Frank Unsworth was funny, but only in the way a disciplinarian can be

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
He had a cutting wit, which his pupils would be the victims of. That was how he kept order

I went to Thornleigh college in Bolton, where I was mainly taught by Salesian priests (they were like a slightly softcore version of Jesuits).

We did have a few lay teachers, and the principal one among them was our English teacher, Frank Unsworth.

He was a very proper, orthodox teacher, except that he was passionate about his subject, particularly Jane Austen. He took this bunch of 16-year-old lads and introduced us to the most boring novel in the world: Northanger Abbey. But somehow he made us all not only appreciate it, but fall in love with it.

I followed Mr Unsworth into the sixth form, where he taught us Mansfield Park and a lot of Shakespeare and poetry. We did Richard II, and he took us to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a production of it. It was the first time I had ever been to the theatre. It was an extraordinary production, a very famous one in which Ian Richardson and another actor whose name I can't remember shared the roles of Bolingbroke and Richard II; they alternated nightly. I remember saying to Mr Unsworth afterwards, "That's not in the play, that bit at the end where he puts the mask on." I didn't know that you could do things in a play that weren't in the book. I could see that was why he had brought us, to show us what was possible. He directed us in plays at school, such as JB Priestley's When We Are Married, which I had a big part in. I was quite a good actor in school and that's where I got the bug.

I lost contact with Mr Unsworth, as you do when you leave school. Then about 10 years later I was directing a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Last Days of Don Juan, and I wrote to him inviting him to come and see it. I'm not quite sure why I wrote to him.

It was an instinctive thing; I felt as though I owed him. In a way, I owed him everything for my involvement in drama. The school passed the letter on to him because he had retired by that time, and I met him in Stratford for the matinee. It sounds cheesy, but he was so proud to come to Stratford. I had developed into a full-time director at the theatre of his dreams; he loved Shakespeare. Mr Unsworth was a very proper Englishman who didn't show his feelings in any way. We didn't hug or anything like that, but it was a moving moment.

Mr Unsworth was also a strict disciplinarian. He wasn't a fashionable teacher who won you round by trying to be your friend. He was funny too, but only in the way a disciplinarian can be. He never smiled, but he had a cutting wit, which his pupils would be the victims of. That was how he kept order.

He made English my favourite subject. I was reading Ian Fleming novels before he started teaching me, but he made me appreciate the artistry in writing and the expression that was possible through it. There was something mesmeric about his devotion to the subject.

For a kid like me, drama was an unusual world to go into. I came from a working-class background. As a family we had never been to the theatre.

Most of my friends stayed in their home town, doing fairly ordinary, decent jobs. My mum had wanted me to be a priest and go to seminary school at 14.

It was another priest who put me off. I don't know if he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, but he must have spoken to my mother because the subject was never mentioned again.

I just saw Mr Unsworth that one time. After I became well known they asked me to go back to school a few times, but I never really wanted to do that.

But I felt a debt to Mr Unsworth. When we met we didn't talk much. He taught us to experience theatre and take it seriously. In a way I was giving that back to him: I was just showing him one of mine.

Film director Danny Boyle was talking to Harvey McGavin

THE STORY SO FAR

1956 Born Radcliffe, near Manchester

1961-74 Attends St Mary's RC primary school then Thornleigh college, Bolton

1974 Studies English and drama at Bangor University

1982-85 Artistic director of Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London

1985-87 Deputy director of Royal Court

1987 Joins BBC Northern Ireland, directing TV dramas, including Inspector Morse

1994 Makes debut as film director with Shallow Grave. Followed by Trainspotting (1996), A Life Less Ordinary (1997), The Beach (2000) and 28 Days Later (2003)

2005 Release of latest film, Millions (May 27). Patron of Film Education's NationalSchools Film Week, sponsored by The TES (October 17-21)

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