My best teacher

21st September 2001 at 01:00
I never liked the idea of school, and my first experience was quite off-putting. I had a very strict teacher in a small primary, Hurst C of E, in Berkshire. She was called Miss Pounds. I said "Bloody hell" one day and she put me in the corner and later washed my mouth out with soap and water. It made me feel sick and I've never forgotten the taste of the white carbolic. Horrible. The next day I was given the slipper in front of the whole school, which was very humiliating. Mind you, I think schools are too soft nowadays.

When I was eight we moved to north Kent and I went to a bigger school, King's Road primary, in Herne Bay. That was where I was in my first play - A Christmas Carol. I might have been Bob Cratchit, but it was a long time ago and I'm not sure. And then I failed the 11-plus - I wasn't very good at maths - and that was a bit of a blow. I was disappointed because a lot of my contemporaries were going to the grammar school. My father sent me to a private school, where they did manage to teach me some French.

I was there for about two years, but my father, who worked in the Bank of England, couldn't afford to educate both my brother and me privately. So next it was a secondary modern, which probably toughened me up a bit. I got into a fight over a girl outside school and, because I was a swimmer, I was able to give the other boy a pounding. They left me alone after that.

It was there, Sir William Nottidge in Whitstable, that I was Professor Higgins in Pygmalion. And that's where I met my best teacher, Mrs Godfrey. She was quite elderly - she had a stick - but she was great, like a good director: if you showed interest she would help you. I used to go to her house for extra lessons, Shakespeare in particular. I remember she told us to try to think of something that wasn't obvious for our O-level essays. I chose "The Destruction of a City", but instead of doing something like the Blitz, I decided to see it through the eyes of a man paralysed in a wheelchair. From under a tree in a park he watched an earthquake and that was the story - how he got there and what happened to him. I got grade one in both English language and literature and won the English prize that year. Colin Cowdrey presented me with an Oxford dictionary. I had imagined a big book with lots of pictures, but I still use the dictionary and that was in 1966.

I wanted to go to art school, but failed art O-level and went travelling. I hitched across India and central Asia when I was 17, then did numerous jobs and took A-level art at night school. I did go to art school - High Wycombe - to do a foundation course and graduated in photography. I was offered a place at the Guildford School of Photography, but in the end I didn't take it up. I'd been doing a holiday job working for an Arab sheikh and living in a gatehouse on his estate near Cliveden in Buckinghamshire.

I taught myself the guitar there and thought about being a pop musician. But you can act till you drop, so I talked my way into a stage management job at the Leeds Grand. While there, I found a picture of my grandfather, Johnny Schofield junior. He had been in music hall, done panto and character acting and was in a wartime film called Went the Day Well. It seemed like an omen.

But, whatever has happened since, I haven't forgotten Mrs Godfrey. Without her I wouldn't have got those top grades in English.

Actor John Altman was talking to Heather Neill

The story so far

1952 Born in Berkshire

1963 Attends Sir William Nottidge secondary modern in Whitstable, Kent

1974 High Wycombe art school

1975 Stage manager at Leeds Grand

1979 Plays a mod in the film Quadrophenia

1985 Joins cast of BBC soap EastEnders as Nick Cotton

June 2001 Leaves EastEnders

August 2001 Plays Mr Davis, a gangster in new Brit film It's Been Real,also featuring Samantha Fox and shown at Cannes film festival September 18, 2001 Due to play Billy Flynn in national tour of the musical, Chicago, opening at the Manchester Opera House

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