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1957 - 1963: travelling in Europe

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Jan. 1st, 1970 | 04:00 am

Michael left Haverstock Comprehensive School in Summer 1957.

He seems not to have done National Service, though this wasn't phased out until around 1960.

I asked Sean McCormick, whose uncle, Dan Bush, knew Michael in the 1960s: "Do you happen to know why Michael didn't do National Service? Was he considered unfit, or did he go to the Continent to avoid it?"

Sean replied: “Europe, I believe.”

Some of what Sean has told me was learned from Michael himself, and some of it came via Dan Bush; it is possible that Michael had other reasons for being in France that he didn't want to discuss, in which case he may have let Dan think he was avoiding National Service.

Michael's childhood friend Baz remembers Michael having very poor eyesight, even as a child, and says: "The call-up in those days required draftees to have – if not 20-20 vision – good eyesight, that may have to be aided by glasses under certain circumstances, reading and sighting firearms. It is my firm belief Michael did not go to Paris to dodge the draft. I suggest he failed the medical through poor eyesight."

From 'X'-Films Interview: 1973 “I was living in Paris for about a year, just bumming around if you like, just drifting about …”

From TV Times: 8 February 1973:

"I left school when I was 17 or 18 with little idea of what I wanted to do. I think this would be true of most people if left to their own devices. Most of us are channeled into various functions, for better or for worse.

This is how things are constructed, but you always get the odd one who slips through, who doesn't fit too well. I mean, people either find something they like doing or they end up gangsters or just plain bums. It comes down to that, doesn't it?"

This seems a strange way for Michael to speak of himself, considering his glittering school career as described by schoolfriend H. He was a Prefect, then Head Boy, good at sports and academically gifted. Something seems to have happened between 1957 and 1960, to change him from the confident, out-going young man H. knew, to the "man of few words" Harold Chapman remembers from the Paris days.

He tramped around Europe. "I drifted from country to country, washing a lot of dishes, but I ended up spending a lot of time in Paris where everybody goes to find their way.

When I was there, the beat thing was quite new. I lived in an hotel in the Latin Quarter which was full of the beat celebrities of the day: Ginsberg, Burroughs. [The legendary "Beat Hotel"] They were held in considerable awe, but I don't think I ever said more than 'bonjour' to them."

From: Petticoat interview 6 October 1973

Before [he became an actor] he did a variety of odd jobs, working in restaurants, as a house cleaner, building site labourer – even as a model in Paris. He spent a year in Paris, living in the student section, near Boulevard St. Michel.

“Paris has a wonderful communal feeling to it,” he says, “it’s a great place for meeting people, or for just sitting around talking.”

He didn’t feel he was much of a success as a model. “I was as stiff as a board and I couldn’t overcome my sense of the ridiculous. I was a clothes hanger, an object, not a person.”

It is not clear from the way this article is written, whether the various jobs he tried were on the Continent or in London, either before after he got back home.

From Susie Morgan, who has been contacted by one or two people who met Michael:

"One woman, I think from one of the Slavic countries, had known him from before he got into acting, when he was travelling around France ... What I remember was she said he was a very deep thinker, very thoughtful but even then a little troubled."

From Michael's friend from the 1980s, Sean McCormick:

"In 1959 (just out of high school) my dad and his best friend (since they were 12 years old) Dan, hitch-hiked across Europe together, starting in Norway, working on a family farm and eventually ending up in Spain.

There, they decided to part ways ... Dan landed finally in Paris, circa 1960/61 where he shared a flat with another Yank, and a very intense Englishman named Michael Gothard.

Together they scrounged for food, bummed around, and got hooked on jazz and heroin.

After a year or so, Dan went back to the States.

Michael stayed, and I believe the third guy was killed in a drug deal in New York City.

Well, Michael and Dan remained friends and continued to correspond."

Michael Gothard in Paris, circa 1960

Photo courtesy Sean McCormick.

Research by Belsizepark:

"... When I researched published material of the Beat Generation I came across the photographer Harold Chapman who lived at [The Beat Hotel] from 1957 – 1963 when it closed.

I could find a contact form through the town where he lives. His response was positive. He could remember [Michael Gothard] and shared the information that Michael had a café in London."

Harold Chapman's memories of the times he met Michael in Paris and London can be found here here.

On seeing these photos from The Beat Hotel, taken by Harold Chapman, Sean's Uncle Dan (Dan Bush) replied, "Yep, I knew most of these cats..."

An extract from a press book for "Up the Junction" paints a somewhat different picture of Michael's time in Paris:

"After leaving school, Michael went to Paris and studied French culture at the Sorbonne. ... on holiday from University studies in Paris, [he] was persuaded by a friend to take part in a home movie he was producing with a cheap ciné camera. Michael was so good that he took over the lead in the mini-film and so impressed his friend that the latter asked him why he didn’t take acting up professionally. Michael decided to throw up his studies and do just that. He enrolled at the Actors’ Workshop in London – and has never looked back…"

It has been suggested that Michael may have listened in to the courses at the Sorbonne as an "auditeur libre" (non-registered student). He wouldn't have got the degree - just listened to the teaching.

However, it is also possible that the people who wrote the press book felt that "studying at the Sorbonne" was a more acceptable way of describing Michael's activities in Paris than washing dishes, working on building sites, or listening to jazz.

Michael was in London on 21 October 1961, when he was present at his mother's re-marriage. At that time, according to childhood friend Baz, he was working for the Kensington Post as a trainee reporter. Harold Chapman thinks Michael continued to travel between London and Paris, though it is not known for how long; possibly until he began working on 'Herostratus' in 1964, or even longer.

It is not known where he was living when in London. Dan Bush said that when Michael was studying theatre but had not yet landed a film, he was "living in an obscure garret/loft somewhere in the city.”

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