Alun Armstrong

27th June 2008 at 01:00
This actor could have gone under, educationally speaking, if it weren't for the unforgettable teachers who saved him
This actor could have gone under, educationally speaking, if it weren't for the unforgettable teachers who saved him

A few years ago, my home town of Consett in County Durham bestowed an unlikely honour on me. It gave me the freedom of the town, made me an honorary ambassador and threw a shindig on my behalf. Disappointingly, I was filming Bleak House and couldn't attend, so I did the next best thing. We filmed a video link and I sent three teachers who had influenced me massively to pick up the honour.

The irony is that I'd mostly been the Ambassador of Getting Into Trouble and the King of Tomfoolery at Consett Grammar. I'd taken up permanent residence in one of the bottom streams with the other pupils deemed least likely to succeed and most likely to follow their fathers down the nearby pit or, perhaps, the steel works.

Until the age of 15, I was a complete no-hoper. Mrs Etough was one of the teachers I credit with my salvation, although, like me, she couldn't make the "do" in Consett. When she arrived she was a very young English teacher, fresh out of training.

Years later she confessed that when confronted by one of the school's most unruly classes her legs had been quaking uncontrollably. Yet, she left us in no doubt who was boss. She was stern and no nonsense. But she opened our minds to the idea that learning can be fun.

She kicked off by asking us to prepare a public speech on The Person I'd Most Like To Be. I chose Cliff Richard, at the time, the country's hottest pop star. I spun a great comedy routine around that subject, delivering it without notes. The class erupted into laughter. For the first time I thought: "This is something I can do. I can entertain people." It was the first time I'd genuinely enjoyed a lesson.

By the time Dennis Earle, the second great teacher in my life, appeared on the scene, Mrs Etough had shown me that I had real aptitude. He was head of the English department: a sophisticated, passionate man whose love of English was contagious to even the most thick-skulled pupil.

He put on a Shakespeare production with the most uncompromising standards each year and didn't see why it shouldn't compare to the RSC - a company that I later worked with for nine years. In the lower sixth he cast me as Petrucchio in The Taming of the Shrew and a year later I was Hamlet. I like to think I'd have arrived at the idea of becoming an actor, and perhaps I would, but there is no question that he put up the signposts that led me there.

I owe another teacher too - literally. Miss Farnsworth was the deputy head and, although she never taught me, took a total interest in my acting.

When I won a place at the National Youth Theatre's summer school she knew that the mining family I came from could not afford for me to go, so she paid. How extraordinary is that? So it was right that she was one of the teachers at the Consett shindig.

The third teacher on that night was Sheila Mackie, my art teacher and now a celebrated artist. She was inspirational, opening up a creative vista to me, so much so that when I failed to get into drama school, I went off and did a degree in fine art at Newcastle University. Art could have claimed me, but I always had the actor's need to perform.

I still talk to Sheila about art. She is a close friend who I visit whenever I'm in Consett.

Sadly, Dennis died in 2006, but he'd reached a ripe old age and had, I'm sure, influenced every child lucky enough to be taught by him.

Alun Armstrong, 62, is a highly-respected stage and screen actor. His credits encompass a range of roles from Shakespeare to popular TV. He is starring in the fifth season of BBC1's New Tricks in which he plays Brian Lane, ex-detective, and later this year he will be seen as Jeremiah Flintwinch in the TV adaptation of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit. He was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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