Skip to main content

My best teacher

The story so far

1938 Born in Darlington

1952 Attends Fettes College

1958 Attends Rada and

continues acting until 1972

1965 First play 'The Return Tick-

et', starring Sybil Thorndike

1974 First novel, 'The Garden of

Eden', published. Adapted in three

parts by Yorkshire TV

1980-81 'Barriers', a 20-episode

drama, broadcast by Tyne Tees

1990 'The Steps up the Chimney',

first book of the 'Magician's

House' quartet, published

1999 BBC dramatises the first

two books of the 'Magician's

House' to air at Christmas

2000 Wins Emmy award for chil-

dren's and young people's televi-

sion. BBC dramatises the third

book of 'Magician's House', which

finishes this Sunday

I grew up in Saltburn, where my parents owned a ladies' and gentlemen's outfitters. I suffered badly from asthma and my parents took me to a specialist in Edinburgh, who thought it would be good for this sickly youth to be sent north of the border, where the weather would "kill or cure".

So I was sent to Fettes College, which I loved because I had been unhappy and homesick at my prep school in Ripon. We were beaten there and I was very scared. I didn't tell my parents because I knew they were making sacrifices to do what they thought was the best for me. I did tell my father later in life, though, and he said: "The awful thing is you used to cry all the way to school and your mother used to cry all the way back."

I think I spent most of the first term at Fettes, which was freezing, in the sanitorium, although most of it was probably psychological. But then I discovered the art room. Although Fettes was strong on rugby, it wasn't all hearty; it was also good for art and drama - because there was this teacher called Edward Gage.

We called him Teddy. I thought he was an old, grown-up teacher, but he was only 28, and from the moment we stepped inside his art room we were no longer schoolchildren and teacher. He gave us the sense that we were equals, and that has stayed with me. People think I write books for children, but I no more write books for children than as a child I wanted to read books tailor-made for children. I write for children and adults as equals. That came from Teddy.

I was a late developer a a reader, but made huge and sudden leaps in my later years at prep school. I went from reading Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree to the thrillers of Ngaio Marsh. I wasn't born to be a schoolboy - I suppose I spent a lot of time waiting for the day when I could leave. I wasn't very good at knuckling down to subjects I wasn't interested in.

Reading Marsh gave me a liking for the idea of a gin and tonic, for real grown-up life. I was intrigued by the prospect of a "gin and it". I never tasted it then, of course, but I liked the idea. My horrible prep school headmaster took away my Marsh books - he said they were inappropriate and gave me Ben Hur to read instead. I staggered through about 15 pages and nearly gave up reading for life.

Being with Teddy was a relief because he was such fun. He loved jazz and did a lot of drama and encouraged us to make our own mark, to be ourselves, not to be sucked under by the group. He prepared me for my entrance and scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. One of the pieces he suggested I perform was an extract from a play by Logan Pearsall Smith, which was a more unusual choice. I can remember it was about somebody sitting at a cocktail party listening to people talking and wondering what was going on in their minds. He had a great spirit and insight and he knew that would appeal to me.

Teddy was a wonderful painter. As a younger man he had lived on Majorca and been a neighbour of Robert Graves. Graves had opened his eyes to the poetry of landscape and Teddy opened my eyes in turn, though I have expressed it through writing. Graves also gave Teddy a love of the Greek myths, and Teddy also gave me a feeling for magic in landscape. I believe we are on the brink of magic all the time, that magic is never more than a hair's breadth away from any of us.

He painted Icarus many times and it was when I was reading at Teddy's funeral earlier this year that I realised the significance of his fascination. Teddy was so exuberant. He had a fervour for life, made us feel that we could go on and do and achieve anything - even a 15-year-old like me, who wheezed with asthma. He dismissed nothing in us. He made us feel that our weaknesses could be our greatest strengths.

Author William Corlett was talking to Elaine Williams

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you