My best teacher

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
I had a history teacher who believed the health of a democracy could be measured by the health of its culture

There were four teachers who influenced me in their own ways. After the village school in Barnham in Suffolk, I went to Morley memorial school on the outskirts of Cambridge, and from there I got a scholarship to the Perse school in Cambridge. All the other boys had shiny new books, but ours were tatty, with "Perse school minor scholar's book. To be returned on demand" inside. I still remember the rage I felt.

It was wartime and education was a bit wobbly. You had to choose between Latin and geography, for instance, and I chose geography, then had to do a crash course in Latin because you needed it to get a scholarship to Cambridge.

I had a history teacher at the Perse called John Tanfield. He was a great cynic, particularly about politics and power, but the fascinating thing for me was that he'd been an actor. He directed me in Hamlet when I was 17. He believed that the health of a democracy could be measured by the health of its culture.

I wanted to be a director before I really knew what it was. When I went to the theatre I wanted to be the instigator, the enabler, and read Stanislavski and Gordon Craig's The Art of the Theatre, which I still think is the best general book about why you should work in the theatre.

The second or third play I saw was Love's Labour's Lost at Stratford in 1947, when I was 16. I loved it and was very jealous of the director, Peter Brook, who was only 20 or 21 himself. It's a cliche, but I hatched the plan then to run Stratford.

At Cambridge I read English - well, Shakespeare really. I was engaged to be married and had decided to become a teacher. I hung around on the edges of the drama societies for the first couple of years because I was trying to give it all up, but I booked a theatre for the autumn term of the third year in case I changed my mind about directing.

John Tanfield and Cecil Crouch, who was my art master at the Perse and had directed me as Petruccio i The Taming of the Shrew, each lent me pound;40 - a lot of money in those days - to put on Point of Departure by Jean Anouilh. And that launched me; I did five productions in my last year. The others were Saint's Day by John Whiting, Uncle Vanya, Love's Labour's Lost, and Winterlude, a new play by John Barton. I don't quite know why, but the critics used to go down to see student plays in Oxford and Cambridge in those days and I left with a sheaf of London notices.

Another great influence was F R Leavis. He hated the theatre, never went to it, but made a great impression on a generation of directors - Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Jonathan Miller, as well as me. The attraction was his focus on textual analysis, his ability to assess the integrity of the author by the quality of his text. His certainty was, as we know, sometimes misplaced, but it was extremely exciting.

The other great teacher at Cambridge was George Rylands, who was head of the Marlowe Society and taught me verse, but was in the opposite camp, very anti-Leavis. It was like the Cold War. I was in the King's Group at St Catharine's, which was very anti-Leavis. If my director of studies had known I went to his lectures, I'd have been kicked out. But it was wonderful to have those two polarities. Rylands was very romantic, rather aristocratic and patrician; Leavis was more Matthew Arnold. Together - culture and anarchy.

Theatre director Sir Peter Hall was talking to Heather Neill

The story so far

1930 Born in Bury St Edmunds

1941-1952 Educated atthe Perse school and St Catharine's College, Cambridge

1960-1970 Founds the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford

1973-1988 Director of the National Theatre,overseeing move to the South Bank

1977 Knighted

1988 Founds the Peter Hall Company

1999 Forms a Shakespeare company in Los Angeles.

Receives Olivier Award for Lifetime Achievement

2000-2001 With son Edward directs John Barton's 10-play cycle about the Trojan War, Tantalus, which opens in Denver and tours England

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today