A good teacher is like a director - some actors need cajoling gently, others need the tyrant treatment

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
I was a show-off as a young boy. My sister used to go for singing and dancing lessons and elocution at Gladys Gordon's academy in Walthamstow.

One day I was caught imitating one of her monologues and my mother said: 'Do you want to go as well?' I said: "Yeah, all right."

I did it for 18 months and then I decided it was sissy and I wanted to go and see Spurs on Saturday afternoons instead. So I retired from the theatre aged eight and didn't go near it again until I was in the RAF.

My teachers were all marvellous. But the one I remember with great affection was a tyrant called Mr Sinden at Bowes Road elementary school in Palmers Green. When we went into his class aged nine or 10 he said to us:

"You'll all be taking the scholarship exam next June and you will all pass; I have never had a failure. Heaven help any one of you here who jeopardises my record."

He then hounded us for the whole year, the net result being that we all passed the scholarship exam. I realised that the man loved us and intended that we should have a good start in life. His methods would never pass muster today but I can still do long division, long multiplication and all the other things that we did with Mr Sinden.

But he was nothing like a bully. He knew how to get the best results out of everybody in the class. His own son was in the class, and he did not treat him any differently from the rest of us, perhaps even worse.

He had reddish hair, a little red moustache, and he wore a rough reddish brown tweed suit; it seemed to me he wore the same suit every day. He smoked a pipe and the smell lingered about him all the time; he ponged. He used to pace up and down the aisle; he might have clouted you now and again but generally verbal intimidation was his line. A good teacher is like a good director - some actors need cajoling gently, others need the tyrant treatment.

I don't know if I would have got to grammar school if it hadn't been for Mr Sinden. All I know is that the entire class got through and in Mr Phillips's class next door only two got through. I went in there once to get a duster and Mr Phillips was fast asleep at the desk.

We all went to Southgate county grammar school. I liked all the teachers there; they had their idiosyncrasies which we imitated. Mr Auger the chemistry master was crippled with arthritis and used to stagger about on two sticks. It took him forever to set up an experiment. Miss Rogers, the geography mistress, humiliated me in front of the whole class by pulling out my exam results in which I got about 5 per cent. I swore vengeance, swotted like mad and the following year I came top. Miss Pringle, who taught history, had an amazing bosom; you couldn't take your eyes off it.

She was known as "Buffers" Pringle.

I have a school report at home from the headmaster, Mr Everard, saying: "I cannot extend my usual congratulations to one who has come first - the asterisk denotes why." The asterisk was the number of detentions I had received. I actually broke the record. It really annoyed the teachers, because if you are naughty you are supposed to do badly and I did very well.

Then I went to University College, Oxford. Not because of academic excellence, but because during the war the RAF had the university short course and we were able to go to the college of our choice under the aegis of the RAF. We did two days a week with the RAF and the rest of the time you were an undergraduate.

I was at Oxford with Richard Burton but we didn't meet until we were at navigator school in Manitoba, Canada. It was Air Force Day and we were putting up coconut shies. Richard couldn't resist this platform so he got up on the stage and started doing big declamatory speeches. I thought: "I wouldn't mind doing that for a living", and that's how it started.

The story so far

1926 Born Warren Misell, Stoke Newington, London

1931 Essex Road school, Leyton, then Bowes Road elementary school, north London

1938 Southgate county grammar school

1944 University College, Oxford, for six months to read physics before joining RAF

1949 Goes to Rada

1951 First big break in Hancock's Half Hour

1965-1975 Plays Alf Garnett in BBC TV's Till Death Us Do Part

1996 Plays Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, described by Arthur Miller as the best he's seen

1996 ITV broadcasts six-episode series The Thoughts of Chairman Alf

September 2003 Appearing in Miller's The Price at Apollo theatre, London

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