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Rudi Shelly was a friend and a teacher to me. I would ask him for advice and I would always heed it because he was always right

I didn't enjoy school one little bit. I went to Hove grammar school for girls; it was very strict and science-driven and they weren't big on the arts at all. I was very much into English and drama and they didn't really do drama in those days. I was lousy at maths - I failed my O-level twice - and they used to take it out on me by saying I wasn't allowed to be in the school play.

When I was 18 months old, I tipped a cauldron of soup over myself, and I was in hospital on and off until I was about five. They said I was hyperactive, but I was just a child who had not had the chance to run around because I had been incarcerated for such a long time. When I finally came out of hospital, my parents took me to Saturday morning ballet classes. I had two left feet so that was no good, but upstairs there was a drama club and I loved it. I think my first role was Sleeping Beauty; I just had to prick my finger and lie still with my eyes closed.

Right from the start I knew I wanted to be an actor. I must have been six or seven and I can remember telling my parents "that's what I want to be".

My hero when I was little was Glenda Jackson. She broke the mould and showed it wasn't all about being a pretty girl; you could just be a bloody good actress.

After A-levels I went to the Bristol Old Vic drama school. It was at my audition there that I met Rudi Shelly. He told me: "You have a voice like a fart in a wicker basket: it has no idea which hole to come out of." He really made me laugh.

He was inspirational; the most gifted, natural drama teacher. Often at drama school, your teachers can be failed actors, but Rudi was phenomenal.

He was very clever, very understanding of everybody and everything. He got to know all the pupils individually and all their foibles, and he brought the best out of every one of us.

You can always tell somebody who has been to Bristol Old Vic because they all do impressions of him. He had these sayings like "squeeze your lemons" - you had to imagine you had a lemon between the cheeks of your bum - meaning stand up straight; and "pull down your bolero", meaning keep your ribs high.

Rudi had escaped from Germany during the war and had lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He had come to Britain and kind of reinvented himself. He was tiny, and looked a bit like Robert Helpmann, the ballet dancer who played the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He was always very dapper: he wore a cravat and he had little feet, snowy white hair and piercing blue eyes.

When he was teaching us we would think "Oh no, not another Rudi lesson" because, although we knew what he would teach us would stand us in good stead, it could be boring. His lessons were three hours long, and I remember one term we spent each lesson studying one word from a line in Webster's The White Devil: "What have I gain'd by thee, but infamy." So the first one was all the different ways of saying "what". What it taught us was invaluable, but at the time, when you're 19, you're thinking "Oh, please... " We kept in touch after I left, right up until Rudi died, about six years ago. He would come and see me in plays, and if I was in Bristol I would always go and see him. He was a friend and a teacher to me. I would always ask him for advice and I would always heed it because he was always right.

I know he had the same effect on other people he taught, people like Daniel Day Lewis, Greta Scacchi and Miranda Richardson, who were all at drama school with me. When Stephanie Cole was on This Is Your Life, he had recorded a message for her from the nursing home where he was then living and after they'd shown it she said: "It should be him up here, not me."

That's the way we all felt about Rudi Shelly.

Actress Amanda Redman was talking to Harvey McGavin


1959 Born Brighton

1970 Hove grammar school for girls

1976 Bristol Old Vic drama school

1981 Makes film debut alongside Liv Ullmann in Richard's Things

1996 Sets up Saturday morning drama school in west London

1998 Plays Diana Dors in television biopic Blonde Bombshell

1999 Stars with Lenny Henry in television school drama series Hope and Glory

2000 Stars in first of four series of ITV's At Home With the Braithwaites

2001 Stars in Oscar-nominated Sexy Beast

2004 BBC1 crime drama New Tricks with Dennis Waterman and James Bolam (new series scheduled for 2005). Uncovers family history in BBC2's Who Do You Think You Are? (October 19)

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