Mrs Lewis used to write very funny scripts for our end of term productions

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Mrs Lewis used to write very funny scripts for our end of term productions. I was heartbroken when she put on The Merchant of Venice and I wasn't chosen to play Shylock

I had two special teachers - one taught English and one Latin - and I am very grateful to both because from them I learned the power and the value of language.

Mr Gow, whom we called Gowdie, was the Latin master at Marr college on the west coast of Scotland. He was a magisterial figure in his black gown, with bright red hair and bristling eyebrows. He was tall and slim, looked a bit like (Peter) O'Toole and had a fierce tread as he strode along the school corridors. Even though I got the strap from him on three occasions I never bore a grudge. I was very naughty and I thought he was perfectly entitled to punish me.

Gowdie was strict and had a gift for sarcasm. We were all scared of him, but he really loved Latin and language, and he passed that on. He also loved teaching and responded positively if you'd done your homework well.

You really wanted to please him, even though he was so fierce.

Another thing that was rather romantic about him and fascinated me was that according to rumour he had been a prisoner of war in Japan. We never asked him about it, of course; you didn't ask teachers personal questions in those days. I had a feeling that Gowdie liked me because I was an eager pupil and never took it amiss when I was punished. In a strange way, I think he quite enjoyed my cheekiness.

The other teacher I dearly loved was Mrs Lewis, who taught English at East Haddon, the boarding school in Northamptonshire where I spent my last couple of school years. She was a wonderful teacher who, like Gowdie, didn't suffer fools and was a great disciplinarian. At your peril would you be frivolous or giggle or be found not to have done your homework to the best of your ability. She could make you feel the size of a peanut. And, also like Gowdie, she had a keen sense of humour.

Mrs Lewis sometimes wore a black gown, but I can see her in a brown suit.

She was short and quite plump with twinkly brown eyes in a strong face, and she walked fast. It was A-level time and she used to teach us individually in her study as well as in class. We were doing Hamlet and the romantic poets. She was just excellent.

Mrs Lewis's daughter, Caroline, was in my class and became my best friend.

She was naughty too, so I suppose that's why we gravitated together. We were both good at English and quite competitive.

Mrs Lewis was a playwright and she used to write funny scripts for our end of term productions. I was in everything. I'd started writing plays and producing them when I was at primary school. I remember being heartbroken when Mrs Lewis put on The Merchant of Venice one term and I wasn't chosen to play Shylock. Then I was mortified because Caroline got to play Portia and I was stuck with Bassanio. But the next summer I was cast as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was fine.

In the school holidays Caroline would come and stay with me. We are still good friends and meet regularly. I am godmother to her daughter and she is godmother to mine. Mrs Lewis, alas, is no longer around, but we kept in touch for many years. We all did well in our A-levels and I went on to Rada and got quickly into films. I think Gowdie knew what became of me because even though I changed my name from Susie Fletcher, every now and again people from Marr college pop out of the woodwork.

I was doing my one-woman show in Australia a couple of years ago and got a letter from someone who had heard me talking about Gowdie. They confirmed, all those years later, that he had indeed been a prisoner in a Japanese camp.

Actress Susannah York was talking to Pamela Coleman


1942 Born in London

1947-53 Miss Hunter's primary school, Troon, Scotland

1953-55 Marr college, Troon

1955-56 Wispers girls' school, Surrey

1956-58 East Haddon, Northamptonshire

1958-59 Royal Academy of Dramatic Art

1961 First film, Tunes of Glory with Alec Guinness. Sixty films since include The Greengage Summer; Tom Jones; A Man for All Seasons; Jane Eyre; Superman I and II

1964 First West End stage performance in Wings of a Dove

2000 onwards Tours UK, Australia, Hungary and US with one-woman show

2005 April 25-May 22 Stars in new play, The Kindness of Strangers, at Warehouse Theatre, Croydon (Tickets 020 8680 4060)

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