I was doing a piece from Henry V and everyone stopped and listened

28th October 2005 at 01:00
I was doing a piece from Henry V and everyone stopped and listened. I got to the war cry at the end and the whole school stood and cheered

John Lally was my art master at Gladstone boys secondary modern, Ilkeston, before he became headteacher. The school had a dreadful reputation; it was for boys who had failed the 11-plus. I wasn't expected to fail, but I was lazy and I was petrified of going because I'd heard rumours about how rough it was and that you were thrown down the school steps in dustbins.

The school was an old Victorian building with dark rooms and huge blackboards that folded over, and those old desks with ink-wells. Most of the teachers were really tall; they had to be big to look after themselves.

John Lally was tall as well as incredibly dandy. He wore a bow tie, tweeds, huge brogues, and added a flat cap and carried a stick for walking round town - very gallant.

There was John Watkins, who taught PE and history, who was big and ruggedly handsome; all the boys admired him. He had a wonderful attitude to history, making it live for you. We also had an English teacher called Big Tom who had a hunchback. But it was John Lally who had a wonderful knack of picking the rough edges off kids and finding their more creative side. I'd always been eloquent and had been spotted by a teacher at my primary called Mr Wearmouth - a lovely name for a man who used to speak a lot - and I used to read out stories on Friday afternoons, which I loved.

John Lally was much more than an art master; he untapped my ambition. He made me school orator, quite an extravagant title for a secondary modern school. He and John Watkins invented the Grand Order of Thespians. We started doing plays, which the school had never done before.

Once he got me to read some Shakespeare in the assembly hall. Between classes the boys had to cross the hall. I was doing a piece from Henry V and everyone stopped and listened. I got to the war cry at the end and the whole school stood and cheered. I'd been picked on and bullied for some time but now, suddenly, I felt transformed from underdog to hero. John got everyone involved in the plays: the maths classes did the box office, the science block did the special effects and the woodwork and metalwork departments built the sets.

I went through my rebellious period at about 14. I decided to write an anti-teacher slogan in the playground in coloured chalks. Just as I was finishing it a shadow appeared. I looked up and saw John. I thought I would be in serious trouble. "Yellow's the wrong colour," he said. He wasn't worried about rebellion. He was a bit of a rogue himself.

We went on several school trips to London and I remember walking round Westminster Abbey when John Lally was giving one of his lectures. He said in a loud voice in front of a group of American tourists, "Well, of course the Americans certainly don't have all this." On trips he would always let us have half a beer in pubs where we could drink outside. He'd pretend it was shandy. He was a really special man and he gained so much respect from all those boys.

He invited me back to school in the Eighties for a prizegiving, and unknown to me they'd made me an honorary member of the school board. John loved coming to see shows; he saw me in Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and Me and My Girl at the Adelphi.

I come from a working-class family; my father was a carpenter and my mother was a cleaner. My brother and sister are much younger than me. My brother went to the same school and John Lally was still teaching there. He followed my father into carpentry. I don't know what happened to me; I must be the black sheep.

I used to have a kind of inferiority complex about not having a university education; in this business you are mixing with people with firsts from Oxbridge. But now I think that whatever destiny threw at me, it was to go to the right school at the right time, and I'm proud to have met those extraordinary teachers.

Actor Robert Lindsay was talking to Judy Parkinson

THE STORY SO FAR

1949 Born in Ilkeston, Derbyshire

1954-68 Kensington infants and junior school, Ilkeston, Gladstone secondary modern then Clarendon college, Nottingham

1968-70 Rada, London

1973 Makes film debut in That'll Be The Day with David Essex

1977 Stars as Wolfie in BBC's Citizen Smith

1983 Plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange, one of many Shakespearean roles

1986 Lead role in Me and My Girl in West End and then Broadway

1990 Wins best actor Bafta for part in Alan Bleasdale's GBH

2000 Stars in BBC sitcom My Family. Fifth series broadcast last year

2005 Plays Tony Blair in Channel 4's A Very Social Secretary. Starring in Jericho, Sundays at 9pm on ITV1 until November 6

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