My best teacher

5th May 2000 at 01:00
My very first school, pre-school, was run by the Misses Rickman, albino twins, in a basement. Then I went to Wycombe House school for girls in Fareham in Hampshire. When we moved, it was Datchet C of E school for a while before I went to Langley grammar, in Slough, when I passed the 11-plus. It was there I met Michael Walton.

From the moment I arrived, three people had a tremendous influence. Michael and his partner in crime, Alan Kennedy, were two junior members of the English department. It was their first job out of university, but to me they were already old and crumbly. (It was only recently when I went to their joint 60th birthday party - they are still close friends - that I realised they were only about 10 years older than me.) The third person was the art teacher, Mr Hill. Between them they transformed the school play.

In my first year, we did A Midsummer Night's Dream and I was Mustardseed. The set and costumes were extraordinary. My father's old vest was taken away to the art room and covered in luminous net in the shape of leaves. Then our bodies were covered in green paint. There were two marvellous physics teachers, Mr Lumb and Mr Riddell, who did the lighting. We never looked back, and I went on to Viola and Lady Macbeth.

Mike Walton began a drama class outside school hours, a kind of weekly masterclass. There were six of us from different schools. One of the others was John Turner, who was absolutely brilliant. He came from another school down the road - I remember him in Murder in the Cathedral. BothJohn and I went on to drama school. I was coached for my audition by Mike Walton, as he never ceases to remind me.

Once, we were doing Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra at school. My sister was Cleopatra and I was her old nurse-maid who dies half way through. I had this amazing sacking costume, covered in hieroglyphics, which I had to wrap round myself, and a horrible hemp wig. I said: "I know: when Caesar pulls the curtain and discovers m dead I can fall down backwards and hang upside down. It's not for too long."

Well, at the schools' dress rehearsal I did it for the first time wearing the sacking costume. I was aware that the wig might fall off, so I artfully held it on with my arm behind me - and left the dress behind. So there was this naked girl hanging upside down in front of all the local schools. There wasa stunned silence, thengasps, before they drew the curtain. The next day Mr Lumb summoned me to the darkroom and, with great solemnity, handed over the photographs of the incident.

Drama gave me a sense of identity at school. I won the verse-speaking competition every year and got the same book tokens as people whohad performed stunningly in maths and physics, at which I was hopeless. In 1966 I left school and went to the Guildhall, which is still my abiding triumph.

Then, years later, Mike Walton became part of the team setting up Education Extra, which runs after-school activities. He got in touch and said "Will you come and present the odd cheque to schools and so on?" I was delighted to hear from him and to bump into Alan at a party near where I now live in west London. With hindsight I can see that it was their youth and enthusiasm that was important at the time.

Radio presenter Susannah Simons was talking to Heather Neill

* THE STORY SO FAR

1948 Born Southampton

1957 Moves to Datchet and enrols at Datchet C of Eprimary school, Berkshire

1959 Langley grammar school, Slough

1966 Guildhall School of Music and Drama

1970 BBC trainee studio manager

1973 Producerpresenter Capital Radio

1975 LBC presenter

1977 Presenter, BBC's PM programme

1987 Presenter, Channel 4's Business Daily

1992 Presenter, Channel 4's Answering Back and Radio 4's Today programme

1992 Member of the Classic FM launch team, where she is still a presenter

1999 Helps to inaugurate Classic FM's Music Teacher of the Year award


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