My best teacher

24th November 2006 at 00:00
The Shakespearean actor got the bug for the Bard, not to mention Brecht and Stanislavski, when he studied drama with Gill Foster

Education was the reason my parents came to this country from West Africa in the 1960s. For my dad, education meant academia: he would have liked his three sons to be a lawyer, a doctor and an engineer. We went back to Nigeria when I was six for family reasons, but returned after seven years when the political situation changed. I then went to Highbury Grove Boys'


I was bullied because I worked hard, was polite to teachers and appreciated the opportunity of a free education. Other black boys thought this meant I was trying to be white, which made no sense having just come from Nigeria where education is worshipped. While I was at Highbury, I joined the youth theatre group run by the National Theatre's education department.

This prompted me to take theatre studies as an A-level subject when I moved to Islington sixth form college, and it was there that I was taken under the wing of Gill Foster. She was hugely encouraging.

One summer she sent me literature about the National Youth Music Theatre. I auditioned, got in and went to Edinburgh, New York and the Lyric, Hammersmith in a production of The Threepenny Opera.

Gill was beautiful, tall and dark with a slight northern accent, and everyone fancied her. Other teachers were good, but they were battle-scarred; she was genuinely enthusiastic and I think that was infectious.

Shakespeare, Brecht, Stanislavski - people who could be slightly intimidating - she demystified them. She cracked plays open in a way that related to me. She loved the theatre and would often direct productions outside school hours, not necessarily for public performance, but scenes, devised pieces that we worked on and showed to the school. She was always generous with her time.

I got a place at Oxford Brookes University to read law and art - sort of doing what my dad had hoped - but I took a year off first to do a foundation course in art at the Guildhall, putting off the law.

During this time I bumped into Gill outside Holloway Road tube station and she said: "Look, you should consider drama school."

She drew up a list for me and I got into the London Academy of Dramatic Art on a scholarship. The scholarship really impressed my dad.

Gill has come to see every single play I've done - and that really means something to me. She bubbles with pride over my acting. She also understands the craft of it. Gill is so special because she was the first person who saw a spark of any kind in me.

She still teaches at Islington sixth form college and puts herself out for all her students. I hope I'm an encouragement to her in return David Oyelowo is an award-winning actor and member of the RSC board of directors. He has appeared in the television dramas Spooks and Shoot the Messenger (see picture left) and will play Orlando in Kenneth Branagh's film of As You Like It next year. He was talking to Heather Neill

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