Miss Inkin by Siân Phillips

18th March 2016 at 00:00
The veteran stage actor recalls a PE teacher who not only instilled in her a love of physical exercise, but also opera, ballet and snappy dressing

I went to one of those marvellous grammar schools of the 1940s and 1950s – Pontardawe Grammar, in Glamorgan. Their aspiration was to give children of working people the kind of education that was given to boys at Eton, which I think is touching and wonderful.

They built a white school, with beautiful gardens, and above it a state-of-the-art gymnasium. It was a kind of white temple above the field.

Miss Joan Inkin taught gymnastics, athletics and games. She had been trained in Helsinki but had come to a remote part of Wales because she needed to be near her elderly mother.

She was English, and everyone else there was Welsh and Welsh-speaking. She was, I wouldn’t say exotic, because she was a very simple person, but she was different from everyone else. She didn’t wear heels. She didn’t wear make-up. She had straight hair that she tucked behind her ears. Everyone else had perms, but she was like Mary Quant – but in the 1940s.

She taught gymnastics like it was an art form. Before, I’d had no interest in gymnastics – I’d been a sickly child, and had been kept at home for the first six years of my life. So coming to school was a bit of a culture shock: to have to be at school at a certain time, to have the right books and sports kit and everything. I didn’t mind, but I wasn’t very good at it – I dropped things and lost things.

Miss Inkin was my first form teacher. She taught me from the beginning, and I was obsessed. She managed to convey an idea of the beauty of physical fitness. She kindled in me a love of physical activities and I got very good at it. I used to train after school and it was one of my favourite things to do.

She gave me a real love of physical exercise, not as a means to an end but for its own sake. To this day, I find new things to do: I always do Pilates, and I’ve got a new gyrotonics (a dance-based exercise, similar to yoga) teacher, who’s absolutely wonderful. I walk for miles and miles. Miss Inkin taught me how to walk. Posture. It’s a form of classy exercise. There was something very classy about her.

I just guessed that she could teach me things, over and above gymnastics, and she did. She took me to my first opera, she took me to my first ballet, she gave me my first hard-cover picture book, of the Soviet ballet. She gave me my first French novel, too.

It was after the war, and we didn’t have nice material to buy in the shops. She gave my mother yards and yards of very fine lawn to make dresses for me. And she gave my mother Harris tweed, so that she could have a coat made for me that was better than utility fabric.

Miss Inkin married my Welsh teacher. She taught herself Welsh and they went to live in Bangor, where he became a university tutor. She lived until well into her nineties, and we kept in touch intermittently.

I find that I dress a bit in the way that she used to. I’ve always tended to do my hair the way she wore it. I think I just accepted her benchmark, really.

Siân Phillips is appearing in Les Blancs at the National Theatre, from 22 March to 2 June. She was talking to Adi Bloom

Grammar girl

Siân Phillips

Born 14 May 1933, in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, West Glamorgan, Wales

Education Pontardawe Grammar School and the University of Wales before attending RADA on a scholarship in 1955

Career An actor of stage and screen. Notable roles include the role of Livia in I, Claudius and the TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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