Mr Glen by Jeremy Irons

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
When the Oscar-winning actor was invited to a play reading at his English teacher's home, he was transported to another world

I was a bit of a dullard at school. I always seemed to be sitting at the back of the class, where I could hear little and understand less. Something would be explained and I'd think, "I don't really get that." But not wanting to draw attention to myself, I kept quiet. So I was always dropping down the ability streams.

Robert Glen, who taught English at Sherborne School in Dorset, was the first teacher to show me the love of learning for learning's sake. Until then, I would suffer classes and focus on the things I enjoyed, which were music and sport. I played violin and guitar and loved rugby and horse riding.

I suppose Robert must have seen something in me. He would hold occasional play readings at his home in an effort to domesticate us boys. When I was 16, he invited me and a few others to read Riders to the Sea, a play by John Millington Synge. Robert was a tweedy, rather shy man in his late forties, friendlier than many of the other teachers, and it was a privilege to be asked to his home. We had a small glass of sherry, tea and sandwiches.

Each of us was assigned a part and I remember being very caught up in it. It was like being enveloped in an emotional blanket; I was transported to a dreamlike world far from that lamp-lit sitting room.

Until that point, I had never acted. I had always wanted to be in a school play but I was so dumb that I thought you had to be invited. I didn't realise that there was a list, and if you were interested you put your name down. Instead, I drummed in a rock band called the Four Pillars of Wisdom with Henry Marsh, who went on to form Sailor. I sang a bit, too, and Henry and I would duet on covers of songs by the Everly Brothers.

Then, while I was studying for my A-levels, the school was casting a production of The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Robert was directing and he asked me to play the lead role of Mr Puff. I suspect I played it just on personality, but I enjoyed it, the reception was all right and I think Robert was pleased.

Partly because of this, my exam revision fell apart and I failed the A-levels required for university. In my economics exam I remember writing a letter to the examiner that said: "Listen, I don't know any of this. Please don't make a fuss. Just fail me quietly."

I had no idea what I was going to do. In the school leavers' book, I wrote rather pretentiously that I was going into "histrionic art". I wasn't sure what it meant but I thought it sounded respectable. In the event, I went to do social work in South London and started busking in the West End. Then I answered an advert for a job in a theatre in Canterbury. I loved it. Each night I found myself transported back into that dream world and that's when I set out to train as an actor.

I'm not good at keeping in touch, but Robert came to see me in plays in Bristol and later at Stratford, and I would look him up on my rare visits back to Sherborne. I think he realised that he had opened the door for me. I shall always be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to discover this place of storytelling that I've been luxuriating in ever since. He taught me that there really is a Neverland.

Jeremy Irons was speaking to Kate Bohdanowicz. Irons is an ambassador for the Prince's Teaching Institute, which aims to inspire teachers through their love of their subject. For information, visit

Make-believe world

Jeremy Irons

Born 19 September 1948, Cowes, Isle of Wight

Education Little Appley Prep School, Isle of Wight; Sherborne School, Dorset; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Career Oscar-winning actor whose films include Reversal of Fortune and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Made his name playing Charles Ryder in the 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited

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