My best teacher

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Miss K M Hobbs ran a tutorial establishment in Buckingham Gate, near Buckingham Palace, to which I persuaded my parents to send me when I was about 17. I'd been to St Christopher's, a free and easy co-educational Quaker boarding school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, for 11 years and learned nothing. It was a dreadful place in those days. The standard of tuition was poor, and the teachers, to put it kindly, were eccentric. It scarred me for life.

I resented being at a school that should have educated me but didn't, and took myself off to Miss Hobbs's crammer. My parents were insistent that I went to university and I said to them: "Look, I'm not getting any education. If you want me to go to university, this is where I'll have to go."

Miss Hobbs said I was illiterate. Of course, she was exaggerating, but she was not far off the truth. She was one of those wonderful Margaret Rutherford characters - portly, very upper-crust, very businesslike. Certainly of the old school and a very nice person. She ran two crammers, one in Guildford and one in London, and she placed me in the Buckingham Gate establishment, where there were only about eight of us attending and never more than two or three to a class.

One of the teachers there, a red-haired lady, was outstanding. It's a tragedy I cannot remember her name because there is no question it was thanks to her that within a year I got into Cambridge University. I dearly wish I was able to write to her and say: "I would like to give you a major present, my dear, whatever you want, because you were the only person in the world who educated me."

She was about 35, a neat, thin, nice-looking lady and well-spoken. Her lessons were like a breath of fresh air after St Christopher's. She explained things so clearly it was like a curtain was drawn back and light had flooded into a dark room. Suddenly I understood. She put into focus all the things that were swimming about. The size of the classes also helped: you knew there was no escape, you couldn't play around and you couldn't think of anything else. They were all nice people at Miss Hobbs's - pupils and teachers. At St Christopher's they were peculiar. I'm sure a lot of the students ended up as biscuit salesmen. The staff were inept and the sexual leanings of some were a bit odd; the geography teacher had, in his room, photos that he had taken himself of naked boys on rocks and standing by trees.

Miss Hobbs's establishment was brilliantly run and all the teachers knew what they were talking about. Most of the teachers at St Christopher's did not and, if they did, they were incapable of expressing themselves coherently. The school's academic record was poor. It claimed to be run by the students through the school council, but it wasn't. It also prided itself on being immensely tolerant. There were a number of pupils of mixed race there.

I left St Christopher's with six of seven O-levels. I failed Latin, which I needed for university, and went to tutors in Redcliffe Gardens and then Holland Park. At Miss Hobbs's crammer I studied history, geography and economics at A-level. I'd been offered a place at Downing College, Cambridge, subject, of course, to getting theA-levels. Then I discovered that the college had its own entrance exams four or five weeks before the A-levels and you got the results of these within two days. If you passed the college exams, you didn't have to do the A-levels. It was a no-lose situation, so I went to Downing College to take the entrance exams.

Never short of confidence, I remember looking round the room at the other potential students and thinking, if these people can pass the exam, I can. And I did, although I was slightly distracted to watch outside the window where I sat a motorcade of limousines driving into the grounds - President Tito of Yugoslavia was visiting.

My mother kept every one of my school reports and when she died they came to me. They make interesting reading. The nicest comment was: "Michael Winner always takes up the cause of any child he thinks is unfairly treated." Some of the others were rather iffy: they said I used bad language, that I sought to draw attention to myself. The ongoing theme was: "He spends far too much time going to the cinema" - as if it was an evil influence.

Occasionally I bump into old boys: Paul Hamlyn, who set me off in show business; Prince Rupert von Loewenstein, the Rolling Stones' business manager; and John Fraser, who used to make my bed and do my washing-up at school when I was 14 and works with me still as my right-hand man.

Michael Winner, 62, film producer, director and columnist, has recently completed a new comedy, 'Parting Shots'. The film is set in and around London and stars Chris Rea, Felicity Kendal, John Cleese, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley, Joanna Lumley, Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg.He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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