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Confidence trick

It wasn't until I went to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1977 that I met a teacher, Nat Brennar, the principal, who truly inspired me. Really, if it hadn't been for him, I'm sure I would have become a French teacher.

Acting as a career hadn't been at all considered at my school, Cardinal Manning Secondary Modern Girls School, in Ladbroke Grove, although the headmistress, a nun, had got wind of the fact that I was good at impressions of the teachers. She would sweep into the classroom in her habit and wimple and say: "Marian, I hear you do a very good Mrs So and So." And there, in front of Mrs So and So, I'd have to do my impression of the poor woman which the headmistress and the other girls thought was hysterically funny. I'm sure the teacher didn't.

It was the late Sixtiesearly Seventies. We didn't have drama classes but the teachers used to organise talent competitions which, this being a school for London Irish Catholics, meant there were lots of girls doing traditional Irish dancing. But I was doing sketches, on my own, from Dr Finlay's Casebook - as Dr Finlay and Janet. The headmistress obviously did see a spark of some acting talent but didn't know what to do about it. After she left - I found out some years later she had run off with the local parish priest - I thought to go on to drama school was out of the question. I came from a big family of five boys, with very little money as my Dad was a labourer.

However, my talent at mimicry came in handy at French and I liked the French teacher, Mrs Flood, I think really because she was always so neat and clean and wore lipstick. So I thought, 'well if I can't be an actress I'll be a French teacher, like Mrs Flood'.

Luckily, while I was at training college I got involved in acting in plays and by the time I got my BEd, I knew I had the acting bug and had to do something about it so I auditioned for a postgraduate course at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I knew the audition had gone well, but then I heard from Nat Brennar that I hadn't got in because the local authority wouldn't give me a grant.

I went to see him at Bristol. I was utterly dejected and explained that I had no money and there was no way I could afford to do the course without a grant. I'll never forget him saying to me as I sat slumped in his office, staring defeat in the face: "A painter doesn't paint with dirty brushes does he? Go and clean your brushes up and come back in six months' time and I'll see what I can do."

So I went off and worked backstage in fringe theatres in London and, true to his word, six months later he phoned to say I could have a place. I know he really fought to get me that grant. Bristol Old Vic, at that time, was full of rather well-off, well-spoken, middle-class types but Nat, being a fervent socialist, felt that no one should be discouraged from being an actor because of money. All he said when I asked how he had wangled it, was: "I lied, I told them you had talent."

He was about 60 then, a small frail man with great charisma. He had a wonderfully distinctive rasping voice and always had a cigarette in his hand which he'd be just about to light when he'd get distracted by talking about the poetry of language or Restoration comedy. It would constantly go to his mouth, but it would be half an hour before he'd eventually get round to smoking it.

He loved the theatre and was passionate about the classics. He could also be hard. Our group used to be amazed at the insults he would throw at me, but it was a like a sport between us and I think he treated me like that because he knew I could take it.

He taught me that good acting is really about having the confidence to do nothing and he never failed to give praise when it was deserved. He cast me as Nora in A Doll's House and from him I learned that if your thoughts as an actor are going in the right direction, then the rest will fall into place.

I didn't see him after I left Bristol. I got a job straightaway and have been acting ever since. Then, a couple of years ago I heard he had died.

I'm sure he would be appalled at the way so many drama students now aren't given grants to train, that acting once again is becoming a career for those whose parents can afford it - he was a real champion of the underdog. But really, the best thing about Nat Brennar was that he believed in me and that, I think, is the best gift a teacher can give.

Marian McLoughlin appeared in Castles on BBC1 and in The Fragile Heart on Channel 4 earlier this year. Currently she plays Bron in Born to Run showing on BBC1 on Sundays at 9.35pm

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