At the age of 13, I was sent to board at Uppingham School in Rutland in the East Midlands. I was never really happy there. Now it’s a modern, forward-looking school, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was very strict. We wore black ties in mourning for Queen Victoria’s death – 60 years after she’d died. There were tailcoats on Sundays and the prefects wore boaters. It was straight out of Tom Brown’s School Days.
Academically, I was useless. I failed English language O level and I couldn’t tell you why, as I went on to become a journalist and author. The only subjects I could cope with were modern languages and I took to them like a duck to water. Geoff Goodall taught French and German and he was the only academic teacher who saw something in me and encouraged it. The way he taught was brilliant. He would say: “Right boys, pens down. No writing. I’m going to read you a little story and when I’ve finished I want you to write it as accurately as I can in the German I used.” I can still remember one of his stories about a swearing parrot.
He was inspirational. He made me walk 10-feet tall. To this day, I love speaking German and now that I write books about German composers, I always send him a copy and say: “See, you really did help.”
He’s in his late eighties now. Soon after I joined Classic FM I learned that our composer in residence was Howard Goodall and Geoff was his father. As a result, I met him and I was able to shake his hand 50 years after we last saw each other. His wife told me: “I still remember you as a little dark-haired boy, ringing on our doorbell for extra German tuition in the evening because you loved it so much.” I nearly burst into tears when she said that.
Another tremendous teacher at Uppingham was Anthony Baines, who taught music. Bless his heart; he drank too much, so we knew him as Boozy Baines. I was learning the violin and I was terrible. Then I heard a boy play a Chris Barber jazz record and I had an overnight conversion to jazz.
I taught myself to play the trombone after a classmate lent me one and taught me the basics. There was a handwritten notice on the wall of the music room that said it was forbidden to play anything other than classical music. I formed a jazz band with two other boys and we were practising one afternoon when the music director, Robin Wood, caught us. I got a Saturday afternoon detention, which I still resent to this day.
Boozy Baines realised I was a natural trombonist and took me under his wing. He said: “To hell with it, let’s play some jazz.” He taught me Lulu’s Back In Town. I passed various music exams and made the decision to apply to the Royal Academy of Music. I asked to meet with the music director to talk it through but he refused to see me. Terrible isn’t it? But in retrospect, I wasn’t really talented enough.
The German language and the trombone are the only two things I took to as a child. Saying that, I still failed French and German O levels under Geoff Goodall, which to this day I can’t explain. When I left I said: “I’ve let you down.” He just smiled and said: “Life’s not all about exams.” He was right.
John Suchet was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is appearing at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival on Saturday 9 July, The Crown Hotel, 3pm with A Tale of Two Composers. The festival runs 7-10 July and features Mary Portas and James Naughtie (see harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for more information). John’s book The Last Waltz, published by Elliott & Thompson, is out now
A classic act
Born 29 March 1944, London
Education Grenham House School, Birchington, Kent; Uppingham School, Rutland; Queen’s College, Dundee (then part of the University of St Andrews)
Career ITN newscaster; Classic FM presenter and author