by Patrick Weir
To say that the early years of actor and singer Hugh Maynard’s life were traumatic is an understatement. “Yes, they were tough, sure, but they were all I knew,” explains the 41-year-old. “But they did actually make me question my existence at one point.”
Neglected by his father and abandoned by his mother when only a few months old, Birmingham-born Maynard was to spend almost the first eight years of his life in residential care and enduring a series of failed foster placements. However, at the age of eight he was permanently fostered which he terms as “a life-changing event”.
Maynard was the first black performer to play Sweeney Todd in a professional UK production, which has just ended its run at Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester, and also the youngest actor to take on the role of John Thomas in a 2003 UK tour of Miss Saigon. Since making his West End debut in Jesus Christ Superstar, he has also appeared in Dancing in the Streets, The Lion King, Notre Dame de Paris, Follies and Sister Act.
Experiences in care
Now living in Lincolnshire, he is equally passionate about the welfare of vulnerable young people, devoting much of his time to working for the Action for Children charity and speaking about his experiences in care at seminars and conferences organised by Lincolnshire Children’s Services. He also talks to disadvantaged kids in schools and mentors autistic and sensory impaired youngsters in the performing arts.
Dignified and grounded, Maynard betrays no anger when recalling his time in Birmingham’s children’s homes, where he suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
“Raised in these places, I simply knew nothing different and didn’t question anything until years later when I spoke to professionals about it,” he says. “I do wonder whether the authorities knew what was going on and brushed it under the carpet. And while I can still be emotionally detached at times, I feel fortunate not to have been broken by it.”
“Obviously what happened to me was disgusting, but when I was first fostered I asked to be returned to the kids’ home as I wasn’t being abused and thought I was unloved.”
“I didn’t enjoy my first six foster placements and would play up. So when I talk to parents who are interested in fostering or adopting, I advise them on some of the challenging behaviours they might encounter. Luckily I began to find happiness with my next foster family.”
On leaving his last children’s home, Maynard was asked what he’d like to take with him, a favourite teddy bear or photograph, for example: “I said my surname, which is why I was never adopted.”
Settled with his new family in Torquay, Devon, a young Maynard thrived, joining the Sea Cadets and the Devon Youth Jazz Orchestra. Later he would study at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts before graduating from the Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick, London.
However, Maynard was only in his early 20s when his life was to be disrupted again. Deciding to research his family history in Birmingham, the records there offered some emotionally shattering details.
“I knew nothing about my parents and was full of questions. Why did they give me up? Why hadn’t they looked for me? Where were they? I discovered that my mother had been a prostitute and my father a pimp, which posed the biggest question of all. Was I an accident of love or of work? It’s a question I still ask now when I’m feeling low.” And yet more painful trials were about to test him.
Informed by Birmingham Social Services that his mother had returned from Jamaica and was living in Wolverhampton, the now 25-year-old Maynard was at last about to meet her and some of the members of her extended family, including a half-brother and half-sister.
“I thought ‘this is it, brilliant, and I won’t lose contact with them again.’ My foster family came up from Devon to support me and I dared to hope something good would come of this.”
The meeting lasted seven hours and at the end of it Maynard was shattered. “I was too polite to ask my mum any questions as I didn’t want to scare her off,” he recalls. “But as I sat there neither her nor any of her family explained anything to me. They just saw me as a successful stage actor with a nice voice. They also thought I was rich and asked me for money three times. I was devastated, explaining to them that they were strangers to me and if I helped anyone financially, it would be my foster family.”
Two further meetings brought Maynard no joy, although one experience did help to forge a sense of his own identity. “The last time I saw them was at a wedding and this woman who was apparently my Nan, got up and sang Amazing Grace. Her voice was so raw and heartfelt and it hit me for six. That, I thought, is where I come from. I’m actually glad I met these people, and if I never see them again I’ve had a good life.”
Do good things
This is the message Maynard strives to communicate to young people. “I tell them they can do good things if they want to and be the best version of themselves that they possibly can.”
“In the schools I explain that I didn’t have the best start in life and have had my difficulties since, but you should never give up. Becoming an actor didn’t come easy, and I had to learn to read and write, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to learn a script. There are no guarantees in life but you kids are normal and you can find your place.”
Maynard mentions an autistic boy he mentored and is clearly moved as he recounts the experience. “Kids love technology and I use it a lot with them. I met with a group of youngsters in a church hall and was singing along to songs on my iPad, one of which was Where Is Love, from Oliver Twist. Jonathan latched on to this immediately and joined in.
“I later asked him if he’d like to sing at an event I was organising and he said he would. I assured him that should he change his mind, that was fine. But he jumped into it with such gusto. This was very special for me and my skin is tingling now talking about it. His mum had never seen him do anything like this and they were both thrilled to bits.”
“When I was appearing in Miss Saigon in London, I invited Jonathan and his mum down and showed them around the theatre. I don’t know who was more excited, me or them!
“Speaking with professionals and kids makes me feel very fortunate and I find it so rewarding. And whether it’s social workers, residential child care workers or foster carers, I tell them ‘you’re doing a great job, I’m the outcome of your work so keep doing it.’”