My best teacher

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Everyone loved Miss Welding, my English teacher at St Bernard's convent, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. She was one of those teachers who has the ability to fire your imagination and to entertain.

What is funny is that she didn't do it with huge wit or great performance. She was actually rather a modest woman and quite quiet. Perhaps it was simply that she enjoyed the material she worked with so much herself that she communicated that, or maybe she was a natural teacher. I don't know. All I know is that she was very sensitive to people, and everyone who was lucky enough to be taught by her loved her.

She taught me between the ages of 13 and 17 and was instrumental in me becoming an actress. She knew I was interested in acting, but it wasn't a professional choice in my world. My father was a driving examiner and I wasn't exposed to acting as a career. We had no television in our house, I never went to the cinema and we didn't go to the theatre - not because of a lack of interest, but because my parents couldn't afford to take us.

My older sister became a teacher and I first trained as a speech and drama teacher. It was a simple question of economics. It was a way of perpetuating my education and being able to get a grant for doing so.

It was Miss Welding who told me about the National Youth Theatre, which was an organisation I was unware of. She suggested I look into it and think about going there. She wasn't really into drama herself; she didn't put on the school productions. They were organised by Miss Angel, who taught us elocution, but who was really a drama teacher.

It was my love of Shakespeare that drew me into wanting to become an actress. The school had a Shakespeare club in which the pupils cast parts and rehearsed themselves. I remember being absolutely fired up by the stories, the characters and the magic of the world Shakespeare created - but whether it was Miss Welding who fired meup, or I got fired up all on my own, I have no idea.

Miss Welding reminded me of a little sparrow. In appearance she was very ladylike, always nicely dressed and her hair neat.

My other special teacher, Miss O'Shaunessy, was an altogether different kettle of fish. She also looked like a bird - but like a hawk. She would swoop around the school in her black academic gown, and had greying, out-of-control hair. I thought she was fabulous.

She was very fierce and grumpy, but also very charismatic. She had a sharp tongue and terrorised the students. I think that she was probably very brilliant.

Miss O'Shaunessy taught geography, a subject I loved, and I still enjoy studying maps. I loved Miss O'Shaunessy because she was funny and interesting. It is almost impossible to extricate whether it was the teachers or their subjects that attracted me most, but I think probably the teacher came first, then the subject.

About 10 years after I left school, when I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and playing fairly high-profile parts, I got a letter from Miss Welding saying she was following my career with interest, but as far as I know she never came to see me perform. She certainly never came to see me backstage.

Actress Helen Mirren was talking to Pamela Coleman


1946: Born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff, grandaughter of a Russian emigre

1965: Plays Cleopatra in National Youth Theatreproduction at the Old Vic

Late 1960s: Begins professional stage career 1969: Appears in first film,

Age of Consent, with James Mason

1991 onwards: Stars in Prime Suspect television series

1994: Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in film The Madness of

King George

Dec 31 1997: MarriesHollywood director Taylor Hackford

1998: Plays Cleopatra aged 52 at the National Theatre

Summer 2000: In Orpheus Descending at Donmar Warehouse, London

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