My best teacher

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Aged 10, towards the end of the Second World War, I was attending Rokeby prep school in Wimbledon, south London. Absolutely hopeless academically, because I wasn't interested in anything except showing off - mimicking teachers, that sort of thing. I was pretty nearly bottom of the class in almost everything.

The school was run by a husband and wife team, Mr and Mrs Olive. He looked like Sherlock Holmes; she was terrifying. About five feet tall, Mrs Olive was a massive disciplinarian. She could dominate 100 little boys in a school hall with her will of iron. Mrs Olive was one of the most terrifying women I have met in my life. I would turn to jelly every time she entered the room. She used to cane boys, on the hand, quite painful. I usually escaped that: I didn't do anything particularly evil.

My crimes were of a lesser nature. For these I got hit quite regularly, on the backside, with a plimsoll. This was often the work of Mr Fisher, the assistant headmaster. He realised that I had some intelligence but that I wasn't interested in mathematics, or whatever. He realised also that I was an extrovert and liked to show off.

Outside the academic curriculum, on a Saturday morning, Mr Fisher ran a discussion group. We did all sorts of things, such as mock trials. I took an active part in this. A great deal was play-acting and this attracted me, although I had no idea that I would become an actor.

I usually chose to be a defence barrister because I thought I'd get more sympathy defending people than accusing them.

I also used to tell the entire school ad libbed stories. I don't think they were terribly good, but I had almost started to run Mr Fisher's group by now. He would be in the audience watching me entertain the boys. One day he said: "You know this is the only time I have seen you fulfilled. You have to do something with this gift of contact with an audience."

I owe a lot to Fisher. Many years later I spoke to his widow on the telephone. She told me h had been thrilled by what I had done with the talent he had encouraged. He was a strong disciplinarian and hit me with a gym shoe once or twice a week. but he was never sadistic and was the only one who knew I had intelligence, although it was not of an academic kind.

Another one of my teachers was Kate Walton-Smith. She was a tough lady, quite physically dominating. If I behaved badly enough, which I often did, she used to lose her rag. We sat at desks which had wheels. Kate would open the classroom door, then get behind me and push me, at my desk, out of the classroom into the corridor, slamming the door after me, so that she could get on with the rest of her lesson without being disturbed by little buggers like me.

In later life I went to see Kate Walton-Smith. She still lived in Wimbledon. She had been to see all of my shows and was very stagestruck.

She told me she thought I had been the naughtiest boy in the school, but that I was also the only one to come and see her now that she was old and infirm.

I was rather glad that in the end I became one of her closest friends, despite the fact that I had been the most appalling little horror in her class. She left me her grandfather's dress sword. Perhaps I had made up for things a bit.

Richard Briers was talking to Jonathan Harrington

The story so far

1934 Born in London

1954 Enters Rada

1956 Gains scholarship at the Liverpool Playhouse

1957 Marries Anne Davies. They have two daughters and now grandchildren

1958 Gains first West End part in Gilt and Gingerbread, noticed by writers Norden and Muir

1975 Plays Tom Goode in sitcom The Good Life

1978 More television success with Ever Decreasing Circles

1988-present Long association with Kenneth Branagh and Renaissance Theatre Company, most recently in film of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost

1989 Awarded OBE

2000 Hector in the series Monarch of the Glen, filming second series this


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