My best teacher - Tom Wilkinson

1st July 2011 at 01:00
A formidable deputy head introduced the actor to theatre and dinner etiquette

My junior schooling took place mostly in Canada, where my family emigrated from Leeds when I was four. It was only a few years after the Second World War and there were many different nationalities: Italians, Swedes and other Europeans made up 50 per cent of the population. The schooling was very good, and when we returned to England I was ahead of my peers.

In those days we took the 11-plus and I went to the first comprehensive in Devon, in Tavistock. It wasn't what we understand now by a comprehensive: it was a secondary modern with grammar school streams - A, B and C - with the rest in D to H, in the same building. I was in the A stream, but was very lazy.

Then we returned to Yorkshire. King James's Grammar in Knaresborough was very small and it really was like an extended family. The kindly headmaster, Frank Brewin, was a saintly man, a keen Christian who taught religious instruction. He once went to a young biology teacher and asked if he had to teach evolution, because he would rather he didn't. The young man said that Darwinism was quite big in modern biology, so the head gently let it go.

There was a certain gravity among the pupils that I hadn't encountered previously. Before, if you were good at games, you tended to be indifferent academically. Here that didn't seem to follow. It was fine to be serious, to discuss Keats with another kid in your spare time.

When I arrived, I had to do two years' work in one for my English A-level course because the syllabus was different from the one I had started, so I had solo lessons with Molly Sawdon. She was second-in-command in the school and, while the headmaster was genial, she was rather formidable. She was in her early 50s - to me old as well as forbidding. We started working together on various books and plays and, slowly, studying took on an importance. I had had an undistinguished academic record up to this point; I had done O-levels but not very well and had to re-sit some.

It wasn't long before Molly said: "Come to supper." Then she told me: "There are certain things you have to know when you go to supper. You must take a gift and - stop me if you know this, Tom - you start with the cutlery on the outside." I bought a box of After Eights and presented it to Molly and her (female) partner. She said, "Look, look what Tom's brought us", as if it were something special.

Her partner was called Paddy and wore a monocle. They were both keen on theatre and took Ray - the star in our English class - and me to Stratford. My own interest in theatre took root at this time and I acted in and directed a play in a school drama competition and won the Wansbrugh Cup, which Paddy had presented to the school. We did The Bald Prima Donna by Ionesco, while everyone else did am-dram staples, and we won by a country mile.

During this time, I said I was going to give acting a go as a career and they were both thrilled. Paddy took me aside and said, without irony, "Tom, don't accept a knighthood, only the Order of Merit."

I went to the University of Kent - the first in my family to go to university - where I was president of the drama society and did almost nothing but plays, and then to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Molly and Paddy are both dead now, but we stayed in touch for years and they came to see me all the time when I was at Stratford. Their influence was really important, life-changing.

Tom Wilkinson, OBE, has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the films 'The Full Monty' and 'In the Bedroom'. He is currently starring in 'The Kennedys' on BBC2. He was talking to Heather Neill.

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