My best teacher

1st April 2005 at 01:00
My best teacher was Edward Martin, whom I knew as Teddy. He was from St Helens, Lancashire, and must have been about 40 at the time. He taught English at the Cathedral school in Bristol, a grammar school established in the 15th century to train choristers for the cathedral, although I wasn't a chorister myself.

I went there in 1950, after the 11-plus, and I didn't think I was particularly academic. Every three weeks our work was graded to determine our position in the form. I was always around 16 out of 24, quite mediocre.

When I was 15 Teddy came into our English class, opened a book and started reading TS Eliot's The Four Quartets. He read for 40 minutes until the bell went, he closed the book, and my life was changed irrevocably.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I didn't understand the verse, I'd never heard of TS Eliot, but there was something about it that was strange and exciting. I didn't know it was a religious poem, with its imagery and weird philosophical statements. Later that day I sought Teddy out and asked if I could borrow the book to take home.

When Teddy took me to his home after school it was the first time I'd ever seen a room that had books on every wall for all to see. He said "Help yourself", and he drove me home with about a dozen books. I used to do that quite often. Teddy asked me what sort of books I had at home. We had two: one was The Universal Home Doctor and the other was The Universal Book of Hobbies. My parents weren't philistines, they just didn't have any money.

My father was a commercial traveller, selling bits and pieces of motor cars to garages all over Gloucestershire. I have a twin sister and an older sister so money was very short, but my mother kept it all together.

Around the time of my 11-plus my mother was worried about my secondary education. My primary school headmaster told her that under the Education Act of 1945 there was no reason why I shouldn't go through secondary school and university, even Oxford or Cambridge, without having to pay a penny.

That made an enormous impression on my mother. In 1958 I got a scholarship to go to King's College, Cambridge, to study English.

Teddy was responsible for the annual school play. I began by carrying a spear, then in the second form I played in The Lady's not for Burning, and in my last year I played Henry V. Teddy liked directing, because although you can read literature in your head, when you actually utter it in speech you commit to it in a different way and it teaches you a lot more. I'm not very keen on acting, but there's no doubt that if you do a play for a couple of months, every night, it's the best kind of practical criticism you can have.

I discussed my ambitions with Teddy. I felt that teaching was a wonderful thing to do, but I wasn't very keen on teaching children. After college I thought I would join the Workers' Educational Association and bring Yeats to the miners. After an interview with them they offered me pound;12 a week, starting in Rotherham. But at that time Peter Cook decided to open a nightclub in London, so I'm afraid I chose that. I was a member of The Establishment with John Bird and Eleanor Bron.

My parents liked occasionally seeing me on television, but it always worried my mum that it was such an insecure profession, and when I got a bit older I'd have nothing to fall back on. My grandmother told me I should become an electrician because electricity was the coming thing.

Teddy Martin was very keen on 18th-century literature as well as modern work, and he introduced me to Pope, Johnson and particularly Swift.

Although I've always hated the term satirist, it certainly applied to Swift. Teddy and I shared that rather bleak view of the world as folly.

The last time I saw Teddy was in the late Eighties. He was in London and we had dinner together. He died about 10 years ago and I spoke at his memorial service. There isn't a day goes past that I don't think of him. This man transformed my life. If he hadn't I wouldn't be talking to you now.

Humorist and actor John Fortune was talking to Judy Parkinson

The story so far

1939 Born in Bristol

1944-50 Summerhill primary and junior schools, St George, Bristol

1950 Cathedral school, Bristol

1958 Studies English at King's College Cambridge

1961-63 Performs at Peter Cook's Establishment Club

1963 onwards Television script writer and actor

1966 Stars with John Bird in BBC satirical sketch programme The Late Show

1991-2 Appears on BBC2's Rory Bremner

1993-6 Stars in six series of Rory Bremner - WhoElse? for Channel 4

1995 First series of The Long Johns, 15-minute vignettes with John Bird for Channel 4

1995 1996 Appears on Have I Got News For You

1997 First series of Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4

2003 Appears in feature film Calendar Girls

2005 Seventh series of Bremner, Bird and Fortune runs until April 10 on Channel 4, Sundays, 8pm

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