My Best Teacher;Interview;Les Dennis

26th February 1999 at 00:00
I went to Quarry Bank Comprehensive in Liverpool, which was a fantastic school with a progressive reputation. My life changed totally in 1969 when I was 15 because I got interested in the arts and joined a lunchtime theatre group.

Norman Russell, who insisted on wearing full cap and gown, was a brilliant English teacher and one of the few people in the country who could speak Chaucerian English fluently. For drama, we had Bruce Prince, who was in charge of the school plays I acted in, including The Government Inspector.

But the teacher who had the biggest impact on me was Ken Othen. He awakened my interest in literature and was the first teacher to encourage me to pursue my showbusiness ambitions. I was already racing round to perform in working men's clubs in the evenings and at weekends.

When they found out what I wanted to do, a lot of teachers said: "Get a proper job". I went to a careers adviser and when I said I wanted to be an actor, he replied: "Have you thought about going into the Navy?" You're very susceptible to those comments at that age, but Ken was inquisitive and supportive. He always took an interest in what I was doing in the school play, or in the end-of-term revues we did at Easter.

There were about 34 boys in our class and, occasionally, if we were getting bogged down with Macbeth, which we were doing for O-level, Ken would say: "Les, come out front and do a few impressions". I would do bits of my club act: impersonating Tony Hancock, the characters from Steptoe amp; Son - all the people who were big on television.

Ken and another teacher used to organise balloon debates (pupils had to pretend to be historical characters on a doomed balloon flight and then argue why their life should be saved). For one of them, rather than pretend to be some famous historical figure, I played Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. I won.

We read Sons and Lovers, and Ken reminded me of D H Lawrence. He had a thick beard and very dark hair, though he was not as intense a personality as Lawrence must have been. I suppose he was in his thirties - though like all teachers he seemed much older than that to us. He had no hang-ups about making us call him "Sir".

English was one of the few subjects that motivated me, but I didn't work as hard as I could have done until Ken got hold of me. Allowing me to do my act did not mean he neglected his teaching duties. Nothing took away from his desire to fire our imaginations.

I still vividly remember working on Sons and Lovers and Ken getting us to act out extracts from Macbeth. I'd always hope to get a leading role.

He was always concerned that we got essays in on time and that we understood what he asked of us in class. I remember him getting so frustrated with us in one lesson that he walked out. I'm not sure what kind of bad behaviour prompted it, but he came back after a few minutes, when he'd calmed down.

It would be a great shame if teaching has become so curriculum-based that teachers don't get the chance to inspire, and have some freedom in their lessons - if individualism like Ken's has to disappear.

Ken left Quarry Bank before I did. He'd not been there a very long time but he was extremely popular. For his last day I put together a This Is Your Life for him. I got all the teachers to contribute their comments on tape, then stood up in class and did my Eamonn Andrews impression. It was partly motivated by my wanting to perform in front of the class, but the other boys and I really wanted to do something special to mark Ken's departure.

After I left school and got married, Lynne, my first wife (who was also at Quarry Bank), and I stayed friends with Ken and his wife. But gradually we lost touch - until a few years ago, when I was the subject of This Is Your Life.

Quarry Bank had not been able to track Ken down, but they did get hold of Bruce Prince. When he came on during the show, I told him how much he and Ken had influenced me. A few days later I got a letter from Ken, saying that my comment had made him the talk of the Liverpool girls' school where he was teaching classics. I rang him, and it turned out there was a Quarry Bank reunion for my year about a fortnight later. He wasn't planning to attend, but I said I'd go if he went. So we met up. The fact that it happened through This Is Your Life - which I'd done for him - was just great.

Les Dennis, 45, comedian and impressionist, has presented the ITV quiz show 'Family Fortunes' for the past 12 years. The latest series continues on Saturday evenings. His television credits include 'Russ Abbot's Madhouse' and 'The Les Dennis Laughter Show'. His stage appearances include 'Me and My Girl'.He was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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