My French pop was the tops

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
I went to Greenock High School, in the west of Scotland, in the 1950s. Pop Urie was my French teacher. He was French, in his forties, tall, skinny and balding, with glasses and a friendly, gentle, fatherly face.

We called him Pop because he was everybody's idea of what a dad should be.He was completely different from all the men around me at the time - my dad worked in the shipyards on the Clyde and the men I came into contact with were of the dour Scottish variety, not given to showing their emotions. Pop Urie was different. He was a gentle, intellectual man, always nattily dressed in tweed suits.

He was my first contact with Europe. As a child I had hardly been away from Greenock. The first time I went to Edinburgh was to see the Queen just after the coronation. I didn't even go to Glasgow, just a few miles away, until I was about 14. So Pop seemed to come from a different world.

He had a great love of the French language and was good at getting the class to talk - something that was not particularly encouraged in other classes. He had twin daughters who were in my class, and my relationship with him was more like that between a father and son.

He was the first person to make me realise I had a talent to amuse. There was a girl I fancied in the class, and I worked out that if I made faces at her it would make her laugh. Pop would catch me doing it and it would really amuse him. He seemed to understand what kind of boy I was - an only child and a dreamer. I always felt a bit of an impostor at school, he was the one teacher who made me feel accepted.

Even though he was a gentle person, you couldn't mess with him. He would let you go so far and then he'd come down like a ton of bricks. When he gave the belt it was swift - and humiliating.

I remember once he wrote a quote from Longfellow on my French homework: "Something attempted, something done to earn a night's repose." That summed me up.

He taught us French songs. Recently I completed an intensive French course at the Alliance Franaise in London, because a film script I have written - based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale - is being given a workshop in France and I wanted to improve my spoken French. In class, one of the tutors started singing "La Marseillaise". I got to my feet and sang it with her, word for word. It was 40 years since Pop had taught it to me and I could see him in my mind's eye, as if it were yesterday, conducting the whole class.

My parents had hoped I would go to university. I was a bright boy, but just before my lowers, as they were called then, I got double pleurisy and was off school for six weeks. When I went back I failed my exams. So at15 I went to work in the Clydesdale and North of Scotland Bank, where I stayed for six years.

I remember telling Pop I was leaving. He was upset, but that's just the way it was. Then I got involved in amateur dramatics and eventually tried for drama school. I'd seen a televison programme about the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London. I auditioned, got in and went off south to become an actor.

The first time I went to France was when I was at drama school. I decided to hitch to Ibiza in the holidays. I got off the ferry at Calais and, because of Pop, was confident I could speak the language. The first lift I hitched was from a woman who said she was going to Cannes - I thought I had cracked it. But about an hour or two later we stopped. It turned out to be Caen in the north, not Cannes in the south.

I was a bit disappointed, but saw a wee bar. Every head turned as I walked in. I was starving and when I saw they had eggs on the bar I said to the woman: "Un oeuf s'il vous plat," chuffed that I could speak the lingo. She then rattled on in some incomprehensible patois that even Pop would have been hard pushed to understand, then looked questioningly at me.With everyone watching I decided the best thing to say was "non". So she handed me the egg on a saucer with some salt, and, as I cracked the top all became clear. It was raw. She had been asking me how I wanted it cooked and there I was, all eyes on me, with a raw egg in my hand. I did what any Scot would have done under the circumstances, I tossed it down my throat and pretended it was the most delicious thing I'd ever eaten. If Pop could have seen me he would have died laughing.

Pop Urie inspired in me a love of France and its culture, which has never left me. A few years ago I was lucky enough to be able to buy a house there. I often of think of him. He was a class act.

David Ashton, actor and playwright, appears in The Heart Surgeon on May 4 and 5 on BBC1 at 9pm and in Hamish Macbeth, on Sundays on BBC1 at 8pm

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