Learning in a roundabout way

11th July 1997 at 01:00
School for me was unrelenting torture. Until about 10 years ago I had a recurring nightmare, but when I woke up I could never remember what it had been about. All I could remember was the terror. Then, about 10 years ago, I woke up in a lucid flash and realised the terror was the school time-table. It was knowing that every Monday into infinity would start with double physics followed by double French and probably treble maths.

School did teach me what a terminal morrain is and that the Chartists demanded universal suffrage. I also know the French word for turkey - but not a lot more. What I learned most was how to cope with an institution I loathed, which is a neat trick, but I don't suppose that was the idea.

The school I went to, a co-ed grammar on the outskirts of London, wasn't a bad one. What it did manage to produce - it seemed to me as a second and third-former - was a golden sixth form.

I was suddenly aware of these arrogant, radical, dangerous, incredibly hip people at the top end of the school. They wore CND badges, went to anti-apartheid meetings and travelled on the tube, going up to London to watch Last Year at Marienbad and carrying LPs by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. I wanted to be part of that golden elite more than anything else.

I learned more from them than from any other group of people I have met, before or since. They taught me a critical contempt for the formal structures in society and a kind of radicalism. I learned how to roll a cigarette one-handed, how to run a book on five separate race meetings in one afternoon and how to play poker immaculately. I also learned how central to existence music can be.

I learned how to use text - that the Daily Mirror was funny and somewhere inside the Guardian there was something exciting, that you could read comics and raid the library and find writers like Colin Wilson or philosophers such as Sartre.

It was a kind of treasure trove. There was a debating society run by the sixth form, which discussed things I had never heard of. Now, as vice-president of the actors' union, Equity, whenever I get up to speak I am still informed by those first tentative speeches I made, desperately wanting to emulate those sixth-formers.

I was in the A stream at school because I was good at the IQ tests. But I always came 33rd out of the 34 in the class. The person who was 34th would go down into the B stream, which was like going down to Hades - and so uncool. I was just allowed to stay up.

Because I had been a child actor they thought my education had been disrupted. But it wasn't that - I was just lazy. All my homework was cribbed in the bus on the way to school. I took Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire into all my O-levels and wrote all the French vocab in tiny writing between the lines. I just managed to scrape four O-levels.

I didn't get work until I was about 22, when I suddenly realised that instead of work being this Berlin Wall, it could actually be a kind of Eurotunnel between me and my desires. Almost overnight I became incredibly hard-working.

At the Central School of Speech and Drama I met Eric Thompson. Eric had been writing The Magic Roundabout for about a year and he had two small children, Emma (now, perhaps, more well-known than her dad) and Sophie.

When Eric was telling stories, he was telling them for himself and from himself. The children's stories he told were expressions of his love for his daughters, and they had a colour in them that would make them accessible to the girls.

I became very friendly with him because we were both avid card players. We would go round to his house of an evening and play cards to subsidise our grant. This was 1963 and we would be winning and losing Pounds 30 or Pounds 40 a night. The card table was thick with that strange, slightly macho chat - banter. I thought I was a banterer - I was born in Hackney so I thought I was part of that London thing - and I was an actor so I liked to rabbit.

I didn't even know I was a storyteller at that time. It was like a time-bomb because it was some years before I started telling stories. With my own children it was a way of expressing my love and giving them something of me.

Even though Eric was a teacher, he was part of the same thing as that sixth form. I was able to learn stagecraft and stage technique from him in a way I couldn't from anyone else. There was none of the superiorityinferiority thing I always felt at school. I didn't really think of him as a teacher, but he was - more than any of the ones at school.

Tony Robinson played Baldrick in Blackadder, wrote and appeared in the children's comedy Maid Marian and her Merry Men, and is about to start filming a new series of Channel 4's popular archaeology programme Timeteam. He presents the BBC Concert Orchestra's Junior Prom, Wet, Wet, Wet, a concert on the theme of water, on September 8 at the Royal Albert Hall, London

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