My best teacher

16th April 2004 at 01:00
John Dean was my housemaster and English teacher at Giggleswick school. To me he was a father figure and a friend. I can't describe him without comparing him to my other English teacher, Russell Harty. They were a team, John in his late 30s and Russell aged 24, a generation apart with very different approaches to English - but their pupils were the beneficiaries.

Both went to Oxford, John was a classic old school figure, Russell was young, keen on drama and hated sport. John was a well-spoken gentleman who had served in the Indian Police in the late 1940s. He was well-built with a red face and walked with a swagger, his gown draped over his shoulder. He liked his old Brasenose scarf and his MCC tie, and he wore a straw hat when he umpired cricket. He was a terrific sportsman - he played cricket and fives into his seventies.

John was a long-serving teacher who loved Giggleswick; he was its conscience. He had a meticulous eye for detail, going around picking up litter.

I was bright at prep school; I passed common entrance well and went straight into the fourth form at the age of 13, so most boys were two years older than me. Giggleswick was my father's old school. He worked in the family textile business, which was on the decline in the 1950s, and paying fees was a struggle. I won a scholarship and got a third off the fees. I passed seven O-levels and, aged 16, passed English, French and Latin A-levels. I stayed on and achieved a distinction in S-level English. It was down to John and Russell that I did so well.

John encouraged me to follow him to read English at Oxford, but I failed the entrance exam and, thanks to his tutelage, made it to Cambridge instead.

John was an immaculate teacher, he'd refer to books from his shelves, and he'd recycle his old Oxford notes. He marked our essays with detailed annotations and very tough grades. He encouraged high standards of speech, grammar and punctuation. He loved poetry and we had to learn key passages from Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. There were four of us in the sixth-form English class, so we had one-to-one teaching in his study, which was his lair, furnished with sofas.

Russell came along at the end of my first year, storming in like a breath of fresh air. While the understated John stuck to the text, Russell was flamboyant and his lessons were more performances, with much ad libbing and flights of fancy.

I'd always wanted to be a television cameraman. I used to sit in chapel working out where I would put the cameras if the service was televised. I was a child of television; we got a set when I was eight. I used to babysit for John's two sons when he went out with his wife, Muriel. It was a fantastic privilege because I'd be able to watch his TV. He'd leave sandwiches and you got to stay up until 10pm. His house was lovely, full of books, beautifully furnished with stylish pictures.

The only other person at school who had a television was Russell. He once came in while we were doing prep. He told us he'd seen a programme about a street in Manchester. He said: "'You've got to watch it if it's still on during the Christmas holidays." And, of course, it was Coronation Street.

One of Russell's Oxford friends, Alan Shallcross, became a BBC trainee and he came to school to talk to the sixth form. He inspired me to become a trainee. Then my ambition was to edit Panorama and election night programmes.

John always seemed to take an interest in me. If I hadn't had that level of pastoral care I don't think I would have succeeded, and I'm really grateful. He died suddenly nearly 10 years ago while watching cricket on television - India against England. I still miss him.

Broadcaster and presenter Richard Whiteley was talking to Judy Parkinson


1943 Born Bradford

1951-56 Heather Bank prep school, Bingley

1957-62 Giggleswick school, Settle, North Yorkshire

1962-65 Christ College Cambridge to read English

1965 Editor of Varsity, Cambridge University newspaper

1965-68 ITN trainee

1968 Joins Yorkshire TV at its inception, becoming anchorman of its main regional programmes

1982 Becomes host of Countdown, spin-off of Yorkshire TV's Calendar Countdown. Programme is the first to be broadcast on Channel 4

1983-present Governor of Giggleswick school

2000 Published Himoff! The memoirs of a TV matinee idle (Orion)

2003 Appointed deputy lieutenant of West Yorkshire

2004 Hosts series 51 of Countdown

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today