Combined leading roles

10th January 1997 at 00:00
I had two best teachers at Clifton College, Bristol. The Rev Charles Tompkins taught me English literature and Horace Merrick, history. Both were men who smiled and were terrifically enthusiastic about their subjects. I looked forward to their lessons with enormous enthusiasm.

I was about 15 when I first met them and I wish I'd done so sooner because my early years at Clifton were less rewarding, academically and socially. I contemplated running away in my first year but was persuaded to stay by my housemaster.

My parents were the sweetest and most wonderful people but they had social pretensions which included sending their children to public school. We lived in Liverpool where my father and his brother ran the family business: a chain of six shops called Swifts HF (house furnishers). Our home was a few doors from the Epsteins (Brian Epstein being the man who discovered the Beatles and masterminded their career). There were four of us children, two boys and two girls, and I was the elder son. Three of us went to public school. I think the money ran out by the time it was the turn of Ruth, the youngest.

I was sent to Clifton because it was the only public school that had a Jewish house. I was very enthusiastic about going there. I devoured school stories and loved the idea of jolly japes in the dorm. Also, I loved games. When I arrived at Polark's House, however, it came as a shock to discover that most of the other occupants came from much more observant families than mine. My parents were very liberal and prided themselves on their capacity for assimilation, but at school we had prayers twice a day, ate only kosher food and I was caught between the attitudes of the ghetto and the Christian public school. My biggest trauma was finding that I wasn't allowed to play rugger on Saturday afternoons (the sabbath), although eventually an exception was made. There was a lot of anti-Semitism which I think was exacerbated by the segregation.

Later I became a pioneer in breaking down the boundaries but it was tough in the beginning. I met very little warmth from the staff until I met Mr Tompkins and Horace Merrick.

Mr Tompkins was about 35, dark and Welsh-looking. But he had a Midlands accent which seemed incongruous in those surroundings. I never saw him in a dog collar.

If you didn't get the answer to his questions straight away he gently led your mind out of its muddle. Rumour had it that he was a pacifist, but I find it hard to believe that a school built to supply our armies and imperial outposts would have allowed a pacifist through the memorial arch and past the statue of Field Marshal Douglas Haig who was an old boy.

Mr Tompkins was probably a frustrated actor. He got us to read Shakespeare in class and read often himself, brilliantly. We read The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream and he directed our performance of the Dream on the lawn. He nurtured my flair for acting which had been encouraged at home - we had a little stage in the nursery and put on shows for relatives. Mr Tompkins taught us the Golden Treasury and introduced me to Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, with terrific enthusiasm. I remember being mesmerised by "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "Lord Ullin's Daughter" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn". Unfortunately, he was only at the school for two years. I was heart-broken when he left.

Like Mr Tompkins, Horace Merrick had absolute control in the class. There was never any fooling around in either's lessons.

Mr Merrick was a much older man - probably in his fifties though he seemed older. He had been gassed at Passchendaele. He was the brother of the concert pianist Frank Merrick.

"Tubby" Merrick wore black lace-up boots and pince nez and occasionally, wing collars. I learned so much from him about the Tudors and Stuarts. History was the only subject I passed at Higher School Certificate.

In my day you couldn't take English literature at advanced level. The High Master, Bertrand Hallward, didn't think it was a suitable subject. He was undoubtedly my least favourite teacher. I'll never forget him finding me reading Oliver Twist instead of the set book and screaming and smashing the book across my head. I was 17 and a praeposter (prefect), a status which allowed you to carry an umbrella, put your hands in your pocket, wear the collar of your jacket turned up and go without a cap.

After National Service I went to Cambridge, read law and qualified as a barrister, but never practised. I went into business for about seven years and then followed in my younger brother's footsteps. I'd always wanted to be an actor but parental duty led me to study law. Father wanted me to be Lord Chief Justice. Clive, on the other hand, had the guts to stick to his guns. He was 11 when he decided to be an actor.

Clifton produced a number of thespians including Trevor Howard, Sir Michael Redgrave, John Cleese, Simon Russell-Beale, Roger Mitchell and Tim Sullivan. It was a very rigid school which bred occasional mavericks.

u David Swift plays Henry the lecherous newsreader in Drop the Dead Donkey (Channel 4). He is the elder brother of Clive Swift, the long-suffering screen husband of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping up Appearances. The brothers are planning a new TV series in which they will star together.

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