My best teacher - Nigel Havers

29th August 2008 at 01:00
An eccentric man who quaffed whisky and smoked in class was the first to recognise this actor's star quality

When I was six I was sent off to board at Nowton Court Prep School near Bury St Edmunds, a wonderfully romantic mock Gothic building in glorious parkland. "Don't cry and never sneak on your mates," my father advised wisely.

The school was run by an eccentric whisky-quaffing trio, two brothers and a sister - Charles, Neville and Betty Blackburn - who encouraged pupils to call them by their first names. Charles was the eldest and in charge of the Shakespeare productions put on in the school grounds every summer. He picked me out to appear as Mamillius in The Winter's Tale and so was entirely instrumental in my choice of career. From that moment I knew that I wanted to be an actor.

Looking back, Charles was modern in his approach to education. He had an open and friendly manner, and yet he was strict concerning manners and discipline. We felt we were treated as adults. We were given responsibilities. We were left alone a lot, to learn and to go off to do things. There were about 40 acres to knock around in and we didn't have to be in bed until 9pm. We went fishing in the grounds, rode bicycles, climbed trees - did almost anything we wanted to do.

Neville Blackburn didn't teach but organised all the costumes for the school plays and painted the scenery and was in charge of school administration. Betty taught divinity and some sport.

Charles brought us up on Shakespeare right from the beginning and we all loved it and understood it. It wasn't a hurdle for any of us. I'll thank him for that for the rest of my life. A lot of people have been put off Shakespeare because they were badly taught. It was of no relevance to them, but to me it was relevant, fun and interesting.

Charles was tough, yet kind. He was a big man with a moustache and receding hair. He wore glasses and dressed in tweeds and sometimes smoked in class. He was well-educated and had been to Oxford. He loved the theatre and was knowledgeable about it.

The Blackburns had a number of pretty high-profile friends in the artistic community. George Baker, the actor, was a friend and also Angus Wilson, the writer. Angus was one of the guys, who having seen me perform, told Charles he had to convince me to go for acting as a profession.

I was an average student, I just chugged along. I didn't do any more or less than was needed, except when it came to doing the plays, and then I put in long hours. As a child I think you only excel at things you enjoy. I liked cricket and football and was in the school teams.

I became head boy in my last year but I was pretty bad at it. Phil, my elder brother, had been a particularly good head boy and I suppose the Blackburns were hoping it ran in the family. But I didn't want to discipline people; I wanted school to be a free for all. It didn't work, but it was fun while it lasted. I let the boys get away with murder and even introduced cigar smoking on to the curriculum.

At 13 I went off to the Arts Educational School (AES). My brother had gone to Eton but I realised pretty quickly it wasn't the place for me.

Soon after I went to the AES, the school's resident theatrical agent called me in and I got my first professional job - playing the part of Billy, Mrs Dale's grandson in the radio programme, Mrs Dale's Diary, mainly because I had the right speaking voice.

I kept in touch with Charles Blackburn right up until he died and he followed my career closely. I owe him a lot.

Nigel Havers is best known for appearing in the film Chariots of Fire and on TV in The Charmer. He was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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