Vicious satire sent teachers bananas

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Lisa Jardine was the best teacher I ever had; and she tells people I was her brightest student. She was the first teacher who really made me think differently. Under Lisa's guidance I started a PhD at Cambridge about the sexuality of Victorian literature and I almost finished it. But my comedy career suddenly took off.

I was in the Cambridge Footlights and Lisa was in charge. She had bright red hair at that time and I was a punk and dressed in smocks. One birthday she gave me a pair of chopsticks and I wore them in my hair.

Lisa taught at Jesus College and I got an exhibition from Haberdashers' Aske's School in Elstree to read English at King's College, but when I got there in 1983 King's had been disrupted by the structuralist controversy and didn't have a proper English department. They had only a couple of teachers and had to farm out a lot of first-year students to post-graduates and library assistants. I decided I was going to go to Jesus College and just walked in. Stephen Heath, who was a very prominent modern literary theorist at the time, taught there and Lisa's subject was Shakespeare.

She was unlike any teacher I had ever known. She was funny and gossipy and spent much of the time just chatting. She showed me that the way English literature was taught in schools was very Levisite, just about the text and the reader. She introduced a sense of political and social history which still informs the way I look at literature.

She taught me to look at any text or work of art as a product of the culture of the time. And her lectures were stunning.

My parents were very keen on education. When I was at school, reports and getting good grades were very important. My father had a PhD from Imperial College, London, and went on to teach at New York University. I was born in New York 32 years ago but my schooling began at the North West London Jewish day school in Willesden. I had to wear a capel (skull cap) and tzitzis (fringed vest) and go to prayers every day.

The teacher I remember best there was Mr Cohen. He was my form master and taught religious studies. He didn't wear the big hat and long coat of orthodox Jews, but he was one of the most religious teachers in the school.With hindsight I realise that he was paranoid about anti-Semitism. The day I left, he warned all of us who were moving on to remember that somewhere out there, wherever we went, we would find anti-Semites.

Haberdashers' wasn't a Jewish school, but there were a lot of Jews there and I went through a stage of going regularly to Hebrew classes. The teacher I remember best from that school was Mr Fitch who taught English. He wore a cravat and was a Noel Coward sort of figure. He seemed very bitter that he was an English teacher rather than an eminent don. I remember his reading The Waste Land by T S Eliot and really putting a lot into the bit that goes: "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag" which comes from a 1920s song. He sang as he read and you could almost imagine him breaking into the Charleston. Mr Fitch was probably the first teacher to turn me on to language.

When I was about 14 or 15, I still thought I should be concentrating on sciences because my father was incredibly keen on the sciences. He once told me that he thought everything else was the waste of a brain. But on my school reports I would consistently get A grades for English, French, history and all the arts and humanities and Bs and Cs for chemistry and physics.

It was Mr Lempriere, my form teacher, who said: "Why are you studying sciences at A-level when you are much better at English and history and that kind of thing?" and crystallised what I had subconsciously thought all along. It was partly due to him and Mr Fitch that I got into Cambridge where I ended up with a double first. When I told my father I was going to study English and history at A-level he thought it was a waste of time and lost interest.

At school I was good academically, but a bit of a rebel. I was in bands and I smoked and didn't wear school uniform. Everyone in my gang got expelled apart from me. I was saved because Haberdashers' was obsessed with results and they knew I'd get into Oxbridge.

The first time I appeared on stage was at Haberdashers'. I was asked to put on the school revue when I was in the sixth form. Instead of the usual gentle songs about life in Elstree I wrote vicious satirical attacks on specific members of staff. The show was very rude and went down very well with the pupils and gave me a lot of cred, but the teachers went bananas.

If my comedy career hadn't taken off I would have become an academic. When being a comedian gets too stressful I sometimes yearn for the silence of the British Library. I'd like to finish the PhD - but being an academic is something I can do when I'm older.

Enfant terrible of the alternative comedy circuit, David Baddiel has appeared in 54 episodes of Fantasy Football League and won early acclaims in The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He is on tour in his first solo stand-up show and will appear in London at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, on June 15. Box Office: 0171 494 5049

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