My best teacher

I enjoyed my time at Chingford school in Essex. I was top of the class in most things and I was heavily into sport, particularly football and running, but my schooling was a bit neglected because of my home situation. My mother was left with three of us when my father died at a young age, so we all started working. I did school plays and, when I was about 11, she replied to an advertisement in a newspaper: "Children wanted for Christmas show".

As it turned out, the advert was a catch to get people to go to a stage school, Italia Conti, which was also an agency. So I went there in the evenings - and missed school sometimes. I wasn't that keen on an acting career. I would have quite liked to have been a doctor. But what else could I do as a boy except deliver bottles of milk?

At Chingford, we had two smashing teachers who took a big interest in the welfare of children after school. One was a maths teacher called Mr Thomas, and he kept up with me for many years after I left. He was getting on in years, and very Welsh. The other was Mr Trafford, who was younger and more sportive. They formed clubs in their own time for extracurricular activities like tennis and snooker, and I was in all of them. They took us to lots of interesting places, such as Windsor Castle and Croydon airport, and taught us to be competitive and to get on with people. They were wonderful.

The school had its own theatre but drama wasn't part of the curriculum. It was something we could do in our own time and a lot of teachers helped with that, too. At school, I always got girls' parts because I had blond hair, blue eyes and a good figure.

When I did professional work, I was really sent up by the other boys. They'd say, "Oh, here comes Clark Gable". Some of the teachers did it, too. When I was working, the child actors had chaperones - usually attractive actresses. Matinees clashed with school time so they'd give us lessons in the intervals when we'd talk about history or literature.

At I4, I passed exams to go on with my education, but didn't avail myself of the opportunity as I was earning a living. In retrospect, I'd like to have gone to university. But in those days, it was difficult unless you had money behind you. As it turned out, I worked with people who were highly intelligent, well read and very encouraging.

The theatre was hard to get into then, therefore you had to learn the job. And I was a nosy little boy. People such as propmaster Charlie Gardner, carpenter Jack Land and electrician Joe Davis, taught me every aspect of the business - from how to join two pieces of scenery together to how to find my lights as an actor. The fact that the stars were so different from my own family was a big lesson as well. By mixing with them, I learned to speak properly.

After the war, when I was invalided out of the army, I drifted back into the theatre and two people in particular were influential. One was a very tough director called Basil Dean, who became one of my greatest friends, which was amazing because I don't like bullies. But he was also terribly sweet and I wasn't afraid of him. He was the first to realise I was good at comedy. He used analogies a great deal, and when he directed me in The Diary of a Nobody, I remember him saying, "You've got a lot of coconuts in this part, don't take too much milk out". In other words, don't overplay it. That was a great lesson.

The other person was actress Kay Kendall. When I got to Hollywood, I learned everything to do with working in top films from her. She was enchanting and afraid of nobody. If there was a crowd of people in a scene, she'd tell me to push to the front and shout the loudest. Kay taught me more about dealing with people than anybody I've ever known: how to put a value on myself - yet not become arrogant.

Actor Leslie Phillips was talking to Caroline Rees

The story so far

1924 Born in Tottenham, north London

1929-1938 Attends Chingford school, Essex

1937 West End stage debut as a wolf in Peter Pan

1938 Film debut in A Lassie From Lancashire

1957 First film, Les Girls

1958 Carry On Nurse, first of his four Carry On film appearances

1959-1976 Stars in radio comedy series The Navy Lark

1960 Doctor in Love, first of his three Doctor films

1985 Small part in Out of Africa signals switch to serious character roles

1996 Joins Royal Shakespeare Company to play Falstaff

1997 Evening Standard Lifetime Achievement Award for film

1998 Awarded OBE

2001 Voices the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

2002 Tours with John Mortimer's play, Naked Justice

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