My best teacher

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
I was a Royal Air Force baby, so we were shunted all over the place. The first school I remember was Swanton Abbot in Norfolk, with a lovely teacher called Mrs Doe. She can't have been that old, but she seemed to me to be older than God, with white hair in a bun, and crinkly apple cheeks. She picked up that I was interested in drama before I knew I was. My parents kept for ages this report saying "he shows an uncanny sense of theatre".

That was where I first appeared on stage at the age of five as Jack Frost in the story of the little crocus, dressed in a costume made of white crepe paper cut into zigzags.

When my father retired early from the RAF, I went to the Beacon, a prep school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and then to Haileybury, near Hertford, which, by and large, I didn't enjoy. It was dominated by a headteacher whose ethos was that of rightwing, muscular Christianity, unappealing for a would-be intellectual.

But I was lucky in that I had three charismatic English teachers. My housemaster loved the theatre, and he and his wife would take me to shows in London. He was full of encouragement. Then there was a terrifying man, Basil Edwards, who directed the school play and taught me English. He looked like a hawk, with a great hook nose, mad eyebrows and a scar on his forehead.

But the one who was to become an important friend was Martin Stephen. He was a 24-year-old newlywed with an ill-behaved dog and a baby, and took over from Basil when he retired. He was the first teacher I had who, without losing respect, was able to treat me as a friend and a human being.

At a boys' public school such as Haileybury, it was lonely, dirty and smelly, and you were hungry most of the time. What Martin did was welcome me into his home and offer me a bolt-hole.

He comes to see every play that he can with his wife, and I regularly give prizes at their speech days. I have followed his career with pride. To become high master of Manchester grammar school at the age of 47 is high-powered. Next autumn (2004), he becomes high master of St Paul's school in west London.

I read his historical novels in manuscript and am quite savage. Now the tables are turned, I'm able to write back saying "cut that terrible sex scene on page 340, and why do you make them sound as if they are speaking in Blackadder?" I'm an unofficial proofreader. When he arrived at Haileybury, I was playing the lead in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that he was going to direct, so it was inevitable that we would bond, or fall out. School plays can live in your memory, bathed in a kind of golden glow. It was, of course, 16 and 17-year-old boys prancing around in costumes, but it remains in my mind as marvellous.

When I went to Derby Playhouse for my first proper job, I was passionate about being in the theatre, but couldn't boil an egg and did not know how to spend money. I didn't know how to live, and Martin would write to me once a fortnight saying "Go to the laundrette, go to the chip shop," giving me the basic blueprints for life. As well as being an academic teacher, Martin is a good teacher on life, too.

I think I was a loathsome child to teach. I was hopeless at science and not a good linguist, but I was good at English and well-read. I delighted in trying to pick on teachers not as clever as me. But he put up with all that precocity and arrogance with good humour. His passions are so on the surface as to be readily communicable to a pupil, which is what you need.

You have to be in a room with someone who is lit up about a subject. These three English teachers were all deeply excited by what they were talking about - a marvellous thing for a young mind to come into contact with.

Actor and director Philip Franks was talking to Harvey McGavin


1956 Born in RAF hospital, Halton, Buckinghamshire

1969-73 Haileybury school, Hertfordshire

1974-77 Scholarship to read English at Mansfield College, Oxford. President of Oxford University Dramatic Society

1986 Plays Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company

1990 Darling Buds of May with Catherine Zeta-Jones

1993 Stars as Tom Pinch in BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit

1994 Starts directing with production of Dr Faustus at Greenwich theatre

1997 Directs T SEliot's The Cocktail Party at the Edinburgh Festival; plays Sergeant Craddock in four series of ITV's Heartbeat

2001 Plays Yvan in West End production of Art

2003 Appearing in Noises Off at London's Piccadilly theatre

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