Local History - Bishopston boy: from Bishop Road Primary School to Hollywood superstar – a brief history of Cary Grant

March 24 2022

Cary Grant in Horfield in the 1970s pictured by Alan Griffee

Cary Grant in Horfield in the 1970s pictured by Alan Griffee

Stylish, masculine and immaculately turned out, Cary Grant was the epitome of the debonair male. Or so he became, because as a schoolboy in 1910 at Bishop Road Primary School in Bishopston a fellow classmate referred to him as a ‘scruffy little boy’ and one of his teachers complained he was always ‘making and noise and wouldn’t do his homework.’ Ironic when in the 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby he played the mild mannered and quietly spoken paleontologist David Huxley who was far from that scruffy Bristol schoolboy. 

But by then Archibald Alec Leach had honed his image as the man about town, or as his biographer Graham McCann noted the Bishopston boy had become the ‘epitome of masculine glamour’. When he entered the world of film Archibald wanted a new glamourous name and settled on Cary Grant as it sounded more American. He was to go on to star in a string of box office hits and classic movies with several rated by critics as some of the all-time greats. I give you Hitchcock’s thriller North By Northwest (1959), To Catch a Thief (1955), Notorious (1949), Suspicion (1941) and Bringing up Baby (1938). We all have our favourites, mine being Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Charade (1963) alongside Audrey Hepburn, which some critics called ‘the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.’

But it all started in 1904 at 15 Hughenden Road, Horfield, where he was born, but his upbringing was less than ideal. Archibald was the only surviving son of Elsie Maria and Elias James Leach, a tailor’s presser, who had his wife committed into Glenside mental hospital while later telling young Archie she had died. When he discovered his mother was still alive years later, he returned to bring her out of hospital to support her final years at a house in Linden Road in Westbury Park where she lived until her death in 1973 aged 96. By then his alcoholic dad had married again and had created a new family leaving Archibald psychologically damaged by his early life.

As a child his dad took him to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the annual pantomime and that was the moment his life changed. It’s fair to say he was transfixed. Star struck. He managed to get an evening job as a messenger and gofer at the theatre bunking off Fairfield Grammar School regularly to help out and as time went by, he was helping with the lighting and befriending The Penders who had an acrobatic comedy show. He was expelled from Fairfield and joined the Penders at the age of 15 and so his stage life began.

After touring the UK the Penders travelled to America where Archibald’s skills widened into acting and in particular comedy. After they returned to England he stayed on forming his own comedy troupe and working as a paid escort for wealthy women making the most of his good looks and English accent. A series of jobs, roles and comedy shows followed as the now Cary Grant began to create the suave persona complete with his mid-Atlantic accent that was to serve him so well. 

After appearing in a number of short films in New York he gained attention from Paramount in 1931 and was signed up with a salary of $450 a week – a fortune at the time. The rest as we know is history as he moved up the star system to eventually become one the best paid actors of all time and able to pick and choose roles including turning down the James Bond film Dr No in 1961 as he only wanted to do one movie as 007. 

His films were box office while he was equally famous off the screen for his private life marrying five times and fathering just one child Jennifer in 1966 with Dyan Cannon, who he claimed was his ‘best production.’

He returned to Bristol regularly to visit his mother and to see the old city from where he had sprung. Cary Grant died in 1986 aged 82 after taking ill at the Adler Theatre in Davenport, Iowa, USA, suffering a stroke. Despite being taken to hospital he died a few hours later. Since his death there have been festivals in Bristol to celebrate his life and films, books and documentaries and a statue in Bristol’s Millennium square. Whether he returned to Bishop Road to see his old school to see if his desk was still there, we’re not sure, but he was photographed outside his childhood home in Horfield by Alan Grifee and famously at the Clifton Gorge. 

We’ll leave the last word to Archibald Leach on his screen persona and famous good looks: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.”

 

Harry Mottram