Hounded out with Dad;My Best Teacher;Parting shots

20th March 1998 at 00:00
I remember my first day at school in Berlin in 1936 because I was given a paper cone full of sweets and chocolates to munch on the way. It's a traditional German way of softening the blow.

We were a class of about 40 - sitting at desks learning to write the complicated German script, and doing maths on slates. Our good-natured form teacher, Herr Schippers, was big, fat and brown. He had a sunburnt look and wore brown suits - he was like a big chocolate pudding.

I had a friend at that school called Ralph. One day he told me that he couldn't play with me any more because I was Jewish; his parents had told him not to. I couldn't follow the logic: I was only Jewish on my father's side.

My father, who worked in insurance, started to lose all his clients. In September 1938 we all went out to a restaurant. The police came in checking papers, saw the letter "J" on my father's passport and found a newspaper cutting in his wallet. It was a satirical version of Little Red Riding Hood, with the wolf as the Nazi party and the German people as Red Riding Hood.

The police took him away and told my mother that she would never see him again. Miraculously, through business contacts and friends, she managed to get him released. He immediately went to England, and we followed in December 1938.

In London we lived in a little semi in Hatch End, north-west London. I went to an old Victorian primary school. I had about one sentence of English when I arrived, but it came quite easily and I soon became Andrew instead of Andreas.

Within a year war had been declared, so my father was interned and we had to move to a small flat in Kilburn, north London. I went to another school - Harvist Road. I found it frightening having lessons in the surface air-raid shelter as the bombs dropped outside.

I began to play truant, lurking around the playground on the swings and roundabouts, which made me feel sick but was still better than lessons.

We moved again, to a house on Primrose Hill owned by a Professor Malinowski, an anthropologist. I spent hours in his storeroom, looking at his collection of slides, accompanied by a pet mouse.

Next I went to the William Ellis School on Parliament Hill. The school proper had been evacuated, and in the London building they had set up the North London Emergency Secondary School. It had "emergency" teachers: some of them had come out of retirement or just weren't fit enough for the army. I remember how the French teacher did nothing - just told us to get on with exercises. But there was a Welshman called Jones, who taught English. I liked English and got on well with him; when we were doing essays he told us to "chat naturally on paper".

My father was away a lot; first he was interned, then he was out on air-raid duties and eventually he became terminally ill with cancer. But he was still concerned enough about my schooling to give me lessons in my worst subject, French. He had been educated at the French lycee in Berlin, and in the summer holidays of 1943 he took me through French. By the next term I was top of the class.

My bad maths made it hard for me to get my School Certificate. But then I began to do film extra work during the holidays. I thought, "This is it. All you have to do is get in front of the cameras. You don't have to study anything. Even dogs can be film stars - look at Lassie. There's no need to go to university or be educated."

By this time my father had died and I persuaded my mother to let me go to drama school. But I left after two terms because they were teaching us the history of the theatre, voice production and ballet, and I thought, "Lassie doesn't have to go through this sort of stuff, why should I?" I got the rest of my training in rep, although I did take classes in speech and singing when I could.

If my father had been alive he would have said: "Go to university first, and only then, if you're still desperate, become an actor." Had he lived he would have been my best teacher.

Andrew Sachs played Manuel in the BBC comedy series 'Fawlty Towers'. He is currently appearing as Uncle George in 'The Legend of the Lost Keys' in the schools' series 'Look and Read' on BBC2. He was talking to Bernard Adams

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