Bessie Carter: 'Mrs Hatton gave me a taste of drama'

The Les Miserables actor's primary teacher showed her that dressing up and playing was actually a legitimate school subject

Kate Parker

Bessie Carter

Aged 15 or 16, I moved from a private school to Camden School for Girls, a state school. It was the best decision my parents and I ever made.

I had – it sounds so dramatic to call it an identity crisis, but that’s what it was. I was trying to work out who I was, and I was a good student. I was clever and very, very sporty, I was arty and quite musical so I was quite a good all-rounder. 

Because I was experiencing boys for the first time, having no uniform for the first time, that sort of stuff wavered slightly, as my social life took over. 

Ultimately, the goal was always to leave and be an actor and get into drama school, which did eventually happen. 

Dressing up was a legitimate subject

I loved drama, PE; I loved playing cricket. I loved English and I did like maths, which my GCSE result did not reflect, because I got a U and had to resit it in order to stay in my sixth form. 

Mrs Hatton, who was my drama teacher in primary school, gave me my first taste of drama. She made me realise that dressing up and playing was a legitimate subject – an actual class.

It had mainly been me and my two best friends, Ros and Juliet, dressing up and playing in the garden, and I thought that was make-believe. To then realise that actually it’s on the school syllabus – that was very exciting. It was the first sparkle of me thinking I could actually do that, at age 10. 

When I was 11 years old, Mrs Hatton directed the Year 6 musical – I played Henry VIII in Henry the Tudor Dude. That was my first role. She inspired me into believing that theatre and drama were something I could take seriously.

How to have a twinkle in your eye

My number one inspirational teacher was Ken Rea. He was a drama teacher at Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I trained. In the first two years, he teaches a whole clutter of subjects, about six or seven, like chorus, circus, acrobatics. 

In second year, we started to do life skills with him, which was an added bonus class. He’s a renowned life coach for top leading businessmen all over the world, so to have it for free was extraordinary. 

That was when my whole perspective on life shifted. It’s not just think positively and smile and everything will be fine. It was how to be the greatest actor who ever lived, how to have a twinkle in your eye, how to grow into a charismatic person who people want to be around, who people want to watch and what will separate you from the others.

I didn’t really realise at the time just how important he was to me, and to the way that I view life and my goals and dreams and happiness and work. 

His teaching is the stuff I cling to every single day, on good days and bad days. He’s extraordinary. I owe a lot of the way that I am – and my positive outlook on life – to him. 

But also a lot of my acting. I’ve constantly got his voice in his head, saying: “Be warm, be likeable. Even if you’re a villain, there has to be something attractive about you, something sexy about you that people want to watch.”

Work it out for yourself

He’s the most spritely, energetic man ever. We’d be doing chorus classes, and he’s in his Adidas trackies and his socks and he’s dancing around, and he’s the first one to jump up and go: “Right! OK!” 

That makes him sound very hands-on, but he was also very mysterious and has this twinkle in his eye and he’s always sort of...I remember in first year being very frustrated because he was always so ambiguous about your work. He was so: “Oh, maybe you just did this. It could be better,” with a little smile. Then he walks down the corridor, and you’re left going, “What do you mean?” You’re left to work it out yourself. 

He’s the wizard of Guildhall. He’s 70 but doesn’t look a day over 50. He’s taught there for 30 years. He was from New Zealand originally, and I think he was a journalist for a number of years. 

He travelled to China and Japan and studied old forms of theatre; he travelled around New Zealand in a campervan in the 1970s with a travelling theatre company. It just oozes from him that he lived an interesting life. 

Bessie Carter was talking to Kate Parker


Born: 1993, Westminster

Education: Camden School for Girls 

Career: Bessie Carter is an English actor best known for Les Miserables, Howards End and The Good Liar. She’s currently starring in ITV’s Beecham House

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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