My best teacher

7th October 2005 at 01:00
I was part of the first intake of a new comprehensive in North Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in the late 1970s. It still had the feel of a grammar school. A lot of the teachers had done their degrees just after the war; you stood up when they came in. Teaching was their vocation and they were very much part of the public life of the town. The physics teacher was the choir master at the parish church, and my English teacher, Alan Holden, was an actor. If there was a quality production, he'd be in it. His wife, Molly, was a poet, disabled with multiple sclerosis. Theirs was a very deep love match. He was a carer, a cook and an excellent teacher.

Alan had a lot of the actor about him; a lot of elan. He used to perch anywhere or walk around the class. Back then his wind-brushed hair was brown, and he wore square thick-rimmed glasses and a suit and tie. I remember him saying one day: "We're going to start arse about face, as it were." We were like: "He said arse! He's all right!" He knew exactly what he'd done; he was very good psychologically.

Alan's a very witty, erudite man; brilliant on George Eliot and Shakespeare. When you're 16 you don't necessarily understand the depth of Casaubon's dustiness. You need help to understand context and the idea of an all-embracing theory.

I did English at Brasenose but I still know those texts from school better than anything else. That's what being an actor was about for me; that analysis of text. An ability to process information quickly which is so vital if you're going to be a good actor because you've got to make so many quick decisions, particularly when you're reading scripts. Alan gave me that grounding. What I learnt from him was that, while the possibilities weren't endless, there was a lot more there. It catapults you into another area, a completely different attitude towards text.

The other thing about Alan is he taught us to respect literature but not to be overly respectful. You have to try to evaluate it dispassionately. We learnt to use our intellect but not to be intellectuals, although Alan wouldn't put it that way. He'd think it was pompous.

We read many plays together but he was a particularly good teacher of poetry. He's not a snob about metre or rhythm or rhyme or anything. He got me into Emily Dickinson; she's brilliant. I read a few lines of hers the other day in Marina Warner's dedication to her husband at the front of her book, No Go the Bogeyman: "Futile the winds,To a heart in port,Done with the compass,Done with the chart!"

I wouldn't have stumbled across Emily Dickinson, not at that age. That's a good teacher: someone who can find things you can respond to, which I did.

Alan was key to me getting into Oxford. I used to spend time with him after school studying for the entrance exam. We had an affinity: we were both likely lads made good, and we had the same sense of humour.

There was one incident when I was going to recite some AE Housman at speech day. Alan and I had rehearsed the piece in detail. I'd already been in a few school productions and started to feel that I had a talent for acting, but come the day I got a frog in my throat and couldn't perform the piece.

We'd spent all that time on it, but we both saw the funny side of the collapse into absurdity.

Whenever I go back to Bromsgrove I try to look Alan up and have a pint with him. I remember talking to him once about his erudition. I said: "I don't think you know how intimidating you can be sometimes." "What!" he replied.

"I thought I was a hail-fellow-well-met kind of person." Which is him exactly. He has fun with words.

I regard Alan Holden as my best teacher because he became a friend. That's what friendship is, isn't it? Successful and fruitful time spent together.

That's what we have: a great friendship.

Comedian and actor Mark Williams was talking to Marged Richards

The story so far

1959 Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire

1964-73 Attends Sidemoor infants, Meadows primary school, Parkside middle school, then North Bromsgrove high school

1978 Reads English at Brasenose College, Oxford

1994-2000 Stars in three series of The Fast Show for BBC2, playing characters such as Kenneth the Tailor and Jesse

1998 Plays Wabash in feature film Shakespeare in Love

2002 Plays Ron Weasley's father in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (to be released November 2005)

October 2005 Presents More Industrial Revelations, Wednesdays at 8pm on the Discovery Channel

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