my mother, Tina Florence Schofield, a war widow. At the time they had a daughter, my half-sister Maxine, who was just five years old.
The son of Lewis, a butcher and builder, and Georgina Whittington, Jack and my mother were teenage sweethearts from Lake and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. They had married in a chapel and went through most of the war together, travelling all over the UK. My mother recalled surviving a run through the blazing streets of Portsmouth, a sailor carrying Maxine in his arms. She and Jack had met at a local dance (mother sang popular tunes of the time in a jazz band). Jack was great fun and a good footballer too.
His death was a second great sadness for my mother as she had lost her own mother, Florence, to cancer two years after her birth. My mother is a strong woman though and despite what she went through, she has always had a bright and kindly, friendly and loving nature.
My sister, Maxine, finally visited Jack’s grave with her husband, Colin, 60 years later, on 20 April 2004 at Schoonselhof Military Cemetery, Antwerp, Belgium. The inscription on his headstone read: ‘Just a thought, true and tender, of one we loved and will always remember’.
Maxine was a war baby, travelling the length and breadth of the country while my mother kept the family unit together as best as she could. But she was now a war widow with a small child to support, as were so many, with the added sadness of having no mother of her own to turn to, but Aunty Mora (Florence’s sister) gave her all the love and comfort that she could.
My mother and her sister, Mamie, had been brought up on the Isle of Wight by their Aunt Mora and Uncle Charlie Baker, at 195 Sandown Road, Shanklin. Their father was Johnny Schofield junior. When I was born, he was delighted as I was the first grandson. He’d had three daughters himself: Mamie, Tina and Yvonne. Johnny was part of the theatrical side of the family. A character actor, he played pantomime dames and had bit parts in Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit and old war films such as The Cruel Sea and Went the Day Well? In the latter he died a hammy death in a churchyard. I like to think that I took after him in catching the acting bug.
After my mother was widowed, the only choice she had was to go back home to her Aunt Mora – whom I also knew as ‘Aunty Mora’. Mora was like a second mother to Mother and was much loved by my sister Maxine and they always remained close. A star of pantomime and music hall all over the UK, in her day she had been a petite beauty, who sang like a nightingale. Later she saved up threepenny bits for my brother William and me. In the evenings she would sit at her dressing table, combing her long silver hair, before she handed us coins when we said goodnight.
For my mother, being back in the Isle of Wight where she and Jack had first met must have been a sad experience but also ultimately healing in the care of her aunt. Seeing all the places they had been together, even going to the local butcher, must have brought it all back as that was where Jack had worked before he was called up. My mother passed some time during the late 1940’s working as a hairdresser, being a single mother and in need of money, but her main role, as she saw it, was to be a good mother – and she was. She and Maxine were enveloped back into Mora’s household. She buried her sadness and got on with life. That’s the way it was then. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to be any other way. It seems to me that the generation who lived through the war nurtured great strength and spirituality, more so than many people do today.
My mother first met my father, Cecil Clarkson Stewart, in 1949 at the Green Man pub, in a little village called Hurst, near Reading, in the Berkshire countryside. She had made the trip from the Isle of Wight to visit her sister Yvonne Green and her husband Frank as my cousin Louise had just been born. Later, during that same trip, when my mother needed a bath, Aunty Yvonne (who didn’t have one) asked Cecil if they could use his. He lived nearby in a house called Little Hinton with his widowed mother, Frances – known as ‘Fanny’. Cecil and my mother stayed in touch after she returned, and before he eventually visited the Isle of Wight to be introduced to Mora.
For a year they courted before getting married in a registry office and honeymooning in a caravan in Seaford, Sussex, and then settling down to a life in the Berkshire countryside. It wasn’t always easy – a forty-something bachelor who lived with his mother and a young war widow with a child, but somehow it worked. My father accepted Maxine into the family but they were never close. She never called him Dad, he was always ‘Uncle Cecil’ to her and she moved out of the family home at the age of seventeen, going on eighteen, when she became a nurse at The Rowley Bristow Hospital in Woking.
In later years Maxine and I became close although when I was young she referred to me as a ‘little beast’ – I once painted her bedroom window ledge with her nail varnish. Despite the hardships of her early days she went on to marry her childhood sweetheart, Colin, and made a great success of her life. He used to take her out on his motorbike when she still lived at home and I remember the scent of his leather jacket on a cold winter’s night in the kitchen. Although they broke up they still kept in touch. Years later in 1961 they met up again and realised how much they still loved one another, married in 1962 and now they’ve been together for something like fifty years. They have two sons, Andrew and Sean, and four grandchildren, Alexander, Sebastian, Christian and Genevieve.
Grandmother Frances (Fanny) was pretty easy-going and the domestic scene was fairly harmonious given that it could have been potential minefield.
I suppose my father was a bit of an enigma to me in many ways. Very much the old-fashioned gentleman, he would raise his hat if he stopped to say hello to a lady on the village high street and firmly believed in the old saying ‘Ladies first’. My brother and I were taught to hold doors open, pull out chairs and always treat a lady with respect, such as walking on the roadside of the pavement. the roadside of the pavement. As I’ve said, my father came to marriage and children late in life, his early-forties, but he adapted fairly well even though there were many rigid habits for my mother to break. One in particular always amused me. Every Sunday, he would gently touch the side of his dinner plate with his thumb and forefinger to check that it had been heated in the oven. He didn’t say a word but my mother would see him and say, ‘Yes, Cecil, I did heat the plates.’
John at a book signing at WHSmith, Bluewater, Kent
9 July 2016