My best teacher

21st November 2003 at 00:00
I had a teenage crush on Mr Thomson, my English teacher at Highbury Hill grammar school. I never found out his first name. He was in his late twenties, tall, gangly and foppish, and wore suits that seemed slightly too big for him - they looked like hand-me-downs from his dad. He was bumbling and dropped things. I felt sorry for him, because he would always blush. I went through a phase when I liked talking to him, but if I talked too much I'd get shy and feel myself going red too. I found him attractive, but a lot of the other girls found him a bit sappy. To me, he was quite romantic.

Of all my teachers, he's the one I remember the most.

Highbury Hill was a strict school for girls in Islington. We didn't do drama until Mr Thomson joined. He encouraged us to put on plays, and he introduced us to Shakespeare. He made Romeo and Juliet fantastic. He had a certain way about him and everyone listened to him, unlike most of the other teachers.

We did a lot of plays with him - The Taming of the Shrew, Chicken Soup and Barley and Roots. We put on Oliver!, which we renamed Olive because it was an all-girls school. Fagin was Fanny, and that was me.

I went to Yerbury junior in Tufnell Park, which was, and still is, a great school. When I was 11 my sister and I moved to Hayes, west London, and lived with my grandparents for a year while my mum and stepdad set up an antiques business. I went to the local comprehensive, Harlington. My mum felt I wasn't getting on well because Harlington was so big. When the business failed we moved back to Highbury. Mum wanted me to go to the grammar school, but there weren't any places. Eventually, I had an interview and they told me I could start the next day, so I joined at the end of the first year.

I only did five O-levels. I went off the rails a bit because my best friend died. She didn't go to my school. I didn't socialise with my school friends much and I didn't want to stay on. Mr Thomson got me through my English O-levels and my grades were good enough to get into college, where I did A-level English literature and a drama and theatre studies diploma. Mr Thomson helped me with my audition piece for Kingsway Princeton college in King's Cross. I thought I'd try to win them over by being funny, so I did the nurse from Romeo and Juliet. I didn't have the confidence to do Juliet.

In the back of my mind, I'd always wanted to be an actress, but never thought it possible. My careers teacher told me not to be silly, but I had the acting bug and I was quietly feisty in those days. I certainly knew what I didn't want to do, such as going to university and becoming a teacher, which is what everyone advised. Mr Thomson encouraged me to think, "If you want to do it, why don't you go for it?" In the mid-1970s there wasn't much call for young working-class actors. There were a lot of bourgeois sitcoms or American programmes, but no middle ground and no soaps. In hindsight, I should have gone on to higher education, but it's easy to look back and say, "I wish".

My sister, Vicky, is a year older than me and she went to Parliament Hill.

We decided we didn't want to go to the same school. We were very close, almost like twins, but as teenagers we wanted to be apart and have our own lives. Vicky became a nursery nurse and later retrained at university and became a social worker. My mum went to college as a mature student when I was about 14. She got a degree in politics and social science and worked as a housing officer for Islington council. I'm the only one who hasn't got a degree.

Education is so important and it's the teachers who make the difference.

You have to have someone who seduces you into the subject, just as I was into the world of Shakespeare.

Actress Michelle Collins was talking to Judy Parkinson

The story so far

1963 Born Hackney, London

1970 Yerbury junior school, London borough of Islington

1974 Harlington community school, Middlesex

1975 Highbury Hill grammar, Islington

1979 Kingsway Princeton college of further education, London borough of Camden

1981 Backing singer in The Wilsations

1982 Introduced to acting co-op, Focus, by actor Tim Roth while on fringe circuit

1988-97 Plays Cindy in BBC's EastEnders

1998-2003 Takes leading roles in TV dramas, including 2000 Acres of Sky, Real Women, Daylight Robbery, Single

December 2003 Plays Marigold in Channel 4's version of Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum

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