My Best Teacher - Rory Bremner

12th June 2009 at 01:00
This star's most memorable teacher fired his imagination and even became his first impression

Derek Swift was like a much thinner version of Richard Griffiths' character in The History Boys. He was quite iconoclastic and a bit of a maverick.

As well as teaching me French and Russian O-level at Wellington College, he operated the school bookshop and ran the film club.

Instead of showing us films such as The Dam Busters and The Hunt for Red October, he would show us things like Fellini's Roma or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And he would stock books by Zola and Balzac. I think his philosophy was: "Let's show them this and see what they make of it."

He would always throw out references, but never in a pretentious or flamboyant way. He was just different and fired my imagination, and he did it by the force of his character. He would put a word on the board and we would all want to go away and find out what it meant.

In class one day, he introduced Candide, the French satire by the philosopher Voltaire. I must have been 15 or 16 and it opened my eyes to the techniques of satire, ridicule, irony and understatement. The teacher and the material came together and I was engaged in a way I had not been before.

Because we were a top set, a lot of the pupils were quite bright but also quite lazy or complacent, but he got across that barrier and his enthusiasm fired our interest and suddenly it was cool and exciting. He made it contemporary.

He would begin a French lesson with the whiteboard completely empty. By the end it would be covered in bits of French, Latin and Russian, written in various coloured inks. It was inspiring.

He was the first person to unlock what language was about for me - by tracing them all back to the same route.

Previous teachers had concentrated on grammar, but he taught sentences you would use in everyday life. And he wouldn't laboriously take you through a grammar book - he made his own phrase sheets. He was unique.

I imagine he would have been in his 30s when he taught me. He always wore grey flannel trousers, a dark blue blazer, a pair of suede shoes and a dark blue duffle coat.

He had a terrific sense of humour and a mischievous laugh. He was in charge of the dining hall at times, which I think he hated. I think he was the one who suggested to the headmaster that they do away with cafeteria service and just put a trough in.

In his strong Yorkshire accent he would shout things like: "Oi, you, infant - back of the queue." He had no truck with people who mucked around and he didn't suffer fools gladly.

He was quite anti-establishment and didn't hold with the whole public school thing of pupils being taken out of his lessons at 11.30am on a Saturday to go and play rugby or cricket at Eton. He would shake his head and it was clear he thought it was nonsense.

We were extraordinarily privileged to be at the school. I went back recently and was amazed at the precocity of some of the children. One, who looked about 16, came up to me and said: "Rory, my son, how are you?"

I was probably a bit of a pain when I was there. When I discovered impressions, it wasn't a safety mechanism or a way of avoiding bullying. It was only after I started doing them that people pointed me out to the school bully.

Derek's reward was that he became my first public impression. In my last year at the school, I borrowed a duffle coat and did an impression of him in front of the school. So not only did he light the spark of my education and imagination, but he kicked off my career in impressions.

We did a TV thing together years later and we keep in touch. He went on to teach at Bradford Grammar School and then became head of modern foreign languages at Harrow, so he can't have been that anti-establishment.

  • Rory Bremner, an impressionist, comedian and playwright, presented The TES Schools Awards this week. For details of all the winners, see our awards supplement with this week's paper. He was talking to Vicki Shiel.

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