My best teacher

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
I went to Lancashire's All Saints Church of England primary school in Clayton-le-Moors, and then to Accrington grammar school. It's gone now, but it was a satanic building - all dark and depressing.

My favourite teacher was Mrs Birtwell, who taught maths. Her initial was E - I think it stood for 'eavenly. She was an extremely good teacher. She was ruthless and was sometimes known to physically attack us, but she was also quite warm. She had a twinkle in her eye and you could talk to her outside the lesson. She was a word that is not much used in education these days - strict.

There was no way the class could rock the boat. If we didn't have our homework in on time we were in terrible trouble. I had an enjoyable time at school, even though half the time we were scared to death.

Mrs Birtwell opened the door to maths for me. The thing I liked about maths was that you couldn't argue with it. In English, you can get people whose IQs don't even reach room temperature arguing about what a sentence means, but in maths it's either right or wrong. Mrs Birtwell gave me the confidence to handle that.

But when I came to take my GCEs I got nothing. I think I took four and I failed five. It was my fault - I didn't work. The school said I had let myself down; let the school down, and let my parents down. But most of all I had let myself down.

So I went out and emptied dustbins for a year. I was a slow learner - I must have been, because it took me eight months to realise I didn't want to empty bins for the rest of my life. I needed a kick up the arse. Emptying bins in the Fifties was horrible. Everybody had open fires and the bins were full of coal and muck.

The headmaster of Accrington grammar was a wonderful man called Ben Johnson. I think he had been expelled from the SS for cruelty. After I had been on the bins for a year I went back to the school. This dictatorial man, who showed very little sentiment, saw in me aspark of ambition and ignited it again. I am eternally grateful to Ben Johnson for that. I went back into the same rigid environment and got my head down, and the second time I passed nine exams.

Schools in the Fifties were tremendous. They realised there is no such thing in life as a level playing field. Life was about competition, and school equipped us to compete.

After school I did national service. I had done a lot of cross-country at school (I was county captain and Ron Hill, who went on to run in the Olympics, was in my team), so I was made a physical training instructor. Then I went to Chester Training College to train as a teacher.

I taught maths and PE. Then I got a job as deputy head at Caton primary school, near Lancaster. The head was a fine man called Cecil Wilkes, but he didn't enjoy the best of health, so I found myself doing quite a lot of the assemblies and administration. I tried to keep high standards - I was a Ben Johnson type of figure to them.

I was already doing a bit of stand-up work when The Comedians came along and I was lucky enough to get on to that.

I look back on my days at Caton with a lot of affection, but I wouldn't teach now for pound;1,000 a week. I don't know what happened to Mrs Birtwell - I never saw her after I left school, but I hope she had a long and happy retirement.

Comedian Jim Bowen was talking to Harvey McGavin


1937 Born in Accrington, Lancashire. Adopted when 12 months old

1955 National service

1957 Chester Training College

1959 Qualifies as a teacher

1970 First television appearance on The Comedians

1980 Starts a 14-year stint as the host of ITV's darts quiz show Bullseye

2000 Co-presenter of BBC Radio Lancashire's morning show, The Happy Daft Farm. Honorary president of Morecambe Football Club, which reached the third round of this year's FA Cup, losing to premiership side Ipswich last month

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