My best teacher - Letitia Dean

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
A drama teacher who started a school in her living room helped this soap actress cultivate her core of steel

When I was asked to play a teacher in the West End stage version of High School Musical, I didn't have to think too long or hard about who I might model my character on. I play Miss Darbus, who is flamboyant, passionate about dance and drama, warm, inspirational. Firm but fair. In the back of my head I thought: "Ah yes, just like Sylvia Young."

I should know. I went to Sylvia's school from the ages of 12 to 16, probably the most important years of my educational life. It was at the time before the school was as hugely well known as it is now. The likes of Emma Bunton, Keeley Hawes, Denise Van Outen and Billie Piper came after me and hadn't yet made themselves, or the school, famous.

There were only 16 pupils when I joined, and Sylvia, who'd started the school in her living room, was operating out of a building in Drury Lane, London, that doubled as a youth club in the evenings. About six months after I joined we moved to the present premises in Rossmore Road, Marylebone.

One way or the other, my family was very connected to Sylvia Young's school. My elder brother, Stephen, and I were her pupils and for a couple of years my mum was matron at the school. I think my parents believed in what Sylvia was doing. They saw her commitment to her pupils and her philosophy that anyone thinking of entering showbusiness should be prepared for that world - creatively and in a business sense too.

We weren't just schooled in tap dance and twinkling; we were taught that rejection is part of the business, that some jobs we might be offered are not necessarily the right jobs and that longevity is better than a quick flash in the pan.

Fame in itself, according to Sylvia, was pretty useless if you didn't have the craft and the skills to back it up. She taught us that acting needed discipline and hard work. She wasn't interested in someone who thought that 40 per cent would do.

Looking back, I can see that Sylvia kind of hand selected all her pupils. She was after children who had a bit of inner steel and were serious about what they were doing. Perhaps because she was aware that most actors don't work, she was also hot on the academic side of things. We still had to do our maths and English and we had some good teachers for the key subjects. She saw to it that, academically, we did as well as the best schools in London.

Of course, it was more than the usual pupil-teacher relationship with Sylvia. She was also an agent. So she got her pupils work. In my case, I did a lot of cabaret all over the country with Alison, Sylvia's daughter. Sylvia and Norman, her husband, used to drive us to far-flung places. And we'd chat and sing and have a laugh on the way.

It sounds cosy and Sylvia could be warm and nurturing. But, at the same time, I was quite in awe of her. She's charismatic, a strong, formidable character who ruled the roost.

If you got sent to her office for being naughty, which happened to me a couple of times, you'd stand outside quaking. I remember her sending me home because I turned up with an orange face full of foundation. Sylvia wouldn't have been seen dead without her usual pink lipstick and whiff of perfume, but for pupils to turn up in full slap was, quite rightly, against the rules. You broke them at your peril.

Like Miss Darbus, she was firm but fair. So we respected her and wanted to please her. If someone is investing their time and their energy in you as Sylvia did, you want to do well for them. After I left the school I went straight into EastEnders, which was a baptism of fire. There was so much attention. But having been to Sylvia's definitely gave me an advantage.

If I hadn't gone into soap land, I probably would have stuck with the singing and dancing and gone into exactly the kind of musical theatre that I'm in at the moment. I loved being on Strictly Come Dancing last year. lt was hard, but reminded me of my roots at Sylvia's.

She turned up to support me on one of the shows and knowing that she was in the audience was more terrifying than knowing that millions were watching at home. Even though I'm 40, whenever I'm with her I feel 14 again

Letitia Dean is best known for playing Sharon Watts in EastEnders. Since leaving the soap, she's appeared in a variety of dramas, including The Hello Girls and Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. She is in High School Musical at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, until August 31. She was talking to Daphne Lockyer.

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