Alison Steadman

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
A dynamic duo shaped this actress's view of her profession and made her realise that acting brings literature to life

There are certain teachers who command respect without ever having to raise their voices. Miss Davies, deputy head of Childwall Valley High School for Girls, was one of them. She was the scariest looking thing: tall and willowy with a mop of wild frizzy hair that stood up on end, big round glasses and a beaky nose. She and Miss Brown, our headmistress, who was short and wide with the most humungous breasts, were a hilarious-looking duo. But together they ran the school like a well-oiled machine.

In my early days, I can remember being terrified of Miss Davies. She would stand at the front, in her long black robe, while the girls filed into assembly. She would walk up and down the gangway and she had such presence that silence would fall automatically.

I was in awe of her, as were the other 600 girls who went to that school. But later when she became my English teacher and I got to know her I discovered that she was the nicest, kindest and funniest woman in the world.

If a girl in the class got the giggles (a frequent occurrence) she didn't react as other teachers might. She'd say: "Oh, so and so's having a little laugh. Why don't we all join her?" Then the whole class would laugh for about five minutes. And then she'd say: "Right that's that then, now where were we?" And it would be back to the business at hand.

I often got bored in other teachers' classes. I was not what you would call academic. I probably spent most of my time making the rest of the class laugh, mostly by imitating the teachers. But it was different in Miss Davies's class and it was the one lesson I looked forward to.

She had a knack for bringing her subject to life and making it fascinating. I remember studying Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and there were lines that were basically Chinese to the average teenager. But she made them seem relevant to our lives. She said: "Think of a film that you've watched that is so sad and beautiful that it breaks your heart. It doesn't make you cry because something bad has happened to you, but because the words that are spoken and their meaning are so moving. Now, let us look at Ode to a Nightingale in the same way."

Thanks to Miss Davies, I still know every word of that poem and it still has the power to move me whenever I read it. She introduced us to Shakespeare. At the age of 12 we started reading Romeo and Juliet aloud in class. I was selected to play the part of Romeo and I can remember standing at the front of the class and when it got to the bit where he says: "And with a kiss, I die", I was so lost in the part that I flung myself to the floor like a felled tree.

The rest of the class thought this was hysterical, but for once Miss Davies didn't encourage the laughing. She said: "What are you all laughing at? There's nothing funny here. We need to applaud Alison and not laugh. She has understood that this is the most tragic moment of the play."

I loved Miss Davies from that moment on. Had she reacted differently I might have had a different view of acting. I might have thought that it was a ridiculous profession. Instead, she encouraged me to think that acting was how literature was brought to life.

It was then that I started to think in terms of becoming an actress. Probably I would have got there anyway, but I will always be grateful to Miss Davies. Sadly, I lost touch with her. She was offered the job as head of another school. It was our loss, their gain. But strangely, I did hear from Miss Brown years after I'd left the school and it had been demolished to make way for a housing estate.

She wrote to me shortly after I'd been in Abigail's Party and had just given birth to Toby, my son. She said: "Congratulations on the birth of your son and on being in such a marvellous drama. No need to write back, I'm sure you are very busy. P.S, Miss Davies sends her regards."

It's rather nice for me to be able to talk about them now and to send them my regards, too. They definitely deserve the praise

Alison Steadman was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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