My best teacher - Hermione Norris

27th August 2010 at 01:00
A craggy Pied Piper figure gave the Cold Feet actress an early taste of stage confidence

I had a strange education. I went to a state primary school and when I was 11 I failed my 11-plus. I had done ballet classes and my teacher suggested I audition for Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey.

I got a scholarship, so from 11 to 17 I was in a ballet school, which was an extraordinary environment. It was all I knew and I was very comfortable there but when I think about it, it was weird. It was a very strict, very 1950s education, with very strict housemistresses and classical dance teachers and a structured, sheltered regime. It was just the way they did things: an inward-looking, hierarchical establishment that is difficult to understand unless you have been a part of it.

You never talked, you were never loud, you did what you were told. It could be quite cruel as well: very self-critical, don't show any emotion, don't give any attitude.

When I arrived I remember thinking: "Maybe there is something wrong with me and this is some kind of funny farm." Soon you just learn to break every rule and have as much fun and be as irreverent and naughty as you possibly can be. I would never put one of my children into that world but I did have a good time. I laughed a lot and I do appreciate having had a classical training.

A guy called Andrew Neil, who had taught at Rada, came to become head of acting and he took me under his wing. We put on lunchtime productions and did morning assemblies.

I was too young to make a decision about the direction my life was going to take but I knew ballet was too narrow. Theatre and Shakespeare and plays were a never-ending opportunity to broaden my experience.

Andrew must have only been in his 40s, but he was craggy and soft-spoken. He was inspiring, naturally charismatic and had a touch of the Pied Piper about him. People wanted to be in his productions.

I remember one play, I think it was called Love and Marriage, where I was playing an old lady. I was probably about 15 at the time and I wore a wig and thought it was just great; I felt very grown up.

Even before I went to Elmhurst I kind of knew I would love acting, but the focus and the discipline of a ballet school have definitely made a difference. You also shut up and listen, and I'm sure that has helped.

When I went to Lamda (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) Colin Cook became my mentor; a phenomenal guy. I went back for the first time in 21 years the other week and he was still there. He taught with so much passion. He said: "There are 10 people I want to take out for dinner before I die and you are one of them."

I felt hugely privileged. I love him completely. There isn't a job that I do where I don't think of Colin.

l Hermione Norris has starred in `Cold Feet' and `Spooks' and is appearing in `A Bouquet of Barbed Wire', which starts on ITV1 on September 6. She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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