My best teacher

7th August 1998 at 01:00
Several of my teachers at Whitgift School, Croydon, south London, continue to play a big part in my life because I draw on my mem-ories of their voices and mannerisms in my work.

Maurice Etherington, for instance, who was head of English, had a voice with a dark timbre which I used for the voice of God in a recent reading of Michael Frayn's new book, Sweet Dreams. Another teacher I have copied was Mr Kelly, a mild man who taught English and history in the lower forms. We behaved terribly in his classes and laughed and jeered, and he would respond in his light voice saying: "Now look here. Every time I open my mouth, some damn fool puts his foot in it." Then there was Mr Hussey, the history master. Mr Wickfield in a recent recording of David Copperfield was a version of Mr Hussey. The voice and character of my former headmaster, Mr Marlar, have also been inspirational.

Mr Marlar was a great headmaster because he was accessible. The school biology club had a film camera with which they photographed squirrels and things. My chum David Nerdemann and I felt this was not the best use to which it could be put and persuaded Mr Marler to let us borrow it. We wrote a film script called Curruthor's Lost Case, a sort of Sherlock Holmes comedy parody, for our holiday project, which was passed to Mr Etherington, who gave the nod to the headmaster. David and I cast the film, acted in it and co-directed. I had the leading role. It did well; a clip was shown on television.

I was about 16 and already knew I wanted to be a professional actor. I remember being ticked off in the school library with the words: "Don't behave like that Jarvis just because you wear your hair long and act in the school plays." My chum David was pretty creative, too, but sensibly did not pursue a film or theatrical career. He became an accountant and is now vice-president of Visa in America.

Whitgift School had a tradition of literature and drama, which I latched on to enthusiastically. I met Mr Etherington, who produced all the school plays, several years before he taught me when I auditioned for a part in the school production of Romeo and Juliet. I had a vague hope of being Juliet (this was an all boys' school), but my voice was breaking and I was cast as Juliet's mum, Lady Capulet. I was keen but atrocious in the role. But Mr Etherington thought I had some talent and encouraged me. The next year I played Worcester in Henry IV part I. The following year I played Cassius, the next year, Macbeth, and in my final year at the school, Hamlet.

Mr Etherington taught me English from the fifth year onwards. He was a marvellous teacher because of his great enthusiasm. He made it pleasurable to read Shakespeare, poetry and Dickens in the classroom. He was very encouraging when I went to audition for scholarships for RADA and the Guildhall.

At O- and A-level I did very well in English and history because of my love for the subjects and because I had marvellous teachers. I did hopelessly at maths because I wasn't the slightest bit interested. I remember my form master's comment at the end of one report: "Good work, but Jarvis must remember that English and drama are not the only subjects worthy of his best attention. "

I was a bit of a rebel and, because of the acting, a bit flashy, but I was made a prefect and was head of my house. I was good at cricket, and I think being an actor and being able to bowl off-spinners helped my image. Mr Marlar apparently said: "We better have Jarvis as a prefect. I'd rather have him on the side of the angels than against them."

From 'Just William' to Dickens, Martin Jarvis' readings have made him a household voice, as well as a star of stage, screen and television. He played the cameo role of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon in the film, 'Titanic'.

Martin Jarvis was talking to Pamela Coleman

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