'My English teacher propelled me beyond the final frontier'

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart hails educator's influence at launch of National Schools Film Week

The biggest influence on Patrick Stewart's decision to become an actor was not his mother, nor was it seeing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront at his local cinema in Yorkshire, but rather Cecil Dormand, his English teacher.

A happy twist of fate took him into that classroom where a passionate and inspirational teacher led the young, directionless Mr Stewart into a love of Shakespeare and a career on stage and screen that has spanned 50 years.

Last week, Mr Stewart was fielding questions from a group of students at St Charles Catholic Sixth Form College in west London for the start of National Schools Film Week.

The young sixth formers heard how he overcame an "unpleasant" home life and sated a longing for the escapism of the cinema on a Saturday morning to become one of the biggest names in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

This success was down to one person, and Mr Stewart has no doubts over the importance of an influential teacher and how they can affect a young person's life.

"It is everything," he told The TES. "In a couple of months, I am presenting the lifetime achievement award at the Teaching Awards, and I plan to talk about my English teacher. He's still alive and doing well. The impact and influence he had on me was greater than any other person.

"There have been some important people in my years at the RSC, such as Trevor Nunn, Peter Brook and John Barton, but ultimately it was Cecil Dormand, my English teacher, who saw something and was determined to make the best of me no matter what."

But it could have been very different for the actor had it not been for a snap decision to play truant one day.

"It wasn't that I failed the 11-plus - I just say it because it's easier - I didn't sit the thing, I played truant," he said. "I don't know why I did and it is something I have thought about often over the decades. But on the day of the exam I turned left instead of turning right and spent the day walking in the hills.

"But it was the best thing I have ever done because it was in this comprehensive school where I met this English teacher who made me read Shakespeare aloud and talked me through it and had us push the desks back and perform it.

"After a few years he asked me whether I had thought about doing it as a career."

Mr Stewart left school at 15 and, thanks to a concerned headteacher and his membership of a Rotary club, was handed a job as a reporter on his local newspaper. He thinks he would have remained there had he not been drawn to acting.

After being given a grant to attend acting school, he became a prominent figure in the RSC, and later on television as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and film as Professor Xavier in the X-Men trilogy.

In his recent return to the stage, where he has performed in Macbeth, Hamlet and, most recently, Waiting for Godot, he says he stills sees the effects of teachers on his audiences.

"If you talk to most classically trained actors like Sir Ian McKellen or Sir Ben Kingsley, somewhere lurking in the background there is an English teacher," he said.

"And I still see it happening as a performer on stage. I've done a couple of major productions where we played to schools and they were undoubtedly the best audiences. Their attention, their appreciation and how they get it: these are kids who are being prepared for the experience very well."

Films for free

Teachers and pupils can see a wide range of films at local cinemas for free during National Schools Film Week, an annual festival organised by the charity Film Education. In its 14th year, it aims to promote cinema in teaching and runs until next Friday.

New films featured in this year's programme include Pixar's Up, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Jane Campion's Bright Star and Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Book tickets for primaries or secondaries at www.nsfw.org.


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