My best teacher

11th December 1998 at 00:00
I WENT to St Austell grammer school in Cornwall, known to its pupils as Borstal-on-Sea. When I first arrived it seemed a rather oppressive place, and I don't think the quality of the teaching was very good. All that was to change, however, after I'd been there four years with the arrival of two teachers: the exotically named Frederick Farnham-Flower and Fred Waring.

They set about reforming the school and giving it style, direction and purpose. We learned from them that there was more to life than football and young ladies, smoking and gymnastics; that there was life beyond Plymouth and that it wasn't effeminate to pursue a career in the arts and to enjoy reading Wordsworth.

Until they arrived, I had no inclination towards the arts. I wanted to become a pop singer or a professional footballer, although I had no ability in either field.

Mr Farnham-Flower taught English, and Mr Waring French. Thereafter English became my best subject and, although I wasn't particularly good at French, I thought French literature was terrific.

Farnham-Flower was the man who really changed things. He introduced us rather insular Cornish boys to a world of literature and drama that was quite exceptional. There was no theatre in Cornwall, no opera, no singing, no dance - just the clay mines and the boats. There was no question in those days (the 1950s) of outings to Stratford-upon-Avon or London, because of the distance and the cost involved. Farnham-Flower took us to see a couple of touring groups, but I didn't see a professional theatrical production until I was 21 and at university.

Farnham-Flower was a striking man - tall and good-looking with an aquiline nose and swept-back hair. He wore a natty, three-piece suit and sometimes a bow tie, which we boys thought was a bit flash. He had a classy, cultured accent we'd never heard in Cornwall before. His approach was very personal. He took a proper pedagogic interest in his pupils, whom he saw as his disciples. He even changed the school uniform, designing the blazer, badge and the logo on it.

Suddenly, through him, the gates were opened on the intellectual world. He provided the key - it was as simple as that. I'd read hardly anything apart from Hotspur before he arrived. His teaching, particularly in the sixth form, was adventurous. He used the set texts but also encouraged us to read other things. He introduced the school play and swept boys and staff along with him with his canny mix of enthusiasm and authority.

I remember a newly appointed physics master providing the pyrotechnics for an interesting version of The Critic by Sheridan that we put on. He also allowed me, bravely I thought, to play Macbeth when I was 15.

Waring and Farnham-Flower were friends and had both taught at the same public school that had closed down. They bought houses next to each other. One had gone to Cambridge and one to Oxford. Farnham-Flower's house was painted dark blue, and Waring's light blue.

Waring was a little older than Farnham-Flower. He was a lovely avuncular fellow who always looked rather sad. He was good-looking in a craggy way and smoked a pipe. He was just as I imagined Maigret would look - indeed he introduced us to the Simenon books. In much the same way as Farnham-Flower introduced us to the joys of English literature, Waring introduced us to the joys of French literature. As well as the set texts, he pointed us in the way of contemporary French writers and European philosophy - I got very interested in existentialism and the European idealists.

Both men encouraged me academically in English and French, and I then applied myself in the same way with my other subjects. My parents suggested a career in the Hong Kong police force, but Farnham-Flower persuaded them that I should stay on at school and go to university. I read philosophy and history at Southampton.

Over the years I have kept in touch with my former teachers. Waring is dead now, but Mr Farnham-Flower makes an annual pilgrimage with his wife to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I now live and where I have been working for the past five years, to see me perform. When he came to see me in Julius Caesar, I found I still had, after 40 years, a deep urge to call him Sir, and I could feel he wanted to call me Nettles. He strode the boards once himself and there is more than a smack of John Gielgud about him. He still treats me as an 18-year-old and offers me acting hints, which I find hugely pleasant. It makes me feel young again.

John Nettles, the star of 'Bergerac', returned to television in a new ITV series of detective dramas, 'Midsomer Murders', earlier this year. Others follow in 1999. He will be appearing in the pantomime 'Dick Whittington', as King Rat, at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, from December 10. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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