Celebrity snares

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Pupils who go on to become famous can cause pride, jealousy or annoyance. But your anecdote about them will certainly break the ice at parties, says Alison Brace.They are the tales that teachers dine out on: the classroom experiences guaranteed to hold the attention of even the most garrulous of dinner party guests. As wine glasses are refilled and the mood relaxes, teachers just can't help mentioning that famous pupil who was once in their class.

Tales of derring-do and childhood foibles of the nascent celebrity A-lister are guaranteed attention-getters. After all, beyond family members, it's teachers who have the most privileged take on someone before they are famous... long before Heat and Hello! magazines claim to know the inside story.

But Neil Gamble has always kept quiet about his association with Jeremy Clarkson, Britain's most un-PC celebrity - until now. Neil taught the Top Gear presenter economics in the sixth form at Repton, an independent school in Derbyshire, in the 1970s.

Not only that, he readily admits that he supported the decision that Jeremy be asked to leave the school, which he did at the end of his lower-sixth year.

"All the character traits he manifests now are those he had as a schoolboy, but magnified," Neil says. "He went out of his way to plough his own furrow in the same way he has as a motoring correspondent, and in his subsequent career."

A decade ago Neil was sent one of Jeremy Clarkson's columns from The Sunday Times in which he described one of his economics teachers as a jolly good fellow who allowed him to smoke at home - and the other as a Marxist. Neil believes that as the TV show host only had two economics teachers, he must have been the second.

The column describes one of Neil's lessons about the Galbraithian view that multinational corporations have the power to affect consumer demand through advertising and marketing, which, he told the class, sometimes led the public to "buy products they didn't need with money they didn't have".

"It was a left-of-centre view - but by no means a Marxist view," says Neil, who went on to become head of King Edward VI Aston School in Birmingham and later the independent Exeter School. "The staggering thing was that this boy who occasionally participated described 20 years on a lesson he had been taught by me.

"And yet, at no stage did I feel he had listened to anything. What rankles is that he used a newspaper column, albeit anonymously, to distort the meaning of a lesson some 20 years ago," adds Neil, now a reporting inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

Other teachers have had a happier experience. Jan Piggott, who taught English at Dulwich College, feels nothing but pride about one former pupil - Rupert Penry-Jones, the Spooks star.

"Of course, we can't help boast about having taught and known him. It's like following what happens to one of your own children," says Jan, who is now retired.

He and Kim Eyre, another teacher at the school, were cited by the actor as his two best teachers in an article in The TES Magazine earlier this year. "Naturally I was touched and surprised and very grateful to share a bit of his glamour," says Jan. Kim agrees. "I was deeply moved. Although you don't expect to have accolades, things like this give you a boost."

Kim, who coached Rupert, 36, through the lead role in the school's 1989 production of Doctor Faustus, believes that, as the two have become good friends, their roles have reversed. "Where the theatre is concerned, he is teacher now and I am pupil - and happily so," says Kim. "That's what should happen in a good pupil-teacher relationship. What you do is sow the seed.

"My first reaction when Rupert is mentioned is to be very protective in a way that a parent would be when a child has been allowed to leave the nest.

"But in terms of watching his success and the success of other pupils, that vicarious experience has always given me pleasure."

Howard Beckett does not shy away from his link with fame - Robson Green, the actor. "It's a good conversation opener," says Howard, who taught music at Seaton Burn Community High School in Northumberland and teaches privately in retirement.

He recalls spotting talent in the young Robson. "He was a nice lad, with a sparky sense of humour and bags of personality. I do keep an interest in his career, and I can't help but mention that I taught him."

Corinne Jones, deputy head at Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, still has a project by Felicity Jones (Emma Grundy in The Archers) on First World War poetry. "I kept it because it was so good. I've used it to show other pupils, without realising that one day she was going to be famous," she says.

Unlike the millions who tune in to watch and listen to Felicity, Rupert and Robson in prime-time TV and radio productions, their teachers have a particular perspective on their former pupils' performances.

Watching Rupert in the role of Wentworth in a TV adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion earlier this year brought back memories for Jan. "It reminded me sharply of certain ridiculous brooding moods or sulks of boredom or frustration he used to have, which are now being enjoyed by thousands of middle-brow British women."

Top scorers

For some teachers, an association with someone who goes on to do well boosts the whole school community.

At Turnham Primary School in Lewisham, south east London, staff and pupils very much keep an eye on three of their famous ex-pupils: Ian Wright, the footballer and TV presenter, and his footballing sons, Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Photos of the trio have pride of place in the entrance hall. Denise Dance, headteacher, who has been at the school for more than 30 years, has fond memories of all three Wright boys going through the school.

"They come back to visit and remain an inspiration for our pupils. They keep in touch and we are incredibly proud of them."

Bowled over

Alison Shaw was sixth-form tutor to Matthew Hoggard, the Yorkshire and England cricketer, at Pudsey Grangefield High School in Leeds in the mid-1990s. Even though the pair are not in touch, he still plays a big role in her life.

"I would not have been interested in cricket but for him, and I follow his career massively," says Alison. "My dad rings up and says Hoggard's done this or that."

She is now head of Seaton Burn Community High - the same school once attended by Robson Green - and remembers Matthew's mum crying because her son had told her he didn't want to do his A-levels.

"She said: 'He thinks he's going to play for England'. I said, 'Well maybe he will.'"

While you don't know what happens to most of your pupils, having one who goes on to be famous means that you can keep an eye on their fortunes.

"It's a wonderful thing when a pupil comes back and says it was good in spite of it all. And if you're lucky enough, keep an eye on a former pupil - it's very rewarding.

"It's a signal for a jaded old headteacher that reminds me why I do the job, a reward for some of the agonies that go along with it."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today