Anna Massey: 'Lillian moved like a hefty gazelle'

The late actor remembers the elegant, large teacher who made the algebraic quest for 'x' genuinely exciting

Anna Massey

I spent most of my school life at a little school in Chelsea run by two sisters, Dorothea and Lillian Mitford-Colmer. Dorothea taught arithmetic and Lillian geometry and algebra.

Lillian made the quest for what "x" was and the shape of the triangle and the parallelogram so exciting that I excelled in these subjects and often came top of the form. Her lessons were always fun and never seemed like hard work. She taught me to think logically, which has been useful in the hard times in my life.

Like a hefty gazelle

She was a big woman but she thought she was rather elegant, so moved like a sort of hefty gazelle. She had masses of hair swept up at different angles with hairpins which kept falling out, and terrible teeth.

Her sister, as I remember, looked like a kindly witch and always had a drip on the end of her nose.

Both women were probably in their sixties and, although Lillian was younger, she was the headmistress, so we were rather in awe of her. Algebra was her favourite subject and she made it a lot of people's favourite, too.

She had a phenomenally beautiful smile, which she flashed if you found out that x=9 or whatever. She and I had a good rapport because I worked hard and conformed.

Put in the corner

I was a shy and anxious child, but with a terrible temper which never came out at school, only at home with my beloved nanny, Gertrude Burbidge, who was the mainstay of my life and stayed with me until her death in 1968.

My only fault at school was that I never stopped talking. I was often put in the corner or given a detention mark. At my first school, Miss Betts' nursery, I can remember spending much of my time under a table in the corner of the room, which was the punishment for talking in class.

Most of the children at the Mitford-Colmers' school were the sons and daughters of diplomats. There were never more than 10 in a class and, later on, only about five. It was multi-racial and multi-religious. I was in a class with girls from China, India and Japan.

Facts of life

My parents had separated when I was a baby and both remarried. I had breaks when I went to school in America or had governesses, but I spent most of my time with the Mitford-Colmers from the age of 6 until I was 15.

I spent one term at Brillamont in Lausanne, where I was desperately unhappy. I was so miserable, mother got Dirk Bogarde to write to me to try to cheer me up. But nothing would have cheered me up; I just wanted to be at home.

We had to speak French all the time at Brillamont, and I made little progress, but I did learn the facts of life from other girls in the dormitory, something I would never have been taught at school.

After I left the Mitford-Colmers, I was sent to be "finished" in Paris and Rome. In Paris I stayed with Madame Verlet, whom I hated. She was stern and cold and snobbish. I had lessons at the Alliance Francaise in the mornings and in the afternoons went to the theatre. In Rome I stayed with the Grossi family and had a good tutor in Mary Cavaletti, who taught me about architecture and paintings.

In the blood

It was always assumed that I would act, but there was never any plan to send me to drama school. Acting was in my blood. I sat at the table at home and saw plenty of actors acting all the bloody time. I was going into repertory, but then I was offered the leading role in a new play, The Reluctant Debutante.

I had a number of voice teachers who couldn't teach, before Iris Warren came into my life when I was 18 or 19 and showed me how to release my vocal capacity, liberate my imagination and alleviate the terrible panic and fear of stage fright. Her lessons were invigorating.

Rather like an analyst, Iris dealt with all her pupils slightly differently, and I use the exercises she taught me to this day.

Actor Anna Massey was talking to Pamela Coleman

Life of Anna Massey

1937: Born Thakeham, West Sussex (daughter of Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen and sister of Daniel)

1942-43: Miss Hotens' school, Chiddingfold, Surrey

1944-52: Mitford-Colmers' school, London

1955: Stage debut in The Reluctant Debutante

1958: Film debut in Gideon's Day

1960: Female lead in Peeping Tom

Other film credits include: David Copperfield (1970), Frenzy (1972), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

1986: Wins first Bafta for BBC adaptation of Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac

2005: Awarded CBE, May

2006: Publication of autobiography, Telling Some Tales (Hutchinson)

2011: Died from cancer, aged 73, July

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