Mr Cook by Matt Lucas

16th October 2015 at 00:00
The ‘accidentally useless’ comedian, writer and actor didn’t really fit in at school. But he had talent – and one teacher knew how to draw it out

I have both fond and tough memories of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School. I didn’t fit into the mould of the school, there’s no doubt about that, and I ended up leaving at the end of the fifth year to do my A-levels elsewhere. In fact, when the year I was in came to do their A-levels, their results were the best in the country. I like to think I contributed to that by leaving, thereby allowing the average grade to remain as high as it was.

It was one of those very tough academic environments and I didn’t thrive there. I would usually come bottom of the class, but when I left, the ethos of hard work remained with me in a slightly more pastoral environment.

Hang on, am I using the word “pastoral” correctly? Let me look that up.

[Fumbling noise at the end of the phone line]

“Pastoral: used for the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle.” So I’ve been misusing that word for as long as I can remember. Oh, wonderful.

Anyway, the point is that I felt better in a slightly less competitive environment – a state comprehensive. But I have fond memories of Habs, too. I still have many friends from that school and I was taught by one of the very finest teachers: Mr Cook.

He’s still there, actually. He taught me English but was also the master of the middle school, so he had a slightly paternal role. I felt like he really understood that I didn’t fit in.

He treated me as an individual in an environment where that didn’t always happen. He was sensitive but also tough. He wouldn’t allow me to get away with not doing work, for instance. But he encouraged and nurtured my love of reading and theatre.

He was nice, you know? He cared about you outside of lessons. He was interested in the lives of his pupils and interested in our thoughts. He understood that the role of the teacher isn’t just to do with academics. And, more to the point, he wore really snazzy white shoes and not many teachers can carry that off, right?

Mr Cook saw early on that I had an ego. There was one occasion that I’ll never forget, where I was reading Shakespeare out loud but I was mucking around. He said to me: “Oh, what a shame you’re behaving like that, Matthew, because you would have read it so well if you weren’t.” And, of course, that immediately played to my ego, my head swelled and I read it as well as I possibly could. What a clever thing to do.

Most teachers, I suspect, would have gone the other way: told me I was rubbish, handed out a telling-off. But Mr Cook knew the button to press to get the best out of me. That’s genius.

And it wasn’t just me. He knew how to treat all of us, individually, to get the best results. He treated us like young adults. We weren’t pests to him, we weren’t brats. Some needed the law laid down, others needed encouragement, and he had a knack of knowing which.

Bear in mind this was a school where most of the pupils came from very wealthy families. I didn’t: I was on an “assisted place”. But a lot did, and when a teacher was strict with a pupil there were always rumblings after the lesson. Stuff like: “Our parents pay their wages, look how they treat us.” A very grand and unironic sense of entitlement permeated worryingly through the school. And yet Mr Cook was one of those teachers who commanded respect and was never talked about in that way.

Lots of comedians went to Habs. Sacha Baron Cohen was in my older brother’s year. David Baddiel was there, too. Robert Popper, writer of Friday Night Dinner, was there. There were nine or 10 of us who attended, who make a living out of comedy now, and I have no idea why. Was it a healthy oasis that stimulated the comedy mind? Maybe, I really don’t know. It’s an odd one. Life wasn’t funny when I was there – it was pressured, a serious business, and results were demanded and expected.

What I’m saying is, it wasn’t the right school for me at that time. But I suspect many a school in 1985 wouldn’t have been right for me. There were elements I enjoyed: I was in school plays, I learned the drums. I was in the hockey team…actually, that backfired. I went on the very expensive all-weather pitch in my rugby boots and tore up the entire surface.

I was accidentally useless at most things, but I had good friends and I kept in touch with Mr Cook, too, because it never occurred to me to not keep in touch with him. If he hadn’t been there, I suspect I would have left the school before I did.

Does he know the impact he had on me? Well, I’m English. We don’t talk about things like that, but I’m telling you and you’ll probably tell him, right?

He was a champion. He was my champion and I’m truly grateful to him.

Matt Lucas was talking to Tom Cullen. His comedy series Pompidou is available now on DVD

Shooting star

Matt Lucas

Born 5 March 1974, London

Education The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, Elstree, Hertfordshire

Career Best known for television comedy Little Britain and as the score-keeping baby George Dawes in surreal panel show Shooting Stars. Lucas also starred as Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and will play Bottom in a forthcoming BBC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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