When she read us 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright' it just knocked me back
I went to a little prep school called St David's in the Gloucester Road, west London, then I went to Bedales. They were completely different. The prep school was a rather old-fashioned and repressive place where you got the cane if you were naughty, and you had to wear a grey and green uniform with a cap. I went from there to the complete opposite - Bedales was a very loose, progressive boarding school that had no uniform.
I made the best of it but it wasn't pleasant. I don't know why parents send their children away. I was terribly homesick and each term there were tears when I had to go. They did have some wonderful facilities at Bedales - there was a lovely old Arts and Crafts theatre that was very atmospheric.
It was while I was there that I decided to become an actor. At home I had a puppet theatre and I used to put on shows when I was quite young. My Dad was an actor so it was the normal thing to do.
St David's was a fee-paying prep school run by a rather tyrannical family.
There were a lot of embassy children and there was a snobbery element. But there was one jewel of a teacher called Miss Evans. She was an English teacher and she introduced me to William Blake. When she read us "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright" it just knocked me back. I suppose I was about nine or 10. I was aware of poetry - I had the Faber Book of Children's Verse and I loved reading that, but I had never been exposed to Blake before. I vividly remember sitting in the classroom and her reciting this poem and me thinking "Blimey, that's something". I have never forgotten that moment.
A lot of the teachers were intimidated by the head or weren't any good or didn't mean much to me and I don't remember much about them. But Miss Evans, although small and quiet, stood out because she was different from all the others. It was a bloody miserable school and finally I thought, here's one teacher I can respect and admire. I have a strong visual memory of when she read that poem. I remember the trees outside the classroom, I remember her standing and I remember where I was sitting. Sometimes the magic moments in your life only last seconds - there's a flash of something that helps you transcend normal life. And that was one of them. I left the school and I didn't really think about her for years. Then I did a play in Chichester - Art - about three or four years ago and she showed up at thetheatre. She must have been in her seventies.
She had remembered teaching me, and presumably followed my career. She lived near Chichester and wrote me a letter; we arranged to meet one day after the matinee.
She was a spiritual person, and believed strongly in angels. Blake, of course, saw angels as a child; he drew them and painted them, he died singing to angels and people thought he was mad. But she also saw angels and talked to them. When she came to see me we talked mainly about Blake and Keats, because I had made a recording of John Keats' poetry. Later, she sent me a pressed rose that had been taken from the rose bush on Keats'
grave in Rome in the 1800s. She had no idea of the impact she had on me.
When I told her, I think she was touched.
I have done a bit of teaching, and you have no idea of the impact you are having. You look at all those faces and just hope there's one person who is going to get something out of it.
I was thrilled that a person who meant something to me and that I had thought about over the years had turned up. I kept in touch with her and we wrote once or twice. Then a few weeks ago her sister wrote to me and told me she had died. Funnily enough I had been thinking of her that week, possibly around the time she died, and wondering how she was. I expect she's with her angels now.
The story so far
1944 Born in London
1950 St David's preparatory school, London
1957 Bedales, Hampshire
1963 Goes to RADA
1966 First job in theatre at Northampton Rep
1971 Plays Charles in film version of The Go-Between
1981 First series of BBC television sitcom Only Fools and Horses, in which he plays Trigger
1994 Stars as Owen Newitt in BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley
1994 Stars as Fred in The Young Poisoner's Handbook
2004 Appearing in The Dark, by Charlotte Jones, at the Donmar Warehouse until April 24