My best teacher

28th July 2000 at 01:00
Miss Wilson, my elocution teacher at Brentwood county high school, was responsible for me going on the stage. She was so glamorous. She was very smartly dressed, and wore bright red nail varnish and a lovely diamond and emerald ring. She reminded me of the stars I'd see on the silver screen every Saturday morning.

She made the lessons fun and she was terribly encouraging as she tried to get rid of my flat Essex vowels. Elocution was the one subject at which I wasn't a failure.

I was rather slow and not very clever at my studies (I failed school certificate twice). My school reports usually read: "Joan could be very good at this subject if only she would concentrate." I think I have always been slightly dyslexic because I have never found reading a pleasure and have to learn my lines by putting them on to a tape recorder.

Encouraged by Miss Wilson, I joined the local amateur dramatic and operatic societies. I was playing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit by the time I was 15. I began my lessons with her when I was about nine. She taught me in a building that was detached from the main school and all its rules and regulations. The lessons were one-to-one, of course, and to me that was magic.

Miss Wilson and Mr Hill, the warden at the youth club where I belonged to the drama group, persuaded the Essex education committee to finance my theatrical training. I was an only child with no theatre connections. My father was a stationmaster and my mother was a housewife. They were a bit horrified at the suggestion that I go on stage and insisted I had a proper training, although they couldn't afford it. It was mainly thanks to Miss Wilson that I got the funding to go to Rada.

At school I loved entertaining my fellow pupils by impersonating the teachers. Later, I modelled some of the characters I portrayed on the mistresses at Brentwood.

Miss Goodwin, for example, who taught PT, was the inspiration for Miss Allcock in the Carry On films. I copied the way she ran with her chest pushed forward. She was a well-endowed lady, and she had a whistle that bounced on her bosoms as she ran about.

Then there was Miss Hodge, the English teacher. She was ver slim, and always wore a neat suit with her silver-white hair curled up into a bun.

She was lovely, but we played her up mercilessly. She rode a bicycle to school and years after I left I heard that she had been knocked off it and killed.

Miss Vasher-Bacon, who taught maths, was divine. We called her Rasher Bacon, of course. She had a rather mannish gait and wore flat, lace-up shoes and Bermuda shorts. I was dreadful at maths.

I enjoyed my schooldays and liked all my teachers - apart from Mr Higby, the headmaster at my primary school, St John's in Billericay. He was a vicious and deeply unpleasant man who used to pinch you sharply on the top of the arm when he was talking to you. At St John's I fell in love for the first time, with a boy called Colin Blanks, who gave me my first kiss. We were caught and sent to the head. I got a ticking off, but Colin got six of the best.

I won a prize at my first school, though I can't remember what for, and inscribed inside was a sound piece of advice: Life is an echo, all come back The good, the false and the true; So give of the best that you can give, And the best will come back to you.


1930 Born Laindon, Essex.

1939 Attends Brentwood county high school.

1947-51 Studies at Rada.

1951 First professional performance, in rep at Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester.

1952 Principal girl in panto with Stanley Baxter at Glasgow Citizen Theatre.

1953 Appears in Doctor in the House, the first of five Doctor films.

1954 The Belles of St Trinian's, film with Alastair Sim.

1957-78 Carry On Nurse, the first of 24 Carry On films.

1975 Love Among the Ruins with Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier.

1985 One of our Dinosaurs is Missing, a Disney feature film.

1988 Simon and the Witch, children's television series.

1991 onwards As Time Goes By, television series with Judi Dench.

1992-93 With Dennis Waterman in On the Up.

1994 Plays Betsy Prig in television production of Martin Chuzzlewit.

1997 Just William, children's television series.

2000 Publishes autobiography, High Spirits

Actress Joan Sims was talking to Pamela Coleman

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