Chris Loveday was a maverick teacher, and lessons were an adventure
Both my parents are teachers: my father is head of a primary school in York and my mother used to teach adults with learning difficulties. But I didn't like school at all at first and it was hard when my dad was the headteacher - that was at Oakridge school in Hindwell, near Whitby. I was in his class in my last year at primary school.
I've been very lucky, though; I was one of the very few in The History Boys cast to have had a list of fantastic teachers. From the age of 11 until I was 14, I was at Caedmon school in Whitby where Sharon Artley, who taught RE, was head of year. She was one of the first people to treat me like an adult. She didn't patronise or condescend and she combined the qualities of the best teachers in The History Boys: she taught you well, but helped you to grow up too. She was probably in her forties, really small - about half my size - with short red hair and a glint in her eye. She had a wicked sense of humour and that gave her authority because people wanted to learn from her. Through the wonder of the internet (and me being in The History Boys) we got in touch last year, which was great. We've met a few times and still keep in contact.
I've had really good headteachers. There was Chris Cowell at Caedmon who, like Sharon, addressed us like young adults rather than children, and then at Whitby community college Rachel Totton and her deputy Ian Dobbs made a fantastic team. They encouraged me to pursue acting. Rachel taught English literature. She was tall and imposing: a kind, gentle authority figure. She had a sense of humour and was just a little bit naughty, not safe or mundane: she didn't raise an eyebrow, for instance, if you swore in discussions. But she was very professional and didn't put up with bad behaviour. She was supportive about deadlines if I was in plays. I took part in local amateur dramatics from the age of six, when I was a fieldmouse in The Wind in the Willows. Once I was Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol and my dad was Ebenezer Scrooge. He played the guitar and wrote musicals and my grandmother - my mother's mother - trained as an actress in the Forties, so I suppose performing is in the genes.
Chris Loveday, my drama teacher for two years, was the most challenging, frustrating and rewarding of all my teachers. He had trained at Drama Centre, his wife was a dancer and together they ran the school's performing arts centre. Chris was short, a bit round, with curly hair in a ponytail and he wore an earring. He didn't conform. In fact he was a maverick teacher, and lessons were an adventure. We did risky stuff; he was always getting into trouble, but he was challenging us. For instance, one of the first plays we did was River's Edge, about a girl who was raped and murdered. Chris came in my second year and we had only a year left to do everything for GCSE drama, but he managed it.
One of the first serious bits of acting I did was a two-man version of Equus (Peter Shaffer's play about a teenager who blinds horses) with me playing the boy and him as the psychiatrist. Another teacher at the school was Richard Jeffs, who taught English literature and made it interesting and relevant. He was the coolest. He was skinny, also had a ponytail, wore bright woolly jumpers and was a bit bohemian. Phil Smith was a music teacher. He came from Barnsley, loved the Beatles and was so cool. He helped me compose and, after I'd left school, I'd go round to his house to record things. He was married with kids, really happy to be a teacher. And he had a wonky nose. There were others too: all inspiring and with a sense of humour.
All my favourite teachers found a balance between Irwin and Hector in the play: they got you through exams and gave you things to help you for the rest of your life as well. Chris Loveday told me in no way to try for drama school at 18. I see now that in a way he was right - I wasn't mature enough - but I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which was very supportive. I had an agent by my last year and did some jobs, but none that took me away for too long. I would have been heartbroken to leave early. Then I went into His Dark Materials at the National Theatre and played Pantalaimon, which was great because Anna Maxwell Martin, who played Lyra, was my best mate at drama school.
Actor Sam Barnett was talking to Heather Neill
The story so far
1983 Born in Whitby
1987 Sleight's primary school
1988 Oakridge primary in Hindwell
1993 Airy Hill primary school
1994 Caedmon school
1997 Whitby community college
2001 London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art
2004 His Dark Materials (National Theatre)
2005 Posner in The History Boys by Alan Bennett (NT)
2005 Nominated for Olivier Award for best supporting actor
2005 Mrs Henderson Presents
2006 The History Boys on Broadway
2006 Nominated for Tony Award for best featured actor
2006 Posner in the film of The History Boys