Born in Ireland, James Hayes came to England in 1963 to follow his dream of performing on stage as an actor. The bright lights of London were a far cry from his upbringing in rural Ireland, coming from a working class family in Limerick, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers until he left at 17 to work in a clothing factory.
He says ‘I come from an ordinary Irish background; my father was a bus driver and my mother a housewife. If you’d have told me at the age of 15 that I would eventually be an actor in London with a degree, I would never have believed it.’
A new passion changed the course of his life
It was a chance trip to a local drama group – in the hope of meeting some girls – that sparked James’ passion in life. Discovering a love of theatre and performing, he became intent on following this new path, even setting up his own theatre company with friends. But the lack of professional training in Ireland led him to look further afield, and brought him to London.
James arrived in London with his £25 savings and a pocket full of determination. He started training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1963. He learnt his craft in Repertory Theatre, where he would learn and perform a new play every two weeks.
In 1968 a new door opened when he auditioned for the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic). He found himself sharing the stage with the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Anthony Hopkins and Diana Rigg. In 1980, he began working at the New National Theatre with Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Ian McKellen and Penelope Wilton.
James was immersed in theatre work, working at the NT and the RSC with directors like Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Greg Doran and Marianne Elliott. He toured the world from Shanghai to New York. He has the accolade of performing in more productions at the NT than any other actor – over 50 plays across the decades.
Time to get a good education
Whilst his theatre career flourished, his family grew and his children eventually went to university. It was around this time that James felt that something was missing from his own life.
“I decided it was my time to get a good education. I joined the OU, studying backstage and after my shows had finished. It was hard work. I had to juggle everything – learning lines, rehearsals, performances and OU work.”
Despite the demands on his time, James loved studying: “I enjoyed the OU so much, because it asked me to use my imagination. The challenge was terrific and the breadth of materials so impressive – I still have all my OU study books.”
James achieved his dream and graduated with the OU in 2003 with a BA Open Degree; and the self-belief he gained led him to write his book, ‘Shouting in the Evenings’, a memoir of his 50 years on stage.
He is still working. “Perseverance and hard work” he says “is the answer”.