My best teacher

9th July 2004 at 01:00
'Jane Latozel made me feel I could be who I am'

I was brought up in Southall, in west London, and went to a local primary school called Tudor Road. The headteacher was called Mr Pengelly, I think.

I was only there for three years, until I was seven, then I went to Barbara Speake stage school in Acton until I was 16.

I always used to sing a lot at home and knew that I wanted to become a performer from the age of about six. I used to enter local talent competitions and things, even at that early age. My mother, who was always full of drive and ambition, wanted me to be able to have the best chance to do what I wanted to do, to get the best from myself, so she found a way for me to go to this school. I owe her a lot, and she probably had the biggest influence on me. Definitely.

Barbara Speake was a great school, actually, and all the teachers were fantastic at what they did. But the one person who made a huge difference to me was my singing teacher, Jane Latozel. She just had this way of inspiring confidence in you, and I remember she was always wonderfully supportive of me.

It wasn't just that she was a great singing teacher, although she was, but she gave me so much more than that. She opened my eyes to a lot of other things in the world, and made me feel that I could be who I am, that I didn't have to be limited by what other people thought I should be. She was full of valuable lessons that taught me how important it is to constantly challenge myself. I am still trying to do that now, so I suppose she's had quite a big effect on who I am.

She was an amazingly warm, supportive person, and I've remembered her ever since. I haven't seen her for ages but I bumped into her daughter and grandson not that long ago and just ran over and gave them a big hug. I think they thought I was mad, but that was meant for her really, because of the influence she had on me. I don't think she's teaching any more, not at that school anyway, but she was a massively important influence for me.

I suppose she was like all the best teachers in that what she gave you went beyond just teaching, or beyond the classroom. It was a view of the world, and a view of yourself in the world. It's the confidence that gives you that's so important, especially in the performing world I'm in - whether acting or singing or writing, it's all tough and you have to know what you're about.

Schools are so important because they're the foundation, the bedrock of what people become later in life. At their best they're not just about education, in a narrow sense, but they give kids opportunities to do and try all sorts of things. I did lots of other things at school apart from acting and singing - playing football for instance - and, largely through Mrs Latozel, was switched on to all kinds of issues and aspects of life.

That's partly why this Sport Relief campaign is so important, because if schools get involved they can use it to challenge kids and give them opportunities - not just to get involved in the fun and the physical activity side of it, but to learn about where the money goes and why that's important, to learn about those who don't have the opportunities they do, and why.

Actor, singer and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah plays Finlay Newton in BBC TV's Casualty. He will be taking part in Sport Relief on July 10. For details, see: www.sportrelief.com. He was talking to Matthew Brown

THE STORY SO FAR

1967 Born Ian Roberts, London

1971 Tudor primary, London borough of Ealing

1974 Barbara Speake stage school

1980 Appears in TV series The Latchkey Children; changes name to Kwame Kwei-Armah, aged 12

1995 Appears in film CutThroat Island

1999-2001 Writer in residence, Bristol Old Vic; musical Blues Brother, Soul Sister staged there

1999-2004 Plays Finlay Newton in Casualty

2003 Appears on Celebrity Fame Academy; his play Elmina's Kitchen is nominated for Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards for Best New Play of 2003; wins Evening Standard Charles Wintour award for most promising playwright; album, Kwame, released

2004 TV version of Elmina's Kitchen broadcast on BBC4 in May. Takes part in Sport Relief, July 10.

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