My best teacher

29th September 2006 at 01:00
I went to St Paul's Choir school when I'd just turned eight. It seems rather extraordinary now, but the rest of the family had disappeared to Singapore and I was left with my grandparents on my mother's side in Wales.

My parents were doctors, my mother a GP and my father in the army. He eventually became surgeon-general, boss of the three services; an impressive man, but a humble one, too.

My father went to St Paul's Choir school during the war when it was evacuated to Truro, and later he became a choral scholar at Cambridge, as I did eventually. So, I did my first "audition" at eight. St Paul's was an amazing school; strict, disciplined, with a wonderful headmaster, the Rev John Llewellyn, who was kind as well as strict. I remember the first time I encountered Shakespeare. It must have been a road to Damascus experience because I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the St Paul's school library when John Llewellyn asked me to read Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." But we didn't do a full production of it. We did A Midsummer Night's Dream. I played Hippolyta in an ivory silk dress made by my other grandmother. I was about 10.

At 13 I went to Clifton on a music scholarship. I had some inspiring music teachers, but none like this one chap, Brian Worthington, who was head of English. I got to know him when I was 14 and he cast me as Desdemona in Othello because I could sing. I remember looking intently at pictures of Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith (in the National Theatre production) and the theatre bug bit. Brian made Shakespeare and Austen come alive for me.

He must have been about the age I am now (45) and was short, balding, with a sharp face and bushy eyebrows, and he could be very funny, very dry.

His passion was infectious. He believed fundamentally in the importance of what he was doing, in English as a discipline, but even more important was his intellectual confidence, and because of his rigour, he instilled that in his students, too. The only time he gave me a lower grade than usual was when I got above myself and wrote a grand essay about Elizabethan tragedy, about which I didn't know much. He was not interested in grand gestures, but in the precision of thought. He taught that you shouldn't have presuppositions, but proceed through logically supported arguments.

He was a great Leavisite; he had been taught at Cambridge by (literary critics) FR and QD Leavis, who came to Clifton to teach students in their Oxbridge term. After O-levels it was obvious that English was my strongest subject, but I had decided to do all science A-levels with the intention of becoming a doctor. Brian was furious - quite rightly - and said, "You must do English", so I did an odd mixture of science and arts: English, music, biology and physics. I remember Brian standing on the steps of his house when my parents were there and saying, "What about a career in theatre?"

out of the blue. In my final term, he suggested I play Lear. I said I couldn't because of Oxbridge entrance, but he was right, as usual, so I did it.

I went to Cambridge as a choral scholar. There was a particularly brilliant Footlights set - Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie - but I failed an audition to join them. However, I was busy singing most of the time and only did a play a term. Then I went to Guildhall to train as a singer, but they kindly let me audition for the acting course. After about a year, Stephen Fry asked me if I'd mind doing a play he'd dropped out of, so I didn't fully train, which I regret. As a singer at least I knew the principles of vocal support; that part of classical training was in me already. Brian came to see me a few times, including Troilus and Cressida at Stratford. He made a few comments. He was still quite strict.

Actor Simon Russell Beale was talking to Heather Neill


1961 Born in Malaya

1966 Churchill Gardens school, Pimlico

1969 St Paul's Choir school

1974 Clifton College

1982 Graduates with first in English from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

1983 Leaves Guildhall school of music and drama

1980s Various RSC roles

1991 Thersites in Troilus and Cressida (RSC)

1996 Olivier award for best supporting actor for Mosca in Volpone (National Theatre)

1997 BAFTA for Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time

2000 Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards for best actor for Hamlet (NT)

2000 Olivier Award for best actor in a musical for Candide (NT)

2002 Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Olivier Awards for Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night (Donmar)

2003 Awarded CBE

2004 Nomination for Tony Award for best actor for Jumpers

2005 Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Awards for The Philanthropist (Donmar)

2006 King Arthur in Spamalot on Broadway

2006 Galileo in The Life of Galileo and Face in The Alchemist (NT)

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