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Mr Snell by Jenna Coleman

The Doctor Who actress travels back in time to remember an intimidating but supportive teacher, who sparked her love of acting

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Mr Snell, who taught me drama at GCSE and A level at Arnold School in Blackpool, wasn’t your typical drama teacher – he wasn’t overt or theatrical in any sense. He’d always ask questions; if you expressed an opinion, he’d ask you why you thought that. You’d have to steel yourself for it and some people found him intimidating. He definitely wasn’t the most popular teacher.

But I personally loved the fact that he treated me as an adult. Instead of telling you what you should think, he helped you form your own opinions.

I’d been dancing from the age of 4, but I gave it up at 16 to focus on acting with Mr Snell. He introduced me to loads of plays; he took us to the theatre and we had a rehearsal space in school, so I would be rehearsing every night. I wouldn’t say I neglected my other work, but I was a last-minute crammer. Fortunately, I’ve got a good memory so I could regurgitate the information and I managed to do well in my exams.

Mr Snell approached things from a different angle. We did a play called Crystal Clear in which I played a blind woman; he put a blindfold on us and we spent the afternoon experiencing what it was like not to see. I even volunteered in a blind home for a while.

'He didn't gush'

He didn’t give much away and it’s only in hindsight I realise that I was always seeking his approval. He wasn’t really a flatterer – he let the reviews speak for themselves or he’d keep casting me in plays to show that he was happy with my work. It’s not that he wasn’t encouraging, but he certainly didn’t gush.

We set up a theatre company with him called “In Yer Space” and we went all over the place – to Wales, the Isle of Man and to the Edinburgh fringe festival. We were completely self-funded, so we operated as a semi-professional theatre company. There were five or six of us and we made our own props and arranged everything.

When I was 16 or 17, we went to Edinburgh to perform for three weeks and it was just like working as an actor before I was an actor. We stayed in flats, we’d drum up an audience by handing out flyers in the streets, we’d put the set together, do the play and then all go out for dinner in the evenings.

I loved school and I was head girl in the last year of A levels, so it was a surprise to the teachers when I said that I wasn’t going to university. I didn’t get into drama school either, so for the first year after leaving school I worked in a bar in Blackpool. It was a risk, but thankfully I had the support of my parents.

I’m still in touch with Mr Snell, although I can’t get used to calling him Colin. He’s retired now but still doing theatre work and he’s very supportive of me. He taught a lot of actors and directors from up North who are now working professionally, including Jonas Armstrong, who played Robin Hood [in the BBC TV series], and Matthew Dunster, who is writing and directing at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

I’m not sure if I’d be working today without Mr Snell. The way he taught me, the amount of theatre we saw, the plays we read and the fact I was acting as an adult at such a young age helped me enormously. He made me feel that my opinions were important and he helped shape them. It wasn’t a teacher-pupil relationship; we were more like friends.

Jenna Coleman was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz.

Born 27 April 1986, Blackpool, Lancashire.

Education St John Vianney Primary School, Blackpool; The St Annes College, Lytham St Annes, Blackpool; Arnold School, (now AKS Lytham Independent School), Blackpool.

Career Actress best known for playing Jasmine Thomas in Emmerdale and Clara Oswald in Doctor Who and Queen Victoria in Victoria.  

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