My Best Teacher;Interview;Brian Blessed;Features amp; Arts
At first we were under the watchful eye of Mr Dalton, a teacher with a stocky frame, thinning hair and tired eyes that looked at us with a kind of weary fatalism. Then the headmaster, Mr Brown, decided that a change was needed. Mr Dalton went and his place was taken by a teacher described to us by the headmaster as "a giant".
On the day the new teacher was due, we stood with bated breath in the classroom. The door opened and Mr Brown, with a twinkle in his eye, introduced us to this "giant" of a teacher - Mrs Brown, his wife. Mrs Brown was about 4ft 11in tall. She looked like a little pixie with spectacles on the end of her nose and woollen cardigans festooning her upper body. She wore thick woollen socks and slippers. There was a long silence as the woollen pixie surveyed us. Then she did two pirouettes on the spot, drew a deep breath and turned round to wipe the blackboard clean.
One of the bolder members of the class imitated the pirouette, provoking much laughter. It is doubtful in the history of warfare that a missile has ever been propelled with such force as the wooden board rubber that then hit him on the side of the head. In less than a second, the pixie whipped out a small thin cane from the folds of her cardigan and lashed out like lightning on the fists of the gigglers who had not had time to hide their smirks or their hands. With amazing energy and speed, the boy who had caused the trouble was propelled through the classroom door to the headmaster's study. There was not a vestige of ill-will or temper in Mrs Brown's behaviour, just an awe-inspiring demonstration of discipline that made a lasting impression on me. She never needed to hurl the board rubber again.
Mrs Brown taught us about Albert Einstein and read to us from Shakespeare, Shaw, Masefield, Keats and Wordsworth. Tears ran down her cheeks as she told of the wanderings of Odysseus, and described his yearnings and his loneliness. She was brilliant. She promised us that in six months' time we would have a knowledge that would astound the rest of the school. We were popularly known as the "wooden tops". "Is that how you wish to remain?" she demanded, adding: "I will do all in my power to drag you into the light so you can hold your heads up and be proud of yourselves."
She began by abandoning the scheduled maths lesson and instead read us The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We were transfixed. School became a place of exciting achievement. Mrs Brown had astonishing drive, determination and an infinite devotion to bringing out our individual gifts. I owe everything to her.
I became teacher's pet; she loved my deep voice. We all worked hard for Mrs Brown, trying our utmost to please her and to meet her high standards, and she gave us apples, oranges, comics, magazines and books as incentives. Once, when I won three essay prizes in a row, she took me to see Henry V at the local cinema with the headmaster himself. I sat between the pair of them. It was a great honour, but an unnerving experience.
Every day I went home for lunch and for several Wednesdays I listened to Conan Doyle's The Lost World on the radio, which made me late for afternoon school. Every Friday afternoon I appeared on the podium to be caned, and on the eighth occasion the headmaster asked me why I was repeatedly late. When I told him, he dropped the cane and stared long and hard at me and motioned to me to join the rest of the assembly. Later he came into the classroom and publicly apologised. "I was in the wrong," he said. "I am giving you permission, Blessed, to listen to the last two episodes of The Lost World without fear of further punishment." He also asked the English master, Mr Jones, to read the book to the entire class.
Mr Jones was my other best teacher. He looked like a cross between James Mason and David Niven and he had the most beautiful voice. When I had to leave school at 14 because my father was injured in the coal mines, he was instrumental in furthering my education. He taught me in the evenings and at weekends, and when I joined the Mexborough amateur dramatic society and played Bramwell in The Bront s of Haworth Parsonage, he came and made me up.
I kept in touch with Mrs Brown after I left school. She wrote me scathing notes. She thought I was in Z Cars for too long, my deportment was appalling and my voice production not as good as it could be. She didn't approve of what I was doing until I played Augustus Caesar in I Claudius. She praised me then, but she was pretty scathing about my television work. She liked my Long John Silver and adored Flash Gordon though.
Yorkshire-born Brian Blessed, 63, made his name as an actor in television's 'Z Cars'. He has appeared in 'Hamlet', 'Henry V' and "Richard lll" with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in films alongside Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Costner. He has written several best-selling books, and his latest, 'Quest for the Lost World', was published by Boxtree last week. He was talking to Pamela Coleman