Walworth’s Johnny Harris walked into Morley College 25 years ago ‘with a burning desire to be an actor’. The £40 term fees were much more affordable than other places he considered, which aided his choice, and because his mum told him to go. He spent the next three years studying there in various acting classes, and this year, after a £3m redevelopment, Morley College renamed their studio theatre after Johnny, writes Michael Holland.
‘Morley College is where my acting journey begun,’ says the star of numerous award-winning works. ‘I’m so glad I went there as it was providence in so many ways; it was a safe place for me where I could go and explore the conflicting and confusing thoughts that were rushing around inside of me…Morley helped me let out the energy I had inside, so it was cathartic, but it grew into an insatiable desire to learn and perfect the craft.’
That craft led to work in some iconic British films, such as London to Brighton, a film made on a small budget that was voted into Time Out’s 100 Greatest British Movies Of All Time and is now regarded as a cult classic.
Johnny has quite rightly been noticed by some of our top directors, with Shane Meadows casting him as Mick in the three ‘This Is England’ TV series, which brought him to the attention of BAFTA. He says that, ‘when I got my first BAFTA nomination the Morley Principal, Dr Andrew Gower, asked me to be a patron, and I gratefully accepted.’ More recently, with a £3m refurb at the college and another BAFTA nomination for his self-penned, starring role in Jawbone, Morley have proposed to rename their studio theatre after their famous alumni.
‘It’s very humbling to have the theatre named after me,’ begins the actor, ‘because that’s the first stage I ever stepped on to, the first place I ever performed, so to go there for the renaming ceremony and see the current students performing in there, watching them go through all the nerves and trepidation and excitement and thrill that I used to go through in that space was a beautiful moment.’ He pauses to look around the studio space. ‘It’s a genuine honour; it was also a surprise and I can’t fully get my head around it, but once I did get over the shock I realised it might be a platform to do some good.’
Some of that good is John promoting the fact that Morley College provides the same tuition that expensive drama schools offer. Plus, the BFI and other institutions are currently looking at ways to help promote inclusivity within the industry to people from poorer financial backgrounds, but Morley College has always had that mindset, so John will get the casting directors and other ‘gatekeepers’ down for the end of year shows to look out for future stars, and is in the process of arranging big name Q&As for the new Johnny Harris Studio Theatre.
He himself is all about inclusivity, saying, ‘we should all be on a level playing field, and if we ain’t then something needs to be fu*king done about it!… And we can all do something, so my small part will be to get industry people down here to make sure the students who have worked hard to be good will get the opportunity to be seen… If one person’s talent and hard work is spotted – that may have otherwise been overlooked – then it will have been a great and beautiful success.’
I can promise that the Southwark News will be there to check out the end of term showcases to support Morley College and hopefully identify some new, great acting and writing talent for the future.
The renaming ceremony was full of friends, old and new, and Johnny had a special mention for the man who taught him during his three years at Morley: ‘Craig Snelling changed the course and the direction of my life… He’s still one of my great friends who I can call to discuss something that comes up in life or on set; I still seek his advice and counsel.’
Johnny Harris forgets no one who has had a positive impact on his life, and with this honour all Morley College students will never forget him.
Photo: Fiona Hart Taylor