It was absurd that I was still calling him 'Sir', so he said, 'You can call me Bill'

31st January 2003 at 00:00
My father was a group captain in the RAF and my mother, my two sisters and I moved around so much with his postings that I went to six primary schools, the first in Hong Kong and the rest in England.

I learned then that I needed to have a place I could call my own, so to give me more stability my parents sent me as a boarder to Wycliff college, a prep school in Gloucestershire, when I was 11. Wycliff was very sporty and very academic, and it quickly became apparent that I was neither. I was keen on drawing, but that side of me wasn't brought out (I don't think I hit it off with the art master).

Bearwood College in Wokingham, where I went at 13, was completely different. It was also quite sporty and wanted you to be good academically, but the staff cared about you as a person and encouraged you to do what you were good at.

My art teacher, Bill Wyllie, was fabulous because he ran the art department like a ship, with fantastic discipline. There was no chatting or larking around, and the minute the bell went the brushes had to be washed and put away. He gave art a serious quality, and we achieved great results. I think his may have been the highest exam success rate of any department in the school, with virtually all grade As and Bs.

He taught you the discipline of perspective and how to look at the way artists created their work. We did a project dissecting how an artist puts paint on canvas, and I chose van Gogh. I started to understand the difference between ways of applying paint.

Bill used to take us to exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the Hayward and the Tate, but he couldn't bear for us to get back in the minibus and go back to school, so he would also book theatre tickets for the evenings.

That was when I started to come to the theatre, mainly at the National. On one trip, I found a leaflet advertising backstage tours at the National and asked Bill: "Can we do this?" He organised it and that tour was the moment I realised theatre design was the career for me.

I was keen on acting, and eventually played leading roles in school productions, thanks to the encouragement of my housemaster, Adrian Mead. He suggested I consider becoming an actor, but on the backstage tour I got a sense of how art and theatre worked together.

Not long after that, on one of the school productions for which Bill designed the sets, he and the director had a major falling out and Bill refused to finish the half-painted set. The director approached me and asked if I'd finish the painting. I wanted to but felt a loyalty to Bill, so I asked his permission. He said: "I've washed my hands of the whole thing," but he knew I had to help, and I did. He didn't talk to me for two weeks after that.

At a parents' evening around the time when I was applying for an art foundation course, Bill told my parents I would do well as a designer, and despite their reservations about theatre careers, that reassured them.

In my final term, I vividly remember Bill saying: "You don't quite know what to call me now, do you?", because we'd become friends and it was absurd that I was still calling him "Sir". So he said: "You can call me Bill".

I'm still in touch with Bill, who's retired and lives in Cyprus. He is fantastically proud of what I've been doing, and emails me whenever he reads a review of a production I've designed. I have so much respect for him, and for other brilliant teachers, particularly Alison Chitty, my mentor at Central Saint Martins, because I've done a few teaching projects and couldn't believe how difficult they were - so draining.

Theatre designer Tim Hatley was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

The story so far

1967 Born in Lincoln

1978-80 Wycliff College, Gloucestershire

1980-85 Bearwood College, Wokingham

1985-86 Foundation course, Banbury School of Art

1986-89 First-class honours in theatre design, Central St Martins, London

1989 Wins Linbury prize for stage design

1997 Wins Olivier award for best set design for Stanley (National Theatre)

2000 Designs Vivienne Westwood exhibition at Museum of London

2002 Wins Olivier award for Humble Boy; Tony award for Private Lives; also designs Vincent in Brixton, What the Night is For, starring Gillian Anderson, and The Talking Cure, starring Ralph Fiennes

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