Character with a singular vision

21st February 1997 at 00:00
We had two books in our house, The Bible and a Littlewoods Pools pamphlet. Books were things to be avoided. They struck me as boring and I rarely understood what the author meant - until Mr Trowers started teaching our English class.

It was 1960. I was just 14 and could hardly wait to leave Telfer Scott secondary school in Balham, south London.

Most of the lessons I just didn't want to be involved in - they were just lectures. Often the teachers asked questions and if you got them wrong they gave you verbal abuse. But if you got them right you suffered abuse from your fellow pupils.

Every week the headmaster gave me the cane for falling asleep in lessons, but I didn't care. I cared about Mr Trowers' lessons though. They were different. I was keen on them and used to look forward to them.

Mr Trower only had one eye, and used to wear an eye patch. He believed books should not just be put on the desk and left to be absorbed. He tried to show us their meaning. He'd read to us and act out the characters, from Mr Bumble to Mr Pegotty.

I remember taking a look at David Copperfield. Dickens wrote Mr Pegotty's speech in dialect but I didn't understand it until Mr Trowers acted it out. He used to parade in front of the class putting on funny accents. He brought the books to life. Before that I didn't understand them.

I remember trying to write essays at school. I once wanted to explain there'd been a crash. To emphasise it, I drew a picture around the word. But I got into trouble. I didn't understand you could just use an exclamation mark.

When Mr Trowers read to us I didn't look at him. I'd stay buried in the book, following the punctuation and then suddenly it all made sense. I understood what grammar was and began to take on books on my own.

Mr Trowers gave me Dickens fever. I worked in the local market in my spare time and I used to buy a book every week. Most of my mates used to hide dirty magazines under the bed, but I hid Dickens, because my father would never have understood.

Thirty years on, I even remember questions Mr Trowers asked us about the novels. One day he was reading aloud from Copperfield. David was budgeting and had to cut back on bear's grease. Suddenly Mr Trowers asked us what it was used for. I stuck up my hand and said it was used as hair grease. I'll always remember the feeling of getting it right. It was then I began to realise that it really mattered - you really cared - if a teacher you respected got angry with you. It hurt much more than if a teacher you didn't care about gave you the cane.

If it wasn't for Mr Trowers I wouldn't have found the beauty of books and wouldn't have got interested in using what imagination I had to write scripts. He was the first to encourage my essay-writing. He always told you if you'd misspelled something, and he'd write little comments in red.

He had a lot to put up with at Telfer Scott. Even to keep us quiet for half an hour was a miracle. Pupils did some unbelievable things - while I was there a teacher was stabbed, a piano was thrown off a stage, and one of the teacher's cars was sandwiched between a lamp-post and a wall.

If you came from my part of Balham, the best you could hope for was to become an electrician. But even then, I remember my dad telling me: "Son, you'll never make an electrician - you're factory fodder."

I left school at 15 and got a job as a messenger for Reuters news agency, followed by a period in the second-hand car trade. I met so many characters I started to put them into my scripts. Finally I got a job as a scene-shifter at the BBC and showed a script to Dennis Main Wilson, the producer of Till Death Us Do Part. Citizen Smith was on the screen within eight weeks.

I met up with Mr Trowers again last month after more than 30 years. I was able to thank him for the help and encouragement he gave me. I've asked him to come and watch the filming of my next series, Roger Roger. He'd had no idea he was my inspiration.

John Sullivan is a scriptwriter for the BBC. His hit show Only Fools and Horses attracted a record 24.35 million viewers at Christmas. He has written a further five hit series including Dear John and Citizen Smith. He is writing a book about the early years of Only Fools and Horses characters Del Boy and Rodney and working on two new series: Roger Roger and Heartburn Hotel

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