Barney Roberts said to his wife: 'I've got this boy in my class. He's very nice, but he's not got a brain in his head. You wouldn't trust him to post a letter'

10th February 2006 at 00:00
My favourite teacher was a man called Barney Roberts who taught me arithmetic and science at St Matthew's secondary modern in Liverpool in the 1940s. I admired him and wanted to be like him. He was a strapping chap with dark curly hair and he told us stories about the wild and exotic places he had been to during the war. He would talk about the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, where he said it was 106F in the shade, but there wasn't any shade.

I was unsuccessful at school and this made me anxious, because I wasn't as dumb as they thought I was. I was always covering up if I didn't understand what was going on by nodding or looking at my books intently. I was able to look as if I was concentrating hard, but I really didn't understand, so I found school exhausting. In common with many anxious children, I developed a cheeky way of making people laugh; a lot of comedians will say that the best way to head off fear is to make people laugh.

Mr Roberts had a great deep voice and he used it to keep control over the class. In those days teachers were allowed to clout people as well, but there was no sense of hostility in it. I remember a boy being whacked across the head by Mr Roberts, and he retorted, rather cheekily, "What was that for?" Mr Roberts said, "It isn't for anything; it's just in case you get ideas." I thought that was an extraordinary way to justify a blow to the head.

It was a Catholic school and it was rooted in bigotry. In those days they would have called it conviction and certainty, but of course those are just alternative words for bigotry. Everything they said had to be believed as right and we were brought up to hate Jews because they crucified Jesus.

It's a terrible thing, to be educated in racism when you are so young.

I became a liar when I was six years old because of confession at school (I had to invent things to say or I wouldn't be believed). My primary school, St Swithin's, was run entirely by women but the priests used to come in three or four days a week to reinforce things. And in St Matthew's the confession habit was equally encouraged. One day in secondary school, I remember Mr Roberts was watching me trying to do a sum. He came up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Do you know, Baker, I was talking to my wife about you last night." That was an unusual thing to say in 1947.

Thirty pairs of eyes swivelled around to look at me and 30 pairs of ears cocked to listen.

"I said to my wife," he continued, "'Do you know, I've got this boy in my class - Tom Baker his name is - and he's a good-living boy who goes to Mass regularly. He's very nice, but he's not got a brain in his head. Christ, you wouldn't trust him to post a letter.'"

The casual judgment in his remarks fascinated the other boys, and they watched me carefully to see if I would crack under the mockery. I loved Mr Roberts, in a fatherly way, and I wanted to say to him "Don't say that Sir; it's not true," but I didn't have the skill to put my hurt feelings into words. I didn't say anything or make any protest, but his words wounded me deeply. I'm practically in tears just telling you; in a way I don't think I ever recovered from that incident.

Years later I went back to the school for a photo shoot with The Sun. They took me into the headmaster's office and he showed me the list of entrants they had in 1947 and my name was written there. He said, "Do you know Mr Baker, you're the only pupil who ever came to anything." But that remark didn't make me feel any better. It simply reminded me of the judgment Mr Roberts made, based only on external impressions. Who is to say that other pupils didn't go on to achieve extraordinary faithfulness, loyalty and acts of generosity in their lives? All of which is far more important than being an actor.

Actor Tom Baker was talking to Mark Anstead

The story so far

1934 Born in Liverpool

1938 Attends St Swithin's primary school

1944 St Matthew's secondary modern

1949 Leaves to join a monastery

1955 Enters Royal Army Medical Corps

1956 Attends Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent

1959 Acts in repertory theatre and the National Theatre

1971 Plays Rasputin in feature film Nicholas and Alexandra

1974 Takes over from Jon Pertwee as the fourth Doctor Who on BBC TV

1981 Finishes Doctor Who as most popular and longest running actor to play the part

2001 Begins narrating Little Britain on radio

2004 Joins cast of Monarch of the Glen

2006 Voice of BT text-to-landline service

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