AS a young boy growing up in wartime Blackburn, Anthony Valentine had a dream — he wanted to be Gene Kelly.

Every week he and his mum would leave the family home on Infirmary Street and head for the Empire Cinema, which offered a brief escape from the austerity all around them.

Over 60 years on and that young boy with a dream is now a leading actor and patron of what is has become the Empire Theatre.

“As a family we moved down to London when I was six,” said Anthony. “But my early days in Blackburn certainly shaped the person I would become and I’ve never lost my affection for my home town.

“The Empire has a very powerful connection for me. My mother loved the Hollywood musicals and she would take me as a young child every Wednesday to the cinema and, if I was lucky, we would then go as a family when my dad came home from London at the weekends.”

One of Anthony’s earliest memories is of being shot at by a German fighter plane.

“We heard the sound of a plane overhead and everyone came to their front doors to see what it was,” he recalled. “One of our neighbours said ‘don’t worry it’s one of ours’ and then suddenly it flew over our street and opened fire and we all dived for cover.”

Anthony always wanted to perform and would try to impress his father with impromptu dance routines, copying the Hollywood stars he’d seen on screen.

“My dad was a typical Lancastrian,” he said. “I did my routine and he was sat in his armchair and looked over the top of his paper and said to my mum ‘If he’s going to do that, you’d better get him trained’."

At the age of six Anthony left Blackburn for Chiswick and his Lancashire accent immediately caused chaos.

“A bunch of lads were playing football in the street and I went out and said “gives us a kick o' yer ball.” The lads all ran in next door and one shouted 'Mum, the Germans are here'."

Anthony went to dance school as a child and is proud of the fact he is still the second youngest person in England to gain a tap dancing gold medal, when he was just 11.

It was at an end-of-term production of Robin Hood that Anthony got ‘discovered’ by a talent scout for a film in which he played a boy who had a fight with another schoolboy.

“I did two days work and at the end of it I got two large white fivers,” said Anthony, “which was what my dad earned in a week.”

Anthony then started to get regular work as a child actor on BBC radio and a part on a early children’s TV show Whirlygig — and he hasn’t stopped working since.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky that the work has remained pretty constant throughout my career,” he said.

Anthony has worked with some of the biggest names in the business but he stays away from the showbiz lifestyle.

“I’m not really into the party scene,” he said. “I’d rather have a few friends round and enjoy their company and conversation than stand in a room with a glass of champagne waiting for the photographers.”

Anthony has played many high profile roles on TV and most recently he enjoyed a spell on Britain’s most famous soap, Coronation Street.

“Many years ago I went for a part but the producer said that I was a public schoolboy and didn’t have the right accent,” he said. “I had just spent three years doing exercises every day to lose my Lancashire accent.”

In his role as patron of the Thwaites Theatre — he took over from SIr John Mills in 2005 — Anthony has returned to Blackburn on several occasions.

“I came back to watch the films of Mitchell and Kenyon being screened there which was a real thrill as the venue was being used as a cinema, just as I remember it from when I was a boy,” he said.

“There were all these old films of workers in Blackburn and Darwen and I introduced the evening, telling the audience that their grandparents would have paid their tanners to sit in the same building to watch the same films.

"It was quite an evocative experience.”