My best teacher

19th May 2006 at 01:00
If it hadn't been for Helena Mietz I'd probably have joined the Army. I wanted to be a tank driver till Miss Mietz, who did my make-up as the Cowardly Lion in the school production of The Wizard of Oz, suggested I could make a career as an actor. She told me about the National Youth Theatre, which I'd never heard of, and helped me apply. I got in and then she advised me about drama schools. She was unequivocal and gave me the confidence to believe I could make a living from acting, which until then had never occurred to me.

She was one of those modern teachers who allowed you to call her by her first name. She taught drama at Battersea County, a comprehensive which had been a secondary modern, and was young and pretty. I was 16 and of course I fell in love with her. She was probably only about 10 years older than me and we became friends.

Apart from drama, English and art I didn't do well at school. I didn't shine at anything. I was regarded as just an oaf who sat at the back of the class and was disruptive, talking and being generally annoying. My reports said I was lazy, didn't bother and was more interested in fooling about than learning. Most kids left at 15, and during my entire time at the school I think only three or four people went to university. Much to everyone's surprise, I decided to stay on and do my O-levels and take art at A-level. I remember the maths master saying: "What's the point? Why don't you just leave?"

All of a sudden things changed, and I had four very good teachers, one of whom was Helena Mietz. Keith Kimberley was another. He was head of English and directed the school plays. He was a nice man and a good teacher. He was known as Catweazle, after the TV character, because he had a beard and long hair. I began taking an interest. I asked questions in class and read a lot. Keith was inspirational in the classroom, very encouraging. And he cast me in The Wizard of Oz.

There were a couple of art teachers I liked, too. Norman Barratt was a groovy bloke, a bit older than Keith and Helena and quite posh. His hair was long and he would swear in class now and again. He saw I could draw and thought I should go to art college and learn to be a draughtsman. Linda Marshall was more of a free expressionist, but they were both free-thinking and experimental. I remember making a sculpture with Norman's help called "My Mum in Hospital". My art was very individual. Once I stuck pubic hair on apples and nailed them up around the school.

Both teachers gave me great encouragement and I briefly thought that if I didn't join the Army I might go to art school. I used to go off on my own to the Tate Gallery. But once I'd decided to follow Helena's advice and become an actor, there were no second thoughts.

My father worked for the Post Office and my mother was a hairdresser, but I had an inkling she would have liked to have gone to drama school herself, though years ago if you came from a working-class family it was just a pipe dream. My grandfather, who was a rep for The Times, used to have a song and dance comedy music hall act with his friend Billy.

I first trod the boards at junior school in a play written by the headmaster, Mr Gray, called "The Witches' Convention". I was given the part of a bumbling old gentleman. Right from the beginning, I was into character acting.

I haven't seen Helena since I left school. She moved away and we lost touch. She was one of the most influential people in my life and I tried to reach her through Friends Reunited without success. I'd like to say thank you to all these teachers, but particularly Helena because I wouldn't have become an actor without her support and encouragement.


1957 Born London

1962-68 John Burns junior, Battersea

1968-74 Battersea County comprehensive

1974 Joins National Youth Theatre

1976-78 Rada (wins Bancroft gold medal)

1978 Joins Birmingham Rep

1979-81 Member of the Royal Shakespeare Company under Trevor Nunn

1982 Home Sweet Home TV film, first collaboration with Mike Leigh.

Subsequent film credits include Life is Sweet (1990), Secrets and Lies

(1996), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

1983-86 Appears in TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Series revived in 2002

1999 Awarded OBE

April 2006 Appears in TV series The Street and plays title role in film Pierrepoint

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