Charlie Hardwick: 'Miss Harrison opened the world up'

The Emmerdale actor's art teacher showed her the life-enhancing importance of self-expression and the visual arts

Charlie Hardwick

When I think back to my school days, I shudder.

I loved school up until the age of 13. In middle school, I was a confident, diligent pupil. It was in the 1960s and I was taught art by Miss Harrison. 

She was young and she was enthusiastic, and she was modern and she wore little dresses, and she was kind of fashionable. She wasn’t an old-fashioned person from my hometown: she was a modern woman. 

She was quite a character, and she was quite powerful. She wasn’t a pushover; she wasn’t a soft teacher. But her enthusiasm and her encouragement was incredible. I was inspired by her.

My absolute passion

Art was my absolute passion in life: just give me a bit of paper, and I’d be happy. I drew, I painted all the time. Miss Harrison used to just let me come into her classroom when she was tidying up, so I could continue with my projects. 

I gave it my absolute all. I was sure it was what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to art college after school. Not that I knew anything about it, but it was like: if I can continue doing art, I’d somehow try to make a living out of it and take it as far as it can go. 

Her art room overlooked the field, it was a little modern building where the atmosphere was about the art. Instead of being stuffy, it was light and open. All of that positivity and focus and hard work, discussing colours, discussing methods, discussing art on the walls. It was just – it was vibrant and alive, and filled with possibilities.

I remember working on this painting for what seemed like years, and I’ve still got it. I met Miss Harrison not so long ago and she gave me the painting back – it had been hung up in the staffroom at the middle school.

High school was a slightly different experience. The art teacher was not as enthusiastic. The character I’m playing in Ackley Bridge, I drew a lot from my art teacher in high school: she was just so obstructive, and said that I wasn’t good enough at art to do it at any kind of professional standard. She refused to put me in for the exams: that was the end of my art career dreams. And I think my attitude towards school reflected that.

Where Miss Harrison opened the world up, and took me by the hand into it, the teacher in the high school slammed the door shut in my face.

Saved my life

When I saw Miss Harrison recently, she was great. She talked about how much she loved having me in the class, how much she loved the art that I did, and that’s why she’d kept this picture all these years. So it wasn’t just that I had a nice teacher, and then I had a proper teacher in the high school. It was about promise. She saw great promise in me as a visual artist.

You know, the arts saved my life. In the high school, we had no provision for drama or music, and I wasn’t allowed to do O-level art so couldn’t continue in that vein. I was completely denied access to the arts. I left school aged 16 and got a job in an office. 

At 19 years old, I found myself in a little local youth theatre, set up to encourage working-class kids who didn’t have access to the arts. 

The night that I went there completely changed my life. The people there said: you can go to university. And it was like, university? Why would I go to university? They said: you could study drama. I thought people only went to university to go on to University Challenge. I’d never met anyone with a degree before. 

I was encouraged to go, and I got a first in drama and music and did visual art as a sideline. Thank goodness. That saved me, but school failed me and failed every other kid in Wallsend who could have had  not only a career but, in terms of mental health, that outlet, that creativity. There was none. 

And I see it now. So many kids are being denied that pleasure in life, to stimulate the imagination and be involved in that creativity. It is so vital for good mental health. There’s a contradiction: let’s put a lot of emphasis on mental health, but then denying young working-class kids access to the arts. It’s just absolutely crazy. It’s entirely detrimental. The arts are seen as a luxury and a playground for the rich, and that’s just so unjust. 

Charlie Hardwick was speaking to Kate Parker 

CV

Born: Wallsend, 1960

Education: Central Middle School, Wallsend, Burnside High School, Wallsend 

Career: Charlie Hardwick is best known for playing Val in Emmerdale from 2004-17. She’s currently starring in Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge, as Sue Carp. 

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