My best teacher - Sir Tom Courtenay

1st April 2011 at 01:00
A theatrical English master got star billing - but the actor appeared in only two school plays

When I passed the 11-plus I went to Kingston High School or "Kingy 'igh" as it was known in my part of Hull. All faith was put in the exam and I would not have made any headway without it.

The school had a uniform. Dad thought the school outfitters was too pricey and mother thought the blazers didn't have much wear in them. My uncle bought me the maroon football shirt and my granddad gave me a maroon and white scarf. But the white stripes went the wrong way. It was a Hull Kingston Rovers scarf, not the proper school scarf.

If a younger boy was required to say something, the teachers knew I liked to get up on stage. I was asked to thank a school governor at the junior speech day. I couldn't see him properly because of the flowers, so I peeked round them, which got a good laugh. But my friend told me afterwards I was too cheeky by half.

Mr Large - John Large - was the senior English master who taught me first in the fourth form and again in the sixth form. I was interested in him before that because he produced the school plays.

He had rather piercing eyes, a slightly aquiline nose and he was full of energy and enthusiasm. The masters wore gowns and some thought they were a nuisance but Mr Large enjoyed his.

To be in his class was wonderful. He had a histrionic manner and I was drawn to him. He loved the theatre - he was stage struck - and that was exciting. He used to go up to the West End with Mr Tweedie the maths teacher to see plays.

Mr Large taught us Shakespeare and was very keen on the misuse of the word "tragic". He said there was no such thing as a "tragic accident". He said bad things happened to the great tragic heroes - Othello, Macbeth, Lear - because of some fatal flaw in their makeup.

I was only in two school plays. The first was The Stars Bow Down by Gordon Daviot. I had an Arab costume and a beard and I got a rash from the beard. In the second I played Mr Knightley in Jane Austen's Emma. I wore a sweet little hat.

For one year in between I was taught English by Mr Stephen Tunnicliffe, who played the cello. I loved theatre and music more than anyone else in the class. While I was at school I went for a meal with him and his wife Hilary, who played the piano. They are still friends of mine today.

Playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater was also at Kingston High, two years ahead of me. But he befriended me and let me into the Old Kingstonian Society of Genii, known as OKSOG. He got me to read Punch but I didn't get all the jokes. We met outside school and sometimes went to the park to play bowls.

It was a very well-run school and the headmaster Mr Walker was on the science side. In my last year I became head boy, although Jack Barnaby was expected to be chosen - he was captain of cricket and football and outstanding in science.

A lot of the academic stuff didn't come easily to me, but I wanted to read English at university. The headmaster paid for me to go to London for my interviews and found me somewhere to stay with an old master. My father was out of work and on national assistance after an accident.

I had no stomach for university - I went because it was expected. I chose University College London because London is full of theatres and it was close to RADA.

Tom Courtenay is touring in 'Pretending To Be Me', a one-man show based on the letters, articles and poems of Philip Larkin. For details, visit http:bit.lypretendingtobeme. He was speaking to Lynne Greenwood.

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