My best teacher

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Mrs Anstey made me focus on the classical world, and I'm still working on that 25 years later

When I was 11 I went to Notting Hill and Ealing high school on a bursary.

My parents were actors - my father still is - and we lived near the film studios. I'd been at Montpelier primary school, where we did lots of art.

Veronica Anstey was my Latin teacher and a fantastic character. She would sweep into the classroom in elegant, flowing clothes with big, dramatic jewellery.

You never knew what mood she would be in. She might be fierce and feisty or intimate and chatty. But she always delivered the lesson in a beautifully dynamic way.

She was passionate about her subjects - Latin and Greek - and her skin always seemed brown because she'd have been away in the summer to Greece or Turkey, looking at sites. She was furious about Latin being thought of as a dead language; it wasn't dead, because we were using so much of it in our day-to-day speech, and when you look at western civilisation and what we've inherited, it's so relevant. We live the Greco-Roman way, she said.

She was a colourful teacher and would go off at tangents, talking about her wild life at university, her first kiss, her ex-husband. We were all agog, waiting for the next revelation.

She taught in a very visual way, using pictures and showing us the physical environment of ancient civilisations. One of her first lessons was a slide show. It was a warm, fuggy afternoon in the geography room with the blinds drawn. The first slide was black and white and a bit scratched but it was this amazing picture of a snake goddess from Crete, her arms outstretched, her hands clasping bunches of snakes. Her dress was cut to the waist and she had these pneumatic breasts. It was an arresting image and I remember thinking, what were those people like? Who were these women, creating images like that?

Mrs Anstey made me focus on the classical world, and I'm still working on that 25 years later. The latest film I've made for Channel 4 is a journey to Crete to discover the lives of Minoan women. It's really a homage to that lesson. The snake goddess is a porcelain figurine, nearly a foot tall, found buried at Knossos, and now in the museum at Heraklion.

As well as Latin, I chose Greek at O-level. There were only three of us - the odd, eccentric ones. I must have been a terrible swot, getting up at 6am to conjugate my verbs. But Mrs Anstey wasn't remotely scared of drumming in the basics, which is essential if you're going to look at original texts.

She encouraged us in all sorts of ways. One summer I went to a school in Bath and talked Latin all day. We were a mixed bunch and I think it was trying to break the public school stranglehold on the classics. I also did Greek choral speaking in festivals in the south-east and one time I turned up in a red leather mini-skirt, black fishnet tights and legwarmers. I saw her look at me and thought, she's going to criticise. But she just said:

"To be honest the leg warmers aren't very flattering. They make your legs look chunky," and that was it.

In the sixth form I did Greek, with A-levels in art, history, Latin and botany. Mrs Anstey ran a magazine called Omnibus for the Joint Association of Classics Teachers and she asked me to do the illustrations. It meant I had to read all the articles, which were aimed at first-year university students, so I learned a lot.

Mrs Anstey encouraged me to apply to Oxford, saying you only had to ask at the Ashmolean Museum and they'd let you handle real artefacts, bronze-age cups and other amazing items, and she was right. Since I did the series on the Spartans, Mrs Anstey has been in contact, which is touching. She's finally retired and is living in the West Country. Even now, as long as my mum and dad and Mrs Anstey like a programme I've done, I can relax.

Historian Bettany Hughes was talking to Sarah Bayliss

THE STORY SO FAR

1967 Born in London

1971 Montpelier primary, west London

1978-86 Notting Hill and Ealing high school

1986 Scholarship to read ancient and modern history, St Hilda's College, Oxford

1990-96 Travels and researches in Greece, Turkey, Romania and Sicily

1992 Director of arts, Riverside Studios

1993 First job in television: heritage correspondent on The Pier, for Meridian

1995-99 Presents four series for Open University TVRadio

2002 The Spartans for Channel 4

November 2003 Seven Ages of Britain, series on Channel 4, runs for seven weeks at 8pm on Saturdays until December 27

2004 Book on Helen of Troy to be published. New series, The Minotaur's Island, for C4

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