My best teacher

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Norwood Hinkel was the music teacher at Putney School, a progressive co-ed boarding school in Vermont. No marks were given and there were no formal examinations. It was founded by Carmelita Hinton, one of the most progressive educationists in the United States. The theory was that teenage competitiveness was enough: curiosity and a desire to impress our peers would drive us. I was there from 15 to 17.

For the previous seven or eight years I'd been to a highly competitive day school in New York City, the Horace Mann School. I'd planned to move on to a grander establishment, but changed my mind when I went to Putney to see a friend graduate.

My parents didn't try to influence my choice, and only after I went to Putney did I discover that was what they had always wanted. My father was a doctor, but Putney made a real attempt to mix social classes.

I was passionate about jazz, and from the age of 14 had used false ID to get into Birdland on Broadway to listen to the greats - Brubeck, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus.

I disliked classical music, and suddenly found myself at a school that was serious about it. Norwood Hinkel insisted everyone sang on Friday nights - Bach cantatas, oratorios and chorales, serious stuff, and the standard was high.

I soon got into it because I was keen on sport, and one of the footballers I admired persuaded me to go to a concert by Rudolph Serken. He was one of the greatest pianists in the world, and lived next door to the school. I sat about 10 feet from Serken playing Hammerklavier and suddenly the point of the whole thing hit me like a bulldozer.

Within three months I had switched from trombone to flute and had changed from hating classical music to trying to get into the choir.

I could already read music, which was a help, and Norwood Hinkel said:

"Look fellas, when you come to this school you're going to sing and you're going to play and you're going to do it properly." And we did.

He only taught music. He was middle-aged, and looked a bit like the drmouse in Alice in Wonderland. He had a slight accent and was probably German. He was incredibly serious and very bossy. He treated us all as if we had signed up for the Berlin Philharmonic, but the competition worked. I was a smart-arse New Yorker who thought I was able to have opinions about everything, but I rose above my prejudices. We sang madrigals in the football locker room the way other teenagers would sing pop songs - I'm not kidding.

My other best teacher was Charlie Brinkley, who taught history at Putney. He was very charming, aged 45 or 50, thinner than Norwood Hinkel but, like Norwood, losing his hair. He had a kind of salon, very much in the Oxbridge tutorial manner, in which his irony and wit were famous. I loved it.

Charlie Brinkley could cut you off at the knees. Those of us who liked his sense of humour adored him, although some students didn't get the joke. Both men were a bit cruel, but having come from a tough school where everybody achieved, I was able to cope.

Going to Putney changed my life. If I hadn't gone there I would have been a lawyer. When I went to Harvard I planned to become a campaigning lawyer but, having learned at Putney to try anything, I got involved with the dramatic society and started acting and then directing. I was about 19 and suddenly realised what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Roger Graef was talking to Pamela Coleman


1936 Born in New York

1957 Graduates from Harvard

1961 Directs first drama for CBS

1962 Moves to London to direct at the Royal Court

1965 Makes first television documentary

1979 Founds Films of Record, independent TV production company

1982 Directs Bafta-winning series about Thames Valley Police - one of the first to use fly-on-the-wall techniques

1999 Has directed 80 films and won acclaim for documenting crime stories

2000 Becomes News International visiting professor in broadcast media at Oxford University. His first lecture will be on January 17 at Exeter College

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