My best teacher - Bernard Cribbins

5th November 2010 at 00:00
After leaving school at 13, the actor was steered towards theatre by a local director

I went to St Anne's RC Primary School in Oldham during the Depression, and I got free school dinners because my father, a labourer, was out of work for long periods. There was no shame in getting freebies - I was among a lot of others whose fathers were not working.

It wasn't a particularly strict school, but I remember one teacher, Mrs Ryan, who used a billiard cue to point to things on the blackboard. If you weren't paying attention she would drop the heavy end of the cue on your head. A couple of times, I turned around to check out the knickers of the girl behind me and got a whack on the head.

My favourite subject was composition, which was basically writing stories. I once got ten out of ten for a story about a deep-sea diver. I had read a tale in my father's magazine, The Wide World, about a deep-sea diver and a massive fish, so what I wrote was probably sheer plagiarism, but it kick- started a career that has included a lot of storytelling.

The person who taught me the most was Douglas Emery. Douglas was the producer and an actor at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre, and he used to direct all the plays. I had done a bit of acting locally and after I had appeared in a Noel Coward play at a little drama festival, Douglas asked my parents if they would let me do any parts that came up at the Coliseum. I did two or three things while at school and, when I left at the age of 13, Douglas offered me a job as an assistant stage manager and actor for 15 shillings a week.

Douglas was a gentle, tender man, but at the same time he was very strict. He nurtured my initial steps in the theatre beautifully; it's because of him that I became an actor rather than a carpenter. One afternoon when I was 15, I was watching a Tarzan film at the local cinema when I suddenly realised I was meant to be at the theatre for a matinee. Douglas gave me the biggest telling-off ever. But rather than saying, "You're rubbish. Get out!", he said, "If you're in this job you must be disciplined." He led by example: he would sew curtains and put up pictures while playing leads and directing.

One of my first jobs was finding all the props, and once, for a biblical play, I discovered "a goat" on my prop list. I found one on a farm six miles outside Oldham, and every day before the show I had to fetch this goat on the bus and then take it back again afterwards. I had to pay a child's fare for the goat.

Many years later, when I was an established actor, I saw this figure going through boxes of discarded fruit on the floor near the Globe Theatre in London. It was Douglas. He was elderly then and tearing tickets at the Globe for a living. I was engaged to do a Feydeau farce on TV and we needed someone for the very small part of the major-domo. I suggested Douglas. I never told him it was my idea, and afterwards he came up to me and said, "It wasn't much of a part. I don't know why they asked me." It was so typical of an actor's pride it broke my heart a little bit.

Bernard Cribbins appears in Bookaboo, weekdays on CiTV and Sundays on ITV1 throughout November, and supports the Share A Book Today campaign. He was talking to Vicki Power.

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