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Sarah Hawkins didn't turn me round academically

- that was beyond any human - but she kept the hunger for acting alive in me

I had always been very unhappy at school and at 16 I went to Peter Symonds sixth-form college with a sense of complete inferiority and failure. I now regard my two years there as a sort of instructive convalescence. They probably saved me from dismissing the idea of furthering myself educationally.

My English teacher, Sarah Hawkins, introduced me to drama, which became the only thing that I shone in throughout my whole school career. She lit the pilot light and the flame has never been extinguished. It started when she cast me as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. As a teenager I had no confidence or sense of direction, so acting seemed such a ridiculous thing to aspire to. I hadn't discovered acting and she convinced me that this was something I could do. Her words stayed with me, particularly when I was starting out in my current career. I can't say she turned me round academically - I think that was beyond any human power - but her influence kept that hunger alive in me.

I had a tremendous crush on Sarah. She was very warm with a great sense of humour and she made everything fun. You knew from her enthusiasm that there had to be something good about this subject for her to love it so much. She had a great passion for language, literature and drama. She opened my eyes with everything she put in front of us - from Shakespeare and Ben Jonson to modern drama. We went to see a couple of plays with her, which was great. I loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Sarah was very popular and we enjoyed discussing books and plays with her.

She was able to talk to you on your level without being condescending or losing any authority. She was completely open to any of our observations, which was so important in building confidence. She was always interested even if you didn't like something, and considered the possibility that we might find Jane Austen boring.

I did appallingly badly in all subjects and left Peter Symonds with almost nothing to show for my time there. In my final year, I put so much into drama that I couldn't be bothered with the rest of it. English was my best subject, although I failed the A-level and I was thrown out of French. I got a D in religious studies. I was into religion and I was determined to read theology at university - I had offers from King's London and Leeds but, of course, I didn't get the grades. To be honest, the subject just didn't excite me enough to work at it. Nothing, apart from drama, ever had.

I think that is my nature rather than the fault of anyone or anything.

I knew university was unlikely to happen because I was still of a mind that I could improvise my way through life. Any help my parents tried to give me, I didn't want. They told me that qualifications would make my life easier because I would have options. But I was an incredibly stubborn and reclusive teenager. I'd had such a dismal time at school that I think I missed that point at which you learn to study.

After school I went to live in France for a few months and learnt to speak French. I came back and got involved in the catering industry for seven years. I still wanted to act but I needed some way of earning money. My acting ambition became more and more uncomfortable inside me, the longer it remained repressed, and eventually I was spotted by my agent doing stand-up at the Comedy Store.

I met Sarah subsequently: she came to see me in a play and it was great to see her. She and her husband came with their daughters. Now that my children are going through their education I sorely wish that I'd been capable of being taught. Through my own arrogance I couldn't see that other people might have something useful to impart to me. What I remember from most of my school classes were the views out of the windows, which I can describe in detail in practically every classroom I ever sat in.

Actor, writer and comedian Jack Dee was talking to Judy Parkinson

The story so far

1961 Born in Petts Wood, Kent

1977 Attends Peter Symonds college, Winchester

1986 Spotted doing open mic spot at the Comedy Store, Soho, London

1991 Offered Channel 4 TVshow after Edinburgh Festival; sell-out UK tours

1998 Makes theatre debut in West End comedy hit, Art; subsequent roles in TVdramas such as Silent Witness, Ambassador and Dalziel and Pascoe

2001-02 Tours, culminating in live recording at London's Hammersmith Apollo which is aired on BBC1

2004 Stars in The Deputy, one-off drama for BBC1. Stars in Tunnel of Love, ITV drama to be broadcast this autumn. Jack Dee Live at the Apollo, TV series for BBC1, begins six-week run on September 6 at 10.35pm

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