There are few places where actors are able to indulge their inner luvvie quite as thoroughly as on the awards podium. All contributors to thespian life – from mothers to cats – have at some time had their moment in the thank-you-speech limelight.
This week, however, it was the turn of a teacher. Accepting the award for outstanding contribution to film at the Bafta awards ceremony on Sunday, Dame Helen Mirren delivered a heartfelt podium tribute to her onetime English teacher, Alice Welding.
“My journey to this place, right here, right now, began with a great teacher, Alice Welding, who died two weeks ago, at the age of 102,” the star of Prime Suspect and The Queen told assembled cinematic luminaries.
“She revealed to me the power of literature, and she recognised my need to live in that world of imagination and world of poetry. She alone was the person who encouraged me to become an actor.”
Mrs Welding taught English at St Bernard’s Convent Grammar, in the Essex town of Westcliff-on-Sea. Speaking to TES for a “My Best Teacher” feature, Dame Helen has previously described her as “gentle” and “small in stature with a quiet voice”. It was Mrs Welding who encouraged her to join the National Youth Theatre.
“How many of you remember a great teacher who inspired you and opened the gate to the path that led you here?” Dame Helen asked the Bafta ballroom. As hands went up, she remarked, “That’s a lot of teachers,” before saying, “So let’s, right now, thank those teachers.”
The camera then panned around the room, as Hollywood stars such as Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie and Leonardo di Caprio applauded their former teachers.
There then followed a brief, perhaps inevitable, digression into luvviedom. “My teachers in film have of course included directors…producers…costumiers, make-up artists, cinematographers, focus-pullers, clapper-loaders,” said Dame Helen. “Drivers especially. That honey wagon, you know, without which we’d all be squatting in the bushes – in fact, I did squat in the bushes quite often.”
But, ultimately, she returned to Mrs Welding, in spirit if not in name, by ending with lines from The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Also at the Baftas, the film 12 Years a Slave won the award for best film. Its director, Steve McQueen, has told TES that he would like to see the book being taught in every school in Britain and the USA.