Miss Catley by June Brown

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Long before the EastEnders star aspired to become an actress, she was given her first taste of drama by a passionate English teacher with dreamy blue eyes

I went to school in the 1930s and 1940s, when we were taught by mistresses, not teachers. We lived in Suffolk and I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to Ipswich High School, which was then part of the Girls' Public Day School Trust. I was taught by a lot of very dedicated unmarried women. Many men had been lost in the Great War, leaving a good deal of women single and in need of a profession.

Miss Catley was my English mistress when I was aged 10-17. She loved her subject, and if she quoted any literature or poetry she used to disappear into a haze of dreaminess. She taught me about the rhythm and music of words and language. I loved reading and still do. My aunt had the Charles Dickens collection so I had read all his work by the time I was 12 or 13.

Miss Catley was probably in her late thirties, although she seemed very old at the time. She wasn't pretty; she had an ordinary nose with slightly protuberant teeth and these dreamy blue eyes.

She was the first person to cast me in a role: she let me play the Virgin Mary because she thought I looked lovely in blue. All I had to do was sing a Latin lullaby, but I remember I got a frog in my throat.

If we were reading Shakespeare in class Miss Catley would give me the good parts, such as Cleopatra. She obviously thought I had some talent but no one ever dreamed of being an actress in those days. It was something you did as a hobby.

We were much more obedient than today's children; we didn't argue or play up. Of course, it was a time of great uncertainty. I was at school during the Second World War, and if the sirens went off we would go down into the air-raid shelters and continue our lessons. The headmistress was strict. You could be expelled for taking your felt hat off before you'd got home or for eating an ice cream in Woolworths in school uniform.

I hated hockey, so once I played truant and went to the pictures to see Dumbo. When I came out, the first person I saw was my Latin mistress, Miss Midgeley. She said sternly, "See me in the morning", but the next morning I had a toothache so she took me to the dentist. That was punishment enough as there was no anaesthetic then.

It was Miss Midgeley who accompanied two of my sisters and me when we were evacuated to Leicester for a few months in 1940, just after the start of the Battle of Britain.

I left school at 17. I wanted to be an osteopath, but it wasn't accepted as a medical science so you couldn't get a study grant. Instead I joined the Navy, became a Wren and worked as a cinema operator.

I left the Wrens when I was 19 and had an audition for London's Old Vic Theatre School. I went to Miss Catley to ask her what I should do. She suggested that I read the last speech of Deirdre in W B Yeats' poetic drama of that name, and I'm very grateful to her as I got in with that.

I never saw her again. I've been to a few old girls' meetings and I learned that she had died. Most of my teachers were wonderful but it's Miss Catley, with her dreamy blue eyes, who stands out the most.

June Brown was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. The actress supports the I Love a Bit of Variety T-shirt campaign run by children's charity Variety. The T-shirt, which is available at www.variety.org.uklove for pound;12, helps to raise funds for sick, disabled and disadvantaged children across the UK

In a lather

June Brown

Born 16 February 1927, Ipswich, Suffolk

Education St John's Church of England School, Ipswich; Ipswich High School; the Old Vic Theatre School, London

Career Actress best known for playing Dot Cotton in BBC soap opera EastEnders

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