My best teacher

16th February 2007 at 00:00
A teacher with the art of making the English language seductive inspired the actor, director and producer to pursue a creative career

Mr Shivas taught English with such persuasive charm, as something it would be delightful to learn, that it soon became the subject I was most interested in. For the first time I began to understand grammar and the structure of sentences. He encouraged me to be creative, writing essays and later, verse. These essays were along the usual lines of "What I did during the holidays" or "A day in the life of a penny", but writing made me aware, even at the age of 11, that I wanted to earn my living doing something that would enhance my creative output. Mr Shivas encouraged that ambition.

At the end of my first year at Raines Foundation Grammar School in Stepney I came top of the class in English with 90 per cent. It was a phenomenal start and the first time I had been top in anything. I remember Mr Shivas writing on my report that it was "A great beginning".

I had a passion to learn and was in the A-stream then. I was excited to be going to grammar school and I remember taking a case with me on my first day, just as I had seen boys do in the movies, to carry all my books.

Mr Shivas made the English language seductive and quite fascinating. He was an extraordinarily refined, handsome man. He had silver grey hair, blueish eyes and dressed well. He always had a smile playing upon his face, appeared to love children, and was receptive to our responses. Everybody liked him, but I liked him most of all.

There was a bit of the actor about him. He had a precise manner and carried a handkerchief in his sleeve, which he took out from time to time with a flourish. When he read to us in class I was enchanted. Probably because I didn't have a very good relationship with my father, I bonded swiftly with older men who showed me any affection and I had a big crush on Mr Shivas.

After school I'd run after him to chat on the way to the bus stop. He encouraged me to write and to believe I had a flair; and that confidence never left me.

Two years later we moved house and I went to the Grocers' School in Hackney, which is now Hackney Downs Grammar School. I had another good English teacher in Mr Brierley who would tell me proudly how well Harold Pinter, who had just left, was doing as an actor. But I was put in the C-stream at Grocers' School, became deeply frustrated, rebellious and anti-social and left before I was 15.

I didn't keep in touch with Mr Shivas but curiously many years later I met his son, Mark Shivas, who became an influential film and television producer. I had a play on at the Donmar called West and Mark Shivas televised it. It was a strange and wonderful coincidence that my teacher's son then took over where his father left off and guided me. And finally I was able to pass on my thanks to his father for giving me the key that enabled me to open the door to a creative career Steven Berkoff, whose screen acting credits include roles in The Krays, Rambo and A Clockwork Orange, appears in his own play Sit and Shiver at the Hackney Empire until February 18. Call the box office on 020 8985 2424.

Steven was talking to Pamela Coleman

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