Interview

20th July 2007 at 01:00
A "strange fish" of an English teacher memorably acted out the beginning of Hamlet, inspired his pupils to love words and got them to keep watch while he smoked a cigarette in class

George Tierney, who took us for English, was a rather old-fashioned figure who wore a tweedy three-piece suit and bow tie. He was a tremendous fellow, although something of a strange fish within the school. This was the mid-60s and Ockendon Court was a large secondary modern in South Ockendon, Essex it's not there anymore.

It was unusual for anyone from the school to go to university, indeed many kids weren't really expected to get O-levels. But he treated us almost as if we were already at university, even when we were 11 or 12.

He loved Shakespeare and Dickens, and was a passionate advocate of Robert Graves as the greatest living poet of the time. He would always say: "it's not just words on a page". He thought you should bring it to life and would try to dramatise the text for us. I remember him acting out the beginning of Hamlet, where his father's ghost makes an appearance at Elsinore Castle. That was fairly unforgettable.

What he liked to do most was get you writing your own poems, which you would read out at his coffee sessions in the classroom at lunchtime. I don't think he wanted to spend that much time with the other staff. He smoked in class and one of us would keep an eye on the door.

You would have to stand on a chair and read your poem out. It would get discussed. He loved language and I remember he got terribly excited when I used the word "deduce" in a poem. He pounced on it and wrote it on the board. "Deduce!" He got the school magazine going and I had some poems published in that. I wasn't especially academic. I was more sporty and played a lot of football. But I had always told people, even at primary school, that I wanted to be an actor. I'd wanted to go to Ockendon Court because, although they had no drama department, there was an amateur dramatics club which used the school building to rehearse. I was in things like Macbeth and Richard III. I played minor roles like servants, although I've never done Shakespeare on stage or on screen.

Mr Tierney wasn't part of am-dram, but his presence made a huge difference to a school that was otherwise culturally barren. I've not seen Alan Bennett's The History Boys, but I think he may have been like Hector, the Richard Griffiths character, in terms of nurturing your creativity in the face of an apparently philistine world.

In those days, there was a marked difference between grammar and secondary modern my brother, who became a deputy head, went to a grammar but Mr Tierney treated us as if we were at a grammar school. Not academically rigorous, just something rich and serious

Phil Davis, 53, has been a familiar face on British TV and film drama for nearly 30 years. A veteran of Mike Leigh films like High Hopes and Vera Drake, for which he received a BAFTA nomination, his recent credits include Smallweed in the BBC's 2005 adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House, and Brian Bangs in Notes on a Scandal. He is currently in Philistines at the National Theatre. He was talking to Stephen Manning

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