My Best Teacher - Alexei Sayle

31st October 2008 at 00:00
The sophisticated sneer of a wise art teacher set this comedian on the road to anarchy

I enjoyed school, but it didn't enjoy me. I was never in the top stream at Alsop Grammar School in Liverpool. I was always in the B stream. I certainly started to become a handful towards the end of my time there. The school didn't really make any attempt to cope with pupils who were clever but troublesome. I don't know why I was like that. It was the way I grew up. I didn't like the discipline. I had long hair and a beard when I was 14. I used to hang around with older pupils, sixth formers when I was in the fourth form.

I was only good at English and art and so I liked Mr Johnson, the English teacher, and the art teacher.

Mr Johnson was nice, quite young and nervy. I think we gave him a nervous breakdown. He wrote to me a few years later and said if he had known I was going to become famous, he would have been nicer to me.

In those days teachers didn't know how to cope with someone who had a mixture of intelligence and an anti-authoritarian nature. I knew I was the cleverest in the class. But they didn't see that potential in me and so it was sort of frustrating. I was the only sixth former who wasn't made a prefect. Probably if they had made me a prefect, I would have become the most authoritarian prefect around.

I can't remember the art teacher's name, but he left to go to Quarry Banks School when I was halfway through the sixth form. I wanted to go with him, but my school wouldn't let me. (I'm sure the teacher didn't want me to go with him either). It also told me not to come back to school. Because I wasn't allowed back at school, I went to Southport College of Art, where I did a two-year foundation course.

I did A-level art at Southport, where my teacher was Max Eden. Quite a few of the teachers at Southport were inspirational. But Marc Almond, the singer who also went to Southport, talks about Max as well.

He was very groovy. He had swept back grey hair and a big grey moustache turned up at the edges. He'd lived in Paris and had his work exhibited alongside Picasso and Chagall. He'd been friends with all these famous people in the Fifties. I don't think he was making it up.

He had a glamorous wife, drove a Citroen DS, smoked Gitane cigarettes and wore matching demin jacket and jeans. I might have had a crush on him. He carried around one of those French pocket knives with a wooden handle. There was a little bit of me that despised him because he had come back to Southport (elegant, Edwardian, wealthy little town). I thought it was a capitulation. No real artist would be teaching at Southport Art School.

He told all these stories about Picasso and Dali and was obviously dismissive of A-level art. He would say: "Just draw the fingernails," which was his way of saying: `If you put those stupid little details in, like drawing the fingernails, you will pass your A-level art'."

He told you how to pass without trying. He also took us for general studies and introduced us to Samuel Beckett, the playwright, and avant- garde cinema and that kind of world.

You can imagine how liberating it was, after being at grammar school. I think everyone liked him. I got my A-level art. Thinking about it now, we should have been more in awe of such a teacher.

Alexei Sayle is a comedian, actor and author. His latest book is called Mister Roberts. It's published by Sceptre and is out this month. He was talking to Sheryl Simms.

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