My best teacher - Sam West

26th June 2009 at 01:00
This actor was immersed in the sciences until E.M. Forster knocked him sideways

I never found anything to rebel against at Alleyn's (an independent school in southeast London). It possibly was a shame, but it was quite an easy-going place. It had this culture where enthusiasm for things was cool, whether it was sport, drama, music or art. There was a great energy about the place.

There still is that energy. I went back for the opening of the new theatre earlier this year and what's extraordinary is there are now twice as many buildings than when I left 25 years ago.

I did physics, maths and chemistry at A-level for a term-and-a-half and I planned to do physics and maths at university. Alleyn's had a policy that everyone who wasn't doing English at A-level had to do English for one or two lessons a week. I had Mike Walsh and he taught us Howard's End.

Maybe I was ready for the book, or it was the way he taught it, or I wasn't really getting on with chemistry, but I was knocked sideways by it. The pleasure of discovering E.M. Forster in your teens, the liberal humanism and incipient socialism, just got me.

The philosophy of Howard's End, gentle English liberalism, was very much Mike's politics. It is a fruitful moment for a pupil to realise that the book you are studying is not just something to be studied but something to learn from, something that can fill you and fuel you.

When a teacher is involved in a book, when it is part of them and they teach it not only because they like it but they think it is important, something comes across to a pupil that is not about exam questions. We were studying it because it was a book Mike thought we should read. I didn't really know it at the time, but that is what good teaching is like. It changed my life. When I was in the film I knew much more about the sort of film I wanted to be in.

I also had advice from my chemistry teacher, who said my predicted grade was E. It was meant to make me work harder, but it made me think I was just pushing myself when I should have been doing something I loved, so I dropped chemistry and ended up doing physics, maths and English for A- level.

Mike believed in the importance of reading aloud, and that was something I was reasonably good at, although I was only in one play at school. I played Claudius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but I wasn't very good in it. It wasn't until I got to university that I did more acting. I did 17 plays in three years, although some were quite short.

Mike had a gentle sense of authority but he didn't spread praise liberally. He spent time if he thought things were good, but not if he thought it was simply correct or wrong. It's not that there is no such thing as a wrong answer, because there is and it is helpful to know that.

His world view is slightly chaotic. I spoke to him last week and he said much as Dickens is a brilliant novelist, in Dickens's world things go wrong because people behave badly, whereas in Hardy people behave how they want to behave and it is still awful. I don't think that's the way Mike wants it to be, but he thought it was the way things were.

He used to set us quizzes. He would ask who said what, and I remember once on the last day of term he asked who said: "I'm a man more sinned against than sinning". I thought it might be King Lear so I said "Lear" and I remember his absolute expression of delight, not that I had known it but I had thought it seemed like the sort of thing Lear might say.

I think I remember it partly because I got the question right and partly because he was so pleased I guessed.

We lived quite close to each other and met up by chance after I left Alleyn's and stayed in touch. We still meet up occasionally. We have long planned a dinner.

Sam West is an actor and director whose film and TV credits include `Howard's End', `Iris' and `The Long Walk to Finchley'. He has played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is artistic director of the Sheffield Theatres. He was talking to Nick Morrison.

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