Mr Bruce and Mr Jennings by Robert Hardy

A veteran Classics teacher and an inspirational tutor gave the budding actor a love of history and a chance to shine onstage
7th November 2014, 12:00am


Mr Bruce and Mr Jennings by Robert Hardy

I attended an old-fashioned boarding prep school called Packwood Haugh in Warwickshire. I was one of those children who was upset about being wrested from the bosom of the family at the age of 8. It was tough but you were expected to get on with it; everybody was sent to such places.

After that experience, Rugby School was like champagne every morning. It was heaven. I absolutely loved it, and was in a very nice house full of very nice people.

Mr Bruce, the Classics master, was extraordinary. By the time I moved into his class, all the young masters had departed to the Second World War so a lot of retired teachers had come back to the school.

Mr Bruce was an ill man who looked like he was going to die at any moment. He had the most terrible difficulty breathing, so he sat throughout class. But he was immensely good at getting students interested in Classics.

One day, he called me and great friend of mine, Tim Hill, over to him. He said: "I want you to do something rather special. I want you to write a Roman newspaper by the end of the month."

And off we went, producing page after page satirising modern newspapers but in the Roman tongue.

I was sloppy, lackadaisical and found hard labour really boring. There was an element of determination to disagree, and if I thought a master had been stupid, I would absolutely say so. I ended up as head of my house, so I suppose I can't have been disastrous.

If a really senior staff member saw you standing in the quad, you could be reported to the headteacher and thrashed in the Birching Tower. It was pretty Harry Potter in those days.

My house tutor, Harold Jennings, gave me an enormous boost in my chosen life as an actor. He was a delightful, easy-going, relaxed man who spoke to all of us in the house and looked after us as equals. It was a very easy relationship. His interest was in what he found interesting in you - not all tutors and masters were bothered.

Mr Jennings gave readings and held auditions for the house play. I shone because I was inclined in that direction - he picked up on that and gave me the most marvellous parts in production after production.

He was both tutor and director, and fostered my inalienable spirit as an actor. I can still hear him saying: "It's fine! Just get the lines, for God's sake!"

Mr Jennings also gave tutorials in classical history. He not only fostered my love of acting, but also bred my fascination with naval history. The subject had previously bored me - it was too much like hard work - but he illuminated it with a wonderful story of the Athenian fleet hiding behind an island until exactly the right moment when an offshore wind would take them fast around its edge and enable them to catch the Persian fleet broadside.

I thought it so clever, so amusing, so fantastic that the Athenian admiral knew his winds and his shores so well. From then on I became interested in Greek classical history, just as later I became fascinated by the world of medieval military archery.

All it needs, of course, is a spark. When you have an ally, off you go. And you do your best, enjoying it all the way.

Robert Hardy was talking to Lily Farrah

History boy

Robert Hardy

Born 29 October 1925, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Education Packwood Haugh School, Warwickshire; Rugby School; the University of Oxford, where he was tutored by C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien

Career Actor, best known for playing Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small and Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter film series. He has also written two books about the history of the longbow, and was appointed CBE in 1981

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