My best teacher - Jenny Agutter

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
The Railway Children star's schooldays were numbered when a casting director called

When I was eight I was sent to Elmhurst Ballet School in Farnborough. I knew I'd never be a dancer, but my parents were living in Cyprus and thought that if I had to be away from home, a ballet school might be enjoyable and interesting. I was enthralled: I thought it would be like something out of Bunty, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a teacher who used to rap the backs of our legs if our feet weren't turned out and we were always in trouble for having midnight feasts.

Despite being quite naughty, I was made a prefect. The naughtiest girl in the school was also a prefect so I suspect they decided the best way to deal with us was to give us some responsibility. We weren't the most disciplinary of prefects, but I think we stopped being disruptive.

I enjoyed Elmhurst tremendously, but it wasn't very strong academically. We were only taught biology for a couple of years and, incredibly, we never did any physics or chemistry. The history teacher was knowledgeable but just recited facts to the back wall and managed to make a fantastic subject boring. Our English teacher was sweet, but she was deaf and I'm ashamed to say we put her through a horrible time - we'd pretend we were reading aloud when we were just mouthing the words. As a result, she took her hearing aid apart in front of us, fine-tuned it so she could hear every little noise and then got furious with us for making a row and stormed out. Because I was a prefect, it was up to me to apologise and get her back in.

Our geography teacher Miss Wakelin, however, was quite a character. It's good having an eccentric teacher because it keeps you on your toes. Most were drab with the odd hair sprouting from their chin, so Miss Wakelin was glamorous by comparison with a bit of a heel on her shoe. She had long red fingernails which she would point at you and say, "You and I are going to fall out if you don't pull up your little cotton socks."

Miss Wakelin was strict but her classes were well-structured and she was good at holding your attention, a skill in itself. In that way, teaching is similar to performing.

While I was at the school, a casting director came to find a girl who could dance to appear in a Walt Disney film about the Royal Danish Ballet. I got the part and then I started getting other roles, but the school didn't see the point in me going up for auditions unless I was completely right for the part and was likely to get it, which was very good advice.

I left Elmhurst when I was 16 and went to Arts Educational (school), but I was only there for a couple of terms when I made The Railway Children and I never went back. I don't know how my parents could have allowed that to happen, but they said I was very obstinate and determined to act. I certainly felt the lack of education later, and I don't know what I'd have done if acting hadn't worked out.

We never got to know our teachers outside the classroom and Miss Wakelin was always a bit of a mystery to me. I didn't keep in touch with her but I've always been curious about the places I've visited during my career, and I'm sure that's partly because of the enthusiasm she instilled in me for her subject.

Jenny Agutter began her career in 'The Railway Children', which is re-released in cinemas today and will come out on DVD blu-ray on May 3. A live stage version will be performed at Waterloo station in London in the summer. She was talking to Hilary Whitney.

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