Oscar winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley returns to his Yorkshire beginnings
Jo Haywood joins a knight of the realm at the seaside as he enjoys a homecoming with honours PHOTOGRAPHS BY TONY BARTHOLOMEW.
A university degree was never on the cards for Krishna Pandit Bhanji. He was regarded as something of a disruptive influence in the classroom and didn't do well at A level, missing out on a university place and messing up his father's dream of having another GP in the family. But Krishna had dreams of his own; dreams which eventually brought him an Oscar, two Golden Globes, two BAFTAs, a Cinema For Peace Award, a knighthood and, most recently, an honorary university degree. Not bad for a doctor's lad from Snainton.
You might not be familiar with the name Krishna Pandit Bhanji, but Sir Ben Kingsley might just ring a bell. After several embarrassing mispronunciation mix-ups early in his career, he decided a name-change was in order. So, he put together his father's nickname (Ben was easier for Brits to get their tongues round than Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji apparently) and his grandfather's (a prominent Zanzibar spice trader known as King Clove).
He enjoyed a highly successful career on the stage with the RSC, but his breakthrough role, the one that made him a household name, was undoubtedly his supernaturally accurate portrayal of Gandhi in Sir Richard Attenbrough's 1982 epic. Numerous honours followed - the floor underneath his awards cabinet must be made of reinforced concrete - and numerous covetable film roles have continued to fill his CV year in and year out (he's got five films coming out this year alone).
His career as one of Britain's most celebrated actors has taken him around the globe, but Sir Ben has never forgotten the county of his birth. And, it seems, the county has not forgotten him. He returned to Yorkshire recently to receive an honorary degree from Hull University's Scarborough campus, taking time before the ceremony to visit Orchard Cottage in the nearby village of Snainton, where he was born on the last day of December in 1943.
'Returning to my first home was a much calmer experience than I expected,' he said, shortly before the graduation ceremony at Scarborough's Spa complex. 'I recognised it. I didn't remember it, but I did recognise it. I felt a definite connection. I also found it related to the Oxfordshire village I live in now. It actually sits on the same seam of limestone.'
Sir Ben's father was a GP partner at a small practice in Scarborough and the family rented the snug cottage in nearby Snainton before moving across the county border to Salford. 'It was the received idea that my brother and I would follow our father into medicine,' he said. 'My brother did, but I was always the song and dance man in the family.'
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As he had just jokingly offered to bash out a few verses of Moon River on the Spa's grand piano, referring to himself as a humble song and dance man suddenly didn't seem so ridiculous. Performing, whether on film, in the theatre or to a small gathering of eager hacks, is undoubtedly his first love. 'I was four years old when I realised I wanted to be an actor,' he said.
'I saw a film at the cinema called Never Take No For An Answer and I looked so much like the young star, Peppino, that the cinema manager lifted me above the crowd saying 'he's here, he's here'. I remember thinking 'this feels rather good; I like it'. If you can find that film, do watch it, it's quite extraordinary.'
Watching Sir Ben work with people is quite extraordinary too. He gives everyone he talks to his full attention - none of that over the - shoulder nonsense you get from some stars constantly on the lookout for someone more interesting to talk to - and possesses an easy good humour that surprises and delights in equal measure.
A dedicated local celebrity-seeker didn't get a brusque brush-off when he approached Sir Ben in Scarborough. He got a hug, a photograph, a chat about their shared roots and a rousing shout of 'Snaintonians unite!' from the celebrated Oscar-winner. Even us pesky journalists received warm smiles, thoughtful answers and gracious cooperation. You get the distinct impression that this much-honoured man was genuinely happy to be home.
'This is a very important day for me,' he said. 'I can see clearly how Scarborough has increased in confidence and prowess. And the people here are just as lovely as the countryside. They are honest and thoughtful and very welcoming.
'I was only in Snainton for two years. I was a Yorkshire toddler, but apparently that means I can still claim to be a Yorkshire man. That means a lot.'
'I have come back today under extraordinary circumstances. I honestly feel as if I'm being embraced by the place of my birth. It's exhilarating.'
He was also thrilled to be sharing the Scarborough students' graduation day. 'Today, I feel a bracing energy from the sea and a bracing intellectual energy from the students,' he said. 'To receive an honour from my peers is a wonderful experience for me. I hope I deserve it.
'These students are the warrior poets of the 21st century and I am very proud of them. I want to continue my association with the university and with the town. I want to make sure I earn my doctorate.'
Sir Ben was heading off to Morocco shortly after the Scarborough ceremony to start shooting The Prince Of Persia. He obviously enjoys being busy, claiming only half-jokingly that he is due for a rest in 2011, and still enjoys the attention his fame brings as much as the four year old enjoyed being hoisted above the heads of the cinema crowd.
'You don't think this stance makes me look too imperious, do you?' he asked as our photographer arranged him on a wall with the seafront in the background. 'I feel like I should be shouting' Today Scarborough, tomorrow the world' across the bay.'
And with that he was gone. An audience of students awaited another award-winning performance from the county's most celebrated song and dance man. Needless to say, Sir Ben didn't disappoint them.