My Best Teacher - James Fleet

A family friend who was also a teacher brought history to life for this actor

Mark Anstead

I went to the Banff Academy in a small town called Banff in Aberdeenshire. In my third year, Christopher Hay joined as a new boy and his father, Frank, took over as head of history. I quickly became good friends with Christopher and his father became my favourite teacher. Frank was admired by all pupils because his teaching style was warm and interesting.

It can be a problem for children whose parents teach at their school, and Christopher certainly dropped history as soon as he could, but he was never embarrassed by his father. Everyone admired Frank so much all they would ever say to Christopher was: "You're really lucky, your dad is great."

Teachers at my school were supposed to wear gowns, but I don't remember Frank wearing one. He was informal and his attitude was a contrast with the other teachers. It wasn't that you could be cheeky, but he certainly built a good rapport with pupils.

He wasn't frightened of us - he understood that if children liked you they wouldn't kill you. A lot of the other teachers just slammed us down. I don't know what they were afraid of.

Frank's lessons were never boring. He gave us the facts and details, but he would digress and introduce us to interpretation. He would propose alternative reasons for why things had happened, and suddenly I realised history was more interesting than just recalling facts - he gave me a glimpse into what the world of study could be.

Funnily enough, it was only after I left the school that I think I came to know Frank. I kept up my friendship with Christopher and after I was on TV his family invited me to their house. It was a small community and being an actor meant I stuck out a bit.

My relationship with them stayed. When Frank and his wife went on holiday, my family looked after his dog and after I moved away down south, I would go to see them whenever I went home to visit.

It was the last six years of Frank's life I remember most. After his wife died I used to visit him and chat over a glass of his home-brewed beer. We would sit and talk about our lives and education.

For me, the interesting thing was being able to revisit my childhood memories and make better sense of them. I learnt that some teachers, who came across as harsh, were actually fine people behind the staffroom door. Others had been in pain suffering from war wounds and I never realised. It gave me a new perspective.

I discovered Frank had done such amazing things in his life. Whatever subject I mentioned, he had already done it. We shared an interest in motorbikes, for example, and I had bought an old Moto Guzzi to take apart and put back together again. Frank knew all about classic bikes and had ridden them during the war. When I discovered hill-walking, he told me he had climbed Kilimanjaro. He even had an OBE for his work with the British Legion.

He died in his sleep in 2006 of a heart attack. There were a lot of people at his funeral who had known him at school and around town. He was a very popular man.

James Fleet, the actor, is most famous for his roles as the bumbling and well-meaning Tom in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the dim-witted Hugo Horton in the BBC situation comedy television series The Vicar of Dibley. He was talking to Mark Anstead.

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Mark Anstead

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