Those of us who were lucky enough to get into Mr Ray's class cheered...

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Those of us who were lucky enough to get into Mr Ray's class cheered. His lessons were consistently interesting and he was genuinely interested in us kids

On the first day of the school year at Beckford primary we all sat cross-legged on the floor in the school hall waiting to be told which form we'd be going into, and those of us who were lucky enough to be picked to go into Mr Ray's class cheered. He was a remarkable teacher, and popular with everyone.

He was Indian, a handsome man who always wore dark trousers and a newly-pressed and laundered crisp white shirt. He was probably under 30 then because he's a headmaster now and I've invited him to the premiere of my new film, Nanny McPhee.

What made Mr Ray so special was that his lessons were consistently interesting and he seemed genuinely interested in us kids. We were a mixed bag. It was a state school of multiple ethnicity and many different levels of capability and commitment, and he managed to turn the whole class into a cohesive group.

He also kept discipline in an original way. I remember once, at the time of one of the moon landings, we had all made Apollo rockets out of the usual Blue Peter materials and they were displayed around the classroom. We had acted up and Mr Ray decided to punish the entire class. He got a black bin liner and one by one put all our models into the bag. He did it very carefully, so I knew he wasn't really going to throw them away, but I was only seven or eight and have never forgotten the silence in which this terrible task was performed.

At home my mother said I was so full of energy bringing me up was like being flattened by a steam roller, but I was law-abiding at school.

I had some great teachers at my secondary school, Camden school for girls.

Terry Buckley, who taught classics, was enormous fun. He was enthused and he managed to enthuse us too. So did Anne Spratling, another Latin teacher I loved. Both of them brought humour and wit to their teaching. I was good at Latin, French, English and biology. I was not good at physics or chemistry or geography or history and was rubbish at games. In the main, the teachers I liked were those who taught the subjects I enjoyed. Had I got on better with my history teacher I think I would have enjoyed it more because history is now something that fascinates me.

It was a pretty academic school, but more artsy academic than sciency academic. We didn't do much in the way of theatrical productions, though I remember playing the part of a man in Lady Audley's Secret.

We had some wonderful English teachers, including Mrs Strickland. She would stare into space, almost above our heads, and talk about a book or a passage in a kind of incandescent way. Mrs Kellaway was also an enthused and loving teacher. We did Macbeth and I was profoundly in love with that play and its dark, sticky, bloody language. And one must not forget Mrs Popplewell, who taught biology. I did biology for a year along with French, Latin and English until I found I couldn't manage four A-levels. Mrs Popplewell was a lot of fun.

But if I had to choose the one teacher who influenced me more than any other it would be Mr Ray, because when I was very young he made me believe in myself. He was good at giving praise where it was due and he was judicious. He didn't have favourites. I loved the fact that he made us all feel equal and that we all belonged.

I was lucky with my tutors at Cambridge, too. Jean Gooder, who interviewed me for a place, was fantastic. She actually listened to what I had to say about Charlotte Bront and seemed genuinely interested. She had the same quality that Mr Ray had. She made me feel that I had something worth saying - it's a remarkable quality that is not present in all teachers, even the good ones.


1959 Born London

1964-70 Beckford primary, Hampstead

1970-77 Camden school for girls

1978-81 Newnham College, Cambridge

1978 Appears in Cambridge Footlights

1981 Stage hand at Manchester Royal Exchange theatre

1985 Appears in Me and My Girl

1990 Tours in Shakespeare productions by Renaissance Theatre Company

1993 Best Actress, Golden Globe and BAFTA award for Howard's End

1995 Academy Award and BAFTA Best Actress for Sense and Sensibility

2003 BAFTA for Love Actually

2005 Title role in film Nanny McPhee, previewed in National Schools Film Week, October 17-21

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