Miss Phillips by Tony Robinson

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
The actor and historian says that all his achievements have been inspired by a tiny elocution teacher who 'wrestled elephants'

At Woodford Green Preparatory School we wore little red blazers, short grey flannel trousers and red caps. My cap came down over my eyes so I looked like a Grenadier Guard. It sounds like it was a school preparing students for Eton and Harrow, but it was actually a little school in Winston Churchill's constituency of Woodford in northeast London. The parents were working class, but they were aspirational.

The school encouraged those aspirations. A number of additional teachers came in to teach things outside the curriculum, and one of them taught us elocution: a key to social mobility at the time. Her name was Myfanwy Phillips and I loved her and what she did from Day 1.

It was the early 1950s and I was about seven years old. Miss Phillips seemed old to me but I think she was probably only in her late forties. She lived with her brother; I don't think she had ever been married.

Having this tiny Welsh woman as a teacher was like a big present for me. What I loved about her was how much she enjoyed the material. Over the next three or four years she taught me at the school. Then, later, I used to take the 38 bus on my own, poetry books under my arm, to Chingford for extra lessons at her great, rambling house overlooking Gilwell Park.

She taught with - and this is not something I would have understood at the time - an attitude to the spoken word that had a great muscularity. Words were great, pliable, half-formed elephants you could wrestle with, play with and transform. She would clasp her fingers into fists and wave them about, explaining how you could decipher words into something wonderful.

The most important thing she taught me was breathing. She was too prim and proper for much physical contact but I was allowed to touch her diaphragm, which kicked like a bucking mule. She had control over sentences, clauses, paragraphs, and from an early age I learned to be on top of the spoken word. When I read out loud I wasn't beaten by the words. Writing was no longer something that stood between me and getting out of the classroom. It was a friend. It could make me laugh, make me cry. I learned how to decode it.

I was a child actor. I didn't do well at school; I bunked off all the time. I got terrible marks for most of my school subjects - except English because I knew what that was. I left school with four O levels and must be the only person I know who has more honorary degrees than O-level qualifications.

I remember that on one occasion we were looking at Robert Browning's poems and they were fraught with irony and I was the only student who got it. I explained My Last Duchess and the teacher dragged me off to the headteacher saying that I should be in the Oxbridge set. This was entirely untrue: I was nowhere near clever enough.

But I did do English grammar at home. I was good at cracking codes and that's how English seemed to me. I was a dysfunctional, naughty, playful kid but I could parse sentences on my own - for me, it was the equivalent of playing with a Meccano set.

All my achievements were inspired by Miss Phillips. Apart from a love of words, she taught me resilience, how to pick myself up. We kept in contact for a while after I left school but then lost touch. But what she taught me remains with me to this day.

Tony Robinson was talking to Jo Knowsley. He recently took part in the Scottish Book Trust's Authors Live programme, inviting young fans of his Weird World of Wonders history books to step back in time to discover strange secrets and find out what made the Britons British. Watch the event at www.bbc.co.ukauthorslive

SIR BALDRICK TO YOU

Tony Robinson

Born: 15 August 1946

Education: Woodford Green Preparatory School and Wanstead County High School, northeast London, England

Career: Actor, broadcaster, children's author and amateur historian. Knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours 2013.

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