My best teacher

19th January 2007 at 00:00
Some of his teachers were 'complete arseholes' but one inspired Britain's most famous cockney to put pen to paper

My best teacher was definitely Mr Watson, my English teacher. He was a wonderful man. He introduced me to English literature and I've been a reader ever since so I've got a lot to thank him for.

I am writing a contemporary thriller about terrorism and wrote my autobiography a while back. I so enjoyed it that I've been doing it ever since. Everybody's supposed to have one book in them and I thought I would see if I've got two. I am sure Mr Watson would be pleased.

I was good at English literature, grammar and everything. I talk with a cockney accent but I never make a grammatical mistake and people do not notice that. I can do any kind of accent but I kept my cockney accent because I wanted every working-class kid to know that if I made a success of it, so could they.

I first met Mr Watson when I was 11 when I went to Wilson's Grammar School, Peckham, London. I was there until I was 16-and-a-half. He took me for English at various times.

Mr Watson was wonderful to me. Some of my teachers were complete arseholes but he was like a father figure and always took an interest in what I was doing. He helped me out when I was in trouble, which was a lot at that point.

I did think about acting as a job when I was at school but I never really told anyone about it, not even Mr Watson. At that time, in a working-class area like that, the reaction if you said "I want to be an actor" would have been quite negative, at least from my peers. Apart from the obvious question "are you gay or something?", nobody ever said "go on mate, go and do it". It is interesting because in America it would have been "you go for it". But every single person said to me "who do you think you are?" And it was the class thing. You know, "you don't talk posh and you have not got anyone in the theatre" so it was "who do you think you are?" I used to say "I know exactly who I am but you don't but that's OK".

I did some amateur dramatics at a youth club in the Walworth Road called Clubland. I went along to play basketball and then I saw this pretty girl in the drama group. I went in to speak to her and they thought I had come in to join up. I didn't have the heart to tell them otherwise.

I used to love going to the cinema, too. I loved anything with Humphrey Bogart in. And I liked Spencer Tracy too, because all the actors seemed to have dark hair and he was the only one with blond hair. I saw every Spencer Tracy film. They gave me some hope. And I would read a lot, that was down to Mr Watson. Mr Watson always encouraged me to believe there was a bigger world and that you could discover it through amazing books. That helped because it was stories, and acting is all about telling stories.

He turned me on to Chaucer and the classical stuff. He was inspiring, he was wonderful. I think we all have someone like that if we're lucky Sir Michael Caine, 73, became a star in the 1960s with films like Alfie, The Italian Job and The Ipcress File. He has starred in more than 100 films and has won two Oscars, for Hannah And Her Sisters in 1986 and The Cider House Rules in 1999. He was awarded a Bafta in 1984 for his performance in Educating Rita. Recently he was in Children Of Men and The Prestige, both out on DVD soon. He was talking to Martyn Palmer

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