Edward Woodward: Why Mrs King was queen

12th December 1997 at 00:00
My earliest memory is of playing the triangle in a school band. I couldn't understand why I was at the back because, to me, the triangle seemed to be the most important instrument. Most of my memories seem to be of performing. I was in all the Christmas plays. I even played the Virgin Mary once.

We lived in a two-up, two-down house in West Croydon and my father was an egg roundsman. Education was enormously important to them, as it was to all working-class parents. They wanted you to get out and into the dizzy heights of the lower middle class.

I had an astonishingly good state education. I was a wartime schoolchild and Croydon was heavily bombed, so disruption was the norm. It was exciting and horrific, especially when we were trapped between school and the shelter. But there was a tremendous amount of love and care. None of us would have survived were it not for our teachers. They were dedicated and hard-working. When the school was bombed, you went to somebody's house and teachers came to you.

All schools were strict then. At one school, we had a Mr Hood, who liked using the cane. There was a saying: "Mr Hood is very good, he goes to church on Sundays, to pray to God to give him strength to whack the boys on Mondays." But the worst anybody ever did was steal something from Woolworth's, boast about it, then feel guilty and put it back three days later.

I did it once, and got caught. It was a reflector that you wore in the blackout. I didn't want it anyway - I already had about five. I was taken in by the manager and given a thwack across the bottom. That was the attitude then. What did you want to send a child to the police for? I didn't go to Woolworth's again for a long, long time.

I was pretty good at English and history, and appalling at science and maths. Then, when I went to Elmwood school in Wallington, my form teacher, Grace King, took me under her wing. It was all because, in maths, all I could put down on the paper - quite neatly - was my name, my form number and the question numbers one to 10. One report said: "Woodward leaves us in despair."

I couldn't tell the difference between a nine and a six. I was embarrassed and went into a shell. I would never answer a mathematical question but, when it came to the times table, I was the best in class because I was able to learn it by rote. Nobody knew then, but I was figure dyslexic. Mrs King could see that it wasn't deliberate, and my whole life changed.

She was tall and what they call full-bosomed. And she was beautiful because she had this extraordinary mind and attention to all the children in her care. She taught me the art of conversation and how to question things. I used to go back to her house, where her husband tried to teach me the basics of mathematics. We'd have a meal and we'd talk about everything - Shakespeare, her husband's business, what it was like to be a teacher.

She took the little drama classes as well. That's how she saw potential in me, I think, and I flourished as a boy actor there. I was the leader whenever I did a play. But I wasn't a tough kid. My grandfather used to teach south London boys to box. He had a ring in his garden. But I never won a bout at school. I liked the theatricality of it but didn't care much for being hit.

At 14, I went to Kingston Commercial College. Any theatrical ambitions were impossible, because I didn't know how you became an actor. I wanted to be a journalist. All I knew was that they did shorthand and rushed about a lot. But shorthand was akin to mathematics as far as I was concerned and the only thing I learned was touch-typing. I can still do about 40 words a minute.

My only attempt at journalism was when my friend Elwyn and I decided to go to 10 Downing Street to interview Winston Churchill for the school magazine. We didn't know you had to make an appointment. It was towards the end of the war and the policeman outside came back and said: "Mr Churchill apologises but is a bit busy running the war. He says you should talk to me." So I interviewed him and Elwyn took three photographs. Not only did he cut the head off the policeman, he also cut the number 10 off. When we got back, the teacher said: "Well, that's no bloody good, is it?" So the magazine never even started.

I did more theatre than journalism, and there was a typing teacher there,Miss Perkins, who had been at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was difficult for her to convey her love of the subject but people certainly learned from her and I was glad she was there. She said to me: "This isn't for you. Acting is what you're good at." And she got all the necessary papers for the RADA exam. I got a scholarship, and in those days there were local government grants. I got #163;2 a week.

While I was waiting to hear if I'd got in, I got a job at a sanitary engineers as a shorthand typist. It was rare to find a male shorthand typist and extremely rare to find one who was totally incompetent.

RADA wasn't by an means at its peak. The teachers were all very old and tired, although there was a wonderful old woman called Fanny Boalth, who took movement. Movement involved walking across a stage from one side to the other but she made it strangely sensual. I was there for only 19 months because I got an amazing offer to tour Europe in a Shakespeare company. We went to Hammersmith and Norwich - and closed. That was my first taste of the perfidious nature of the theatrical scene.

Mrs King died last year at the age of 94 and we'd kept in touch all those years. She came to see my performances in the theatre, but when they caught me for This is Your Life, she refused to come on. She didn't want any praise or publicity but without her encouragement, I would not have had the great joy I've had in the profession I'm in.

Edward Woodward has been a stage and screen actor for 50 years. He became a household name in the late 1960s with the television series Callan, and starred most recently in the BBC's award-winning drama Common as Muck. He is currently filming a remake of The Professionals. He lives in Cornwall with his second wife, Michele Dotrice, and their 14-year-old daughter, Emily

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