Interview

27th July 2007 at 01:00
Robin Nelson was head of music at Lord Williams's School, a large secondary comprehensive in Thame, Oxfordshire. He taught me music A-level and I think in a lot of ways he was ahead of his time. Back then, there was a big divide between the classical and pop worlds, but there you could do all forms of music. He believed that whatever you chose to do, you should do it as well as you could. This is not so unusual now, but it was in the 1970s.

I felt as if a lot of teachers at the time were very much the depiction in Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall "dark sarcasm in the classroom". But he was not like that at all. He was never unkind. He had a good sense of humour and ran a lively, fun class.

Robin was really the catalyst to me becoming a composer. When the junior school was putting on a musical, based on The Midnight Folk, a children's fantasy story by John Masefield, he asked me to write the music. At 15 it was my first large-scale composition and I used an eclectic mix of pop styles and pastiches, in the vein of Paul McCartney. I wrote two subsequent musicals for the school.

Robin wrote musicals himself and still does today. His style is jazzier and grander than my style, with richer chords and more syncopation. He had composed for the Cambridge Footlights, which inspired me to get into the University Revue at Oxford. I started playing in bands around this time. The main one was a Simon Garfunkel-sounding outfit. We worked in pubs and my friend Rowan Atkinson joined us for a time on percussion. We even released an album, which came out the same month as the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks in 1977. The NME review said: "If this is music, I'll cut off my ears." I'm not telling you what we were called I don't think we were that good. But Robin saw us play many times.

My father was headteacher at Lord Williams's, but as a large school in a not so-large town, many kids had parents who worked in the school. I had been at Stowe, the boarding school, but I asked to leave. Stowe wasn't a bad place, it just wasn't for me. There was an attitude that bullying was acceptable because it would make a man of you. The best thing about that time was that I had plenty of time to practise and become good at playing the organ.

My two brothers were both at Lord Williams's and I lived on the school premises while attending Stowe. By the time I arrived aged 13, I already knew every inch of the school, so putting on the uniform was an easy transition.

State education has had a bad press, probably fostered by TV dramas where in every comprehensive, people are chucking desks around and murdering each other. The majority of them are perfectly decent

Howard Goodall, 49, is a composer and broadcaster best known for TV theme tunes such as Blackadder and QI, and for his Channel 4 series How Music Works. He is the Singing Ambassador, heading the government-backed campaign to bring singing back to the forefront of the life of primary schools. He was talking to Stephen Manning

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