Miss Doughty by Paul O'Grady

20th February 2015 at 00:00
After a brutal primary education, the young Paul arrived at secondary school with little confidence in his own abilities. But a theatrical English teacher showed him he wasn't so lacking after all

I went to a private primary school run by the Christian Brothers, Redcourt St Anselm's in Birkenhead, and learned nothing there except how to dodge blows. They were hyper-violent men. Then, because I failed the 11-plus quite miserably, I went to a secondary modern boys' school called Blessed Edmund Campion, where there were some excellent teachers.

I had a wonderful English teacher called Dora Doughty. This was the late 1960s and she was very glamorous, well-corseted and she always smelled nice. The Christian Brothers had only ever told me I was thick; Miss Doughty was the first person to encourage me.

She asked us to write a short story and when I took mine in she said, "That's marvellous." I was gobsmacked - I'd never received praise before. Miss Doughty changed my attitude to learning: until that point, I thought I was brain-dead and amounted to nothing. She had a keenness that woke me up.

She had her work cut out as half the class weren't interested, but by God that good woman kept on. I passed both English language and English literature O-level thanks to her.

Miss Doughty introduced me to literature. She told me to read The Catcher in the Rye, which was a big mistake. When I was about 12, I went to visit relatives in Ireland and I read it on the journey. By the time I got there I'd turned into this lip-curling, wisecracking kid. It had a great effect on me, that book.

She made lessons interesting and had a theatrical voice that I loved listening to. She would initiate debates and was quite happy for the whole class to be shouting and arguing. Having been barked at and told to keep my head down throughout primary school, I found it wonderful to be allowed to talk. Miss Doughty also gave me my first break as a performer: she put on plays and I had a big part in Hobson's Choice.

I wasn't a naughty kid but I never shut up, and I always had an animal with me - a hamster or a mouse or something. Half the boys were crawling with vermin. In those days it was perfectly acceptable to walk around with a catapult in your back pocket and a mouse in your school blazer. It was a different era: I mean, I used to laugh hysterically at the local flasher whereas nowadays I'd have counselling.

When I was 14, the school changed its name to Corpus Christi and introduced girls. That brought a whole new level of sexual tension for the teachers to deal with. At the time, I had boyfriends and girlfriends and thought nothing of it. I've always been dubious about my sexuality - I think I'm just greedy.

We all left at 16 to get work. I wanted to be a spy because of The Avengers, so I thought the best way in was through the civil service. I applied for the Ministry of Defence and ended up working for the Social Security.

I look back on my school days fondly. I didn't keep in touch with Dora but I saw her last year at a family funeral. She told me she was proud of me and that I was one of her success stories, which was lovely to hear. She was a great teacher. She knew how to play a violin and she played us all like a Strad.

Paul O'Grady was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is a patron of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which supports the campaign to make sex and relationships education mandatory in schools and inclusive of gay issues. For more information about the foundation, to receive email bulletins or to make a donation, visit www.petertatchellfoundation.org

You've got to laugh

Paul O'Grady

Born 14 June 1955, Birkenhead

Education St Joseph's Primary School, Liverpool; Redcourt St Anselm's, Birkenhead; Blessed Edmund Campion RC Secondary Modern (later Corpus Christi High School), Birkenhead

Career Television presenter, radio DJ, comedian and actor. Hosts The Paul O'Grady Show and Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs on ITV, plus his own show on BBC Radio 2

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