My best teacher - Shelley Conn

4th February 2011 at 00:00
The star of Mistresses recalls two women who inspired her love of storytelling and acting

For the first nine years I went to Army schools. I got used to making new friends and saying goodbye quite easily. I didn't realise how much I loved Army schools until those days were gone. There was an open-mindedness to them because people were coming from all over the place and everyone was very welcoming.

Then we moved to Hampshire and I remember when I first went to what was then the relatively small town of Basingstoke. I felt that people just didn't get me - I thought they were more narrow-minded. That changed over time, but it was quite a culture shock. It wasn't long before I made friends, though - and I'm still very good friends with one girl I met in the first class when I moved to Basingstoke.

I would never have dreamt of being off school for a day because that was my social life. I was studious and hard-working, but I thrived on the social aspect of interacting. It was also where I discovered drama.

My favourite teacher was from one of those Army schools - St George's in Gibraltar. I was about six. Mrs Varley looked a bit like a Quentin Blake illustration. Maybe I made her that way in my imagination because she introduced me to Roald Dahl, and for that I'm eternally grateful.

She was probably in her 50s at the time and I found her so inspiring - she was such a role model. She introduced me to literature and stories and I just ate it all up. Finding out about the world happened through school for me.

I remember that feeling of leaving my desk and finding a comfy spot on the floor to listen to The BFG and never wanting her to finish. I credit her for my love of language and all those made-up words that just blew my mind. It was completely involving and she would have us getting up and acting out bits of the book.

Another memory is of standing around a bucket in the yard. Because there wasn't enough fluoride in the water, we had to take buckets of water into the yard and brush our teeth and then swill our mouths out with this disgusting fluoride substance.

Mrs Varley also showed me how to present myself - I really took instruction from her in that area. My parents were big on manners, and this was definitely reinforced by Mrs Varley.

It wasn't just about teaching us to read and write and telling us stories, she really did encourage us to converse and listen to one another and take on board other people's ideas. I cherished that. I enjoy other people's expertise and will happily take advice from other people, and I think I got that from her.

She was a captain's wife and I also looked up to her because of that. My father was a sergeant major so I understood the hierarchy.

I also had a great teacher when I went to Cranborne School in Basingstoke. Mrs Creasy was a drama teacher and she definitely saw potential in me and encouraged it. I was enthusiastic and worked hard and she rewarded me with good parts. She knew how to direct me and push me, but she didn't make a big thing of it because that would have made me a favourite.

Once I auditioned for Bugsy Malone and I was not the best Tallulah. It was a good lesson for me - that you don't always get the part.

We had an interesting relationship, almost motherly, and she made me realise that acting was what I wanted to do, although I kept it a secret at school. I went to university to study drama still thinking I could be a teacher, even though I didn't think I could ever do it: Mrs Creasy had made me want to act for a living.

Shelley Conn has appeared in 'Mistresses' and 'Strike Back' and is now starring in 'Marchlands' on ITV1. She will also star in Steven Spielberg's #163;100-million TV series 'Terra Nova', expected to air later this year. She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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