Cecil Dormand by Sir Patrick Stewart

The distinguished actor recalls an English teacher whose generosity in paying for an early drama course kick-started his career on the stage

Jo Knowsley

In my first year at secondary modern school, I don't think I took a class from "Sir" - Mr Dormand - but when I went into the second form I had him for English. It was in one of those early classes that he dropped on to our desks copies of William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

He told us to open them at Act One, Scene One and start reading. We did; silently to ourselves, of course. Sir slammed his hand on the desk and said: "No, out loud. This is a play, not a novel." There and then he cast each of us in a role. And under Sir's direction we began to act.

I was given the leading role of Shylock and, for the first time in my life, savoured the thrill of speaking Shakespeare out loud.

Many such classes followed and during the winter of that year, Sir got me cast as the schoolboy Hopcroft Minor in John Dighton's play The Happiest Days of Your Life, which was being produced by the newly formed Mirfield Drama Club and mostly consisted of staff from the school. I loved playing that part, but I also loved the new, original, almost grown-up relationship that I had with Mr Dormand and the other teachers as a result of that invitation.

Some months later in the spring of 1953, I was summoned to the headmaster's office. With him was Mr Dormand and a man I didn't recognise. He was introduced to me as Gerald Tyler, the county drama adviser for the West Riding of Yorkshire, and he told me that West Riding County Council was instituting an eight-day residential drama course and that Sir had suggested me as one of the first intake.

It cost money to go on that course. But it was only recently that I realised my parents could not possibly have covered my expenses or the fees, and even more recently that I think I understood where that money came from.

It was Sir, two years later, who quietly said to me: "Have you ever thought of being a professional actor, Patrick?" Of course I hadn't, it was absurd. No one from my background, no one with my kind of experience went into professional theatre; I knew no one who had done that. It was a romantic idea and I pushed it aside. But a year later, 18 months perhaps, I heard those words again and as my incompetence as a journalist became only too apparent, I made the decision to follow Sir's advice.

Sir taught my brother and me, my brother's children and their children, and throughout the district of Kirklees there are hundreds, thousands, of young people who benefited from this man's dedication, warmth and inspirational teaching. I was extremely proud to be able to present him with an honorary doctorate when I presided over one of my first graduation ceremonies as chancellor of the University of Huddersfield.

Sir and I are still in touch - although on the day of my investiture he pointed out that "Sir" would now be what he had to call me. Recently, he chided me on the telephone for working too hard and insisted I should take more time off; for a moment I was back in Room 8, Bottom Corridor, Mirfield Modern.

Sir Patrick Stewart was talking to Jo Knowsley

Star pupil

Sir Patrick Stewart

Born: 13 July 1940, Mirfield, West Riding of Yorkshire

Education: Crowlees Church of England Boys' School (now Crowlees Church of England Junior and Infant School); Mirfield Secondary Modern School (now Mirfield High School)

Career: Actor; chancellor of the University of Huddersfield.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Jo Knowsley

Latest stories